Mack Drake can remember a few life-or-death moments in his 93 years.
The first came when he was a kid, swimming across a Henderson County lake. He says he struggled to stay above water, but someone in a boat paddled by and offered him a ride.
Drake would have other life-or-death moments soon enough. At just 19, he'd be as far from childhood and North Carolina as imaginable. He'd be a U.S. Marine, fighting his way through the Pacific theater of World War II.
Drake and Joe Tedder share that distinction. Both men, who now call Gastonia home, even shared the same battlefield during the war.
They survived what Drake calls "a hellhole" -- the Battle for Iwo Jima.
For more than a month, from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1944, U.S. Marines fought to take the tiny island from Japanese forces -- an effort to stop enemy fighter planes taking off from Iwo Jima from intercepting American bombers.
More than 70,000 U.S. Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers fought. Almost 7,000 Marines lost their lives, along with all but about 200 of the Japanese soldiers, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. About 20,000 Marines were wounded.
Before the battle started, Americans didn't realize just how prepared the Japanese troops were. As Drake puts it, the Japanese were "honeycombed" throughout the island, hiding in caves and tunnels, coming out of seemingly nowhere to fire on Marines.
"They told us it would probably last a week," Tedder said.
Tedder, now 94, was 20 when his unit landed on Iwo Jima four days after the invasion began. He didn't know it at the time, but one of the most iconic scenes of World War II had just taken place: Marines had raised the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi.
"They raised the flag in the morning, and I went in that afternoon," said Tedder, who was in the 4th Separate Wire Platoon.
His job: Make sure U.S. forces could communicate. That meant setting up switchboards and telephone lines across an island that was crawling with Japanese soldiers.
It was either lay communication lines, or Marines would have to get messages back and forth with runners -- that is, servicemen running from unit to unit trying not to get shot.
"If they'd had cellphones back then, they wouldn't have needed me," Tedder jokes now. "I could have stayed home."
But he didn't. After a year and a half in the Pacific setting up communications without combat, he was on Iwo Jima.
"It was eye-opening," Tedder said. "I was only 20 years old, and I wasn't worried too much about it because I'd already decided I'd never get off that island. I didn't worry about it too much, but when I'd see a stack of dead Marines -- that'd get to you."
He recalls a sleepless night in a foxhole watching muzzle blasts from heavy artillery, not knowing where rounds were going to land. The next morning, Tedder and a fellow Marine made their way further onto the island, when he saw a familiar face.
"We saw some guys up there making coffee, and it turned out that one of them was my (drill instructor) from boot camp," Tedder said. "I kind of forgave him for all the harassment he put me through during boot camp, because I realized right then that he was trying to save my life."
He remembers several close calls during the battle: A round hit nearby and pierced someone's canteen, a Japanese soldier detonating a bomb in a nearby cave, and making his way through the dark for supplies making sure to shout, "friendly troops, don't shoot!"
Something Tedder says he still doesn't understand: Why he made it out not only alive but unharmed.
"I was over there a year and a half before I even saw any combat," Tedder said. "... This one guy was my tent-mate all the way through that year and a half. He got attached to 21st Marines for that Iwo operation. He got hit with a direct hit from a mortar. Before he went in the Marine Corps, he went to seminary for two years. He got killed, and I didn't get a scratch."
Drake wasn't so fortunate.
He was a 19-year-old assistant squad leader when his unit landed on Iwo Jima. He'd already seen combat on Bougainville and Guam. He carried a Browning Automatic Rifle -- often referred to as a BAR -- and had already been awarded the Silver Star for holding a hill in Guam after his fellow troops had been killed. That was after a grenade blast injured his face and arm.
According to a proclamation read before Congress in 1999, Drake kept firing until he ran out of ammo. Then he started hurling grenades.
"Because of Mack Drake's unflappable bravery, lives were saved and a massacre was averted," reads the proclamation by former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick.
In addition to his Silver Star, Purple Heart and other war medals, Drake keeps another memento from Guam at his home in Gastonia: A sword from a Japanese soldier that "tried to cut (his) head off."
"I got him first before he was able," Drake said of the swordsman.
It wasn't long before Drake was leading Marines onto Iwo Jima on the second day of the battle. He recalls trying to get his unit across an airstrip to safety.
"They had (an) artillery piece situated at one end of the airstrip, and every time someone tried to cross, they'd fire a big old round down there," Drake said. "It was like a bowling alley. We got across. Every now and then, somebody'd get hit, but we were lucky to be able to get most of our men across."
He remembers the ground on some parts of Iwo Jima being "so hot you had fumes rising out of it."
And Drake can recall waking up for guard duty about midnight to find two Japanese soldiers advancing on his unit. They were about 15 feet away when he opened fire, killing them, he says, with one shot.
Just before dawn on another day, farther down the island, Japanese soldiers managed to get behind the line and a firefight broke out. He estimates his unit killed about 30 enemy soldiers before daylight.
Eventually, an injury would take Drake out of Iwo Jima. He and fellow Marines were working their way through a trench when he noticed movement.
"(A Japanese soldier) was over there, and he shot," Drake said. "Instead of getting me on the back of the head where he had a bead on me, he got me in my left shoulder. I saw the blast of the rifle. I don't care if it's daylight or dark -- you can see the blast of the rifle. When I saw that, I shot and killed him, but it was too late for me. That was my last combat."
Harrowing experiences aside, neither Marine has regrets about joining the Corps during the bloodiest war in human history.
"I didn't have any regrets," Tedder said. "I did what they told me, and I tried to do it to the best of my ability. I didn't have a BAR, but I had a switchboard."
Drake doesn't have regrets about it all, either.
"I was fighting for this country," Drake said. "I heard tell on the West Coast or some place they were afraid the Japanese might take us over. I said, 'There ain't no way.'"
Glenn Perkins, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Vietnam, sat near Drake and Tedder as they talked to The Gazette.
"When I went through Parris Island in '68, the parade deck had a monument on it for Iwo Jima," Perkins said. "These were my heroes -- right here."
This article is written by Dashiell Coleman from Gaston Gazette and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.