LIHU’E — When American war veterans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the
start of the Korean War today, Kaua’i veteran John Iwamoto won’t be among them.
Instead, Iwamoto, 71, of Lihu’e, will be celebrating Sept. 18, 1951.
the day Noboru Nakamura of Mau’i, a fellow Army infantryman, saved his
During a battle for “Heartbreak Ridge,” a combat zone located
northeast of Seoul and the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the
three-year conflict, Nakamura blocked a grenade meant for Iwamoto, and was
Because of Nakamura’s sacrifice, Iwamoto was able to
return home to Kaua’i, get married, raise a family, work in private and
government jobs and become a contributing member to the island
“I led a full life because of him,” Iwamoto said. “I owe him a
On Sept. 18, 1951, Iwamoto was assigned to the Love Company, 23rd
Infantry of Regiment of the Army’s Second Division.
While on an
artillery-ravaged slope on Heartbreak Ridge, it was Iwamoto’s job to clear
enemy troops out of bunkers.
Iwamoto recalled he was about to fire his
automatic weapon into one when, to his surprise, it jammed.
back from the bunker, kneeled part way and tried to unjam the weapon.
of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicking light and a trail of smoke — a
telltale sign of a live grenade heading his way.
Nakamura jumped in front of Iwamoto, fell on the grenade and
shielded Iwamoto and other troops from the blast and died. The heat of battle
prevented Iwamoto from stopping to check on Nakamura’s condition.
recalled he subsequently unjammed his weapon and moved from one bunker to
another to kill enemy troops.
Fellow soldiers knew the two men had a close
bond, and didn’t want to tell Iwamoto about Nakamura’s death until the fighting
Nakamura and Iwamoto were strangers when they went through boot camp
training at Schofield Barracks on O’ahu in the early months of 1951, after
Iwamoto was drafted. They shipped out to Korea the best of friends.
really respected him. He was a good athlete. He excelled in judo,” Iwamoto
said. “He worked hard and believed in honor. I felt the same way.”
their last furlough before both were shipped out to Korea, Iwamoto visited
Nakamura’s home on Maui before he returned to Kaua’i to visit his own family,
possibly for the last time.
On the eve of that battle, Nakamura had a
premonition he would not survive, Iwamoto said.
“He says to me, ‘Angel
(Iwamoto’s nickname), I was with my mother last night,'” Iwamoto said. “He knew
he was going to die.” Nakamura had been in Korea only two months before he was
The day after the battle on Heartbreak Ridge, the full weight of
his friend’s death hit Iwamoto.
“I was in the back of the hill by myself,
and I was crying,” he said.
On the same day Nakamura was killed, Iwamoto
said he captured 14 prisoners and engaged other enemy troops until he and other
American troops were overrun by waves of enemy troops.
From a platoon of 50
men, only Iwamoto, Tamotsu Morimoto from Ai’ea, O’ahu and 10 other soldiers
The instinct was to pull back, but they were told by a superior
officer to hold the ground, partly to allow the dead and wounded to be taken
Iwamoto and Morimoto were in harm’s way.
Amid sniper fire, they
defended ground on a bare ridge that had been swept clean by artillery fire.
Around them, they could see bodies, but they waited.
At night, taunts
filled the air from Chinese soldiers who dug in foxholes not far from Iwamoto
“The Chinese troops yelled ‘Tonight you die, GI,'” Iwamoto
said. “I told them in Japanese, and they understood, ‘Come this way. I am
waiting for you.'”
During a lull in the fighting, Iwamoto and Morimoto,
though wounded, made their way down the hill to safety.
“I don’t know how
we survived,” Iwamoto said. “We were just plain lucky.”
wanted to take Heartbreak Ridge because enemy troops had fallen back to it
after relinquishing “Bloody Ridge,” a neighboring ridge that had strategic
From the ridge, North Korean forces could see United
Nation defenses and troop movements, and plan combat strategy.
13, 1951, the 2nd Division, of which Iwamoto was a member, got the nod to take
After a month of fighting, American-led forces took it,
but at the expensive of massive casualties.
The 2nd Division alone had more
than 3,000 casualties. Communist losses were estimated at 25,000.
fighting on the ridge on Oct. 8. Iwamoto sustained a leg wound, was
hospitalized, and was sent back to the front lines.
Iwamoto said he never
enjoyed the fighting, but did what he had to do because “of duty.”
times, the sight of bodies of soldiers in the battlefield repelled him,
“Even when you were killing soldiers, you asked yourself
what is going on,” Iwamoto said.
“The people I killed, I can still see
their faces now.”
On Christmas Eve, 1951, he took a life and saved a
During the assault of an enemy outpost, he lobbed a grenade into a
trench, injuring an enemy troop, Iwamoto said.
He looked over the trench,
saw the man and opened fire.
“I had to shoot him. It was my duty,” Iwamoto
said. “That was the last time I killed somebody.”
On the same day, Iwamoto
saved the life of a fellow infantrymen, Yoshiro Nakamura from Kaneohe, O’ahu.
Nakamura was wounded in the leg and couldn’t walk.
Under fire, Iwamoto and
another man carried him to safety, earning a Silver Star for bravery under
Following a nine-month tour, Iwamoto was rotated out of Korea on
April 1, 1952. He was then transferred to Fort Ord in California, and trained
men for combat until the end of the war.
The Korean War had no special
significance to Iwamoto in 1950.
Iwamoto had graduated from Kaua’i High
School in 1946, and was making plans to live on the Kaua’i the rest of his
life. He worked as a carpenter for Maeda Construction Company. At age 21, he
was living at home with his family, which included five brothers, two of whom
who had served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and four
Then, Iwamoto was drafted.
In March 1951, he and 16 other
Kaua’i men flew to Schofield Barracks on O’ahu to prepare for war.
scared. But we felt better because we were with others from Hawai’i,” Iwamoto
said. “We didn’t know what Communism was. But they told us to fight like hell.”
Of the 16 men who left Kaua’i with Iwamoto to go to war, only one didn’t
return, Vernard Ho’okano of Pakala. After the war ended, Iwamoto resumed his
life on Kaua’i.
He worked as a cane processor and electrician for Lihu’e
Plantation, an electrician at the Lihu’e Airport for the state Department of
Transportation, and an electrical inspector for the County of Kaua’i before he
retired eight years ago.
For the past 27 years, he has been a scoutmaster.
He and his wife also participate in community events.
Nearly a half a
century after the conflict ended, the Korean War and Nakamura are still a part
of his life, Iwamoto said.
In 1997, Nakamura received the Silver Star
posthumously, because of Iwamoto’s efforts.
“What he did went way beyond
the call of duty,” Iwamoto said. “Something made him do it, possibly his sense
of duty. He wanted to help me.”