Richard Jessor, CU Boulder distinguished professor of behavioral science and co-founder of IBS, records an oral history with the National World War II Museum and will return to the island in March, on the 79th anniversary of the battle
Because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Richard Jessor joined the U.S. Marines and went to war. But when he came face to face with the enemy—a dead Japanese soldier on the island of Iwo Jima—he again recharted his life, turning away from war and toward education.
Jessor will return to Iwo Jima in March to observe the 79th anniversary of the battle, one of the fiercest and most famous of World War II. He will join the Reunion of Honor ceremony, held annually for veterans from the United States and Japan, “honoring their service and sacrifice and fostering peace” as former adversaries meet near the landing beaches.
“I don’t know how it will feel to be standing once again on the black sand of the landing beach almost 80 years later, but I know there will be tears,” Jessor said recently.
After four days of fighting, he and his company were pulled from the front line and allowed to write one letter. Jessor wrote to his parents. He thanked them for everything. And he said goodbye, writing: “I don’t think I’ll get off the island alive.”
As Veterans Day approached, Jessor spoke with this magazine about the indelible marks of war, his oral history interview with the National World War II Museum, his coming reunion with soldiers on both sides of the Iwo Jima battle and his disgust at leaders who blithely discuss war as an instrument of policy rather than a gruesome choice of last resort.
Jessor, who will turn 99 this month, is a distinguished professor emeritus of behavioral science at the University of Colorado Boulder. He served on the CU Boulder faculty for 70 years before retiring in 2021. He co-founded and later directed the university’s Institute of Behavioral Science, and he wrote an influential 1970 report on the lack of ethnic diversity on campus.
But in February 1945, he was a 20-year-old Marine. Before then, Jessor had little conception of who the Japanese people were. “It was only really after we got overseas on our training base and on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands” that he realized how many servicemen viewed the Japanese as the “Yellow Peril,” a prejudice Jessor recalls with “a great deal of dismay.”
That prejudice, he suggests, was a way to dehumanize America’s foes.
For weeks before invading, U.S. forces shelled and bombed Iwo Jima, hoping to weaken the Japanese fighters, many of whom were holed up in miles of tunnels underneath the island’s only promontory, Mount Suribachi.
On the evening of Feb. 18, 1945, Jessor was with the Fourth Marine Division on a tank-landing ship when the crew was summoned to the deck. There, a Marine commander said, “Tomorrow night at this time, a lot of you are going to be dead.”
The shocking message might have been tempered by a belief that the fight would be easier or quicker than it actually would be. Iwo Jima comprised only 8 square miles, and the plan was for U.S. forces to conquer the island in three to five days, then sail off to invade Japan.
Things did not go according to plan. Fighting lasted 36 days.
Chaos and death
Jessor was in the fourth wave of Marines to land on Iwo Jima.
“Our tractor hit the beach and got stuck in the loose sand. We were sitting there, artillery shells exploding all around, and we were immobilized. And so, we began to just jump out of the rear of the tractor into the water, run around the vehicle and hit the beach.”
His first sight was a fellow Marine lying on his back, blood bubbling from his mouth, dying.
“That was my introduction to war,” he said.
Jessor was hit in the back by shrapnel during the first day ashore, but he was able to continue fighting. After four days of fighting, he and his company were pulled from the front line and allowed to write one letter. Jessor wrote to his parents. He thanked them for everything. And he said goodbye, writing:
“I don’t think I’ll get off the island alive.”
Back in battle, Marines were taking souvenirs from dead Japanese soldiers, and the Marines were particularly interested in Japanese “good luck flags,” which bore well wishes from friends and family and which were often tied around the soldiers’ waists.
Jessor remembers emerging from a foxhole one morning and seeing the body of a Japanese soldier. Jessor bent over to see if the man had a flag under his shirt.
“And as I’m bending over, I see that he has letters in a pocket on his shirt,” presumably from the man’s family. “I suddenly have this epiphany: I have letters in my pocket in my shirt.”
Like the soldier in Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed,” Jessor felt their shared humanity.
“I was like, what are we doing here? What is this about? What difference could it make?”
At that time, Jessor notes, he had already said goodbye to his parents. He vowed never to go to war again, whatever the reason. “I made a personal resolve that I wanted to do something that made a difference. And that has really animated me from that time on.”
For the moment, though, Jessor was still in battle. He recalls that enemy fighters were always hidden. “You fired your weapon when you saw that something was being fired at you, but you didn’t see the enemy. You didn’t see Japanese soldiers. You went to an opening of a cave, and the guy with the (flamethrower) would point his weapon into the cave opening and just fire away, hoping to incinerate any occupants of the cave,” Jessor said.
“But the enemy was not personified in actual persons.”
A live Japanese soldier, a hopeful flag-raising
That changed for Jessor about 10 days after landing, when a Japanese prisoner was caught alive by Marines in the front line. No one on the front line spoke Japanese, and Jessor was ordered to take the prisoner, at gunpoint, back to the beach, more than a mile away, to headquarters and a translator.
As Jessor and his prisoner walked through the rear lines of Marines, who had never seen a live Japanese soldier, a Marine leapt up and exclaimed, “I’m going to kill that son of a bitch.”
"I had to point my rifle at that Marine and say, ‘I have orders to shoot anybody who touches my prisoner.’” The Marine relented. Another Marine made the same threat, and Jessor responded the same way.
“I think back on it now, and I don't really know whether I would have been able to do what I was ordered to do. And I'm afraid that I might have been able to do it, because that's what you were trained to do.”
Earlier, five days after the Marines landed, Jessor’s division was striving to reach higher ground on Iwo Jima. As he faced enemy forces with his rifle, “I happened to turn around and looked over my shoulder, and I saw the American flag on top of Suribachi.”
This is the flag-raising captured in an iconic image of World War II, by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. That picture won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945 and inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia.
In that moment, Jessor was stunned and started screaming, “The flag’s up! The flag’s up!”
The flag-raising was significant, because it meant that Jessor and his fellow Marines had their flank covered. “And it animated me to begin to feel that maybe we could make it,” he said. Jessor did survive, but the battle wasn’t done. Weeks of fighting lay ahead.
When the Marines finally did secure the island, “we knew that the battle was essentially over,” he recalled. The Marines were ordered to return to the landing beach.
“I remember coming to the beach and seeing this long array of crosses where the temporary burials of Marines were, and I still have that vision of seeing and knowing. It just filled your vision, the rows of crosses on from Blue Beach, all the way down the beach, and in that one vision, you encapsulated the cost of the war.”
Back to Maui
With Iwo Jima secured, the Marines sailed back to Maui to train for their next mission—the planned invasion of Japan. After training during the day, Jessor recalled, he and five other men in a tent would drink beer in the evening and “relive every inch of the battle of Iwo Jima.”
“Somebody would say, ‘You remember we were in this bomb crater, and it hit so-and-so, and his intestines hit so-and-so?’ And we went through every aspect of our experience on Iwo, reliving it night after night. And as a psychologist, I think of that as sort of being cathartic and getting things out of your subconscious.”
But one man in the tent, a young recruit who had not yet seen battle, had heard enough. “Finally, he exploded at us and said, ‘I’m sick of listening to the same s—t night after night. I’ve just had it!’”
I find myself so offended when I hear representatives in Congress or in government speak so casually about war … about using war as an instrument of policy.”
Jessor rose and gave the recruit a lecture. “I said, ‘You know, we're fighting for free speech, and nobody's going to tell me that they've had enough of our talking.’”
Jessor added, “I've been a professor for 70 years, but I guess I was a pedant even before I became a professor.” As it happens, Jessor soon forgot this episode but was reminded of it decades later, when a fellow Marine, Red Kelly, contacted Jessor.
Kelly, now deceased, had become an American history teacher in a Boston high school. “He said to me, ‘Every one of the students I’ve had over these years knows about Dick Jessor.’” Kelly had used Jessor’s lecture to illustrate “good wars and reasonable wars.”
Jessor also recalls being on Maui when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were thrilled. We thought it was a great thing,” he said. “This meant we wouldn’t have to go back into battle.”
The costs of war
However, “It wasn’t long after I got discharged before I realized that it was a horrendous event, the dropping of the bomb. I have come to the conclusion that it was unnecessary—even though most arguments are that it saved us further killing of Americans, in Japan this time. There were other ways of dealing with the emergence of a nuclear bomb.”
He added: “I haven’t been able to resolve this. I can’t think of any war that I would support any more. And yet I supported the invasion of Europe and the attack on and the defeat of Nazi Germany—as a Jew, particularly, given the horrors of the Holocaust.”
There are times, Jessor said, when a nation must resort to making war on an enemy. “But the way I’ve resolved this in my own mind is there must always be some alternatives that would forestall what emerged.”
Jessor wishes more people, particularly those in power, shared his deep hesitation about war. “I find myself so offended when I hear representatives in Congress or in government speak so casually about war … about using war as an instrument of policy.”
“There is no real sense among so many who are in power about the absolute inhumanity of resorting to war and what it means, not just in the time of the events but in how it just continues its consequences,” shaping the lives of those who endured it, Jessor said.
His dismay about this is one reason he chose to do an oral history with the National World War II Museum, to further document the true face of war.
Meanwhile, he looks forward to traveling to Iwo Jima in March to commemorate the 79th anniversary of the battle. He will travel with Jane Menken, a distinguished professor of sociology who succeeded Jessor as the director of the Institute of Behavioral Science. The two also happen to be married.
About meeting Japanese veterans of Iwo Jima, Jessor said, “I see myself embracing them. We are, as I think of it now, comrades.”