Even at 94, Escolastico Griego hasn’t shared all his stories from World War II battles in the Pacific.
The memories of Iwo Jima, a 1945 battle that claimed more than 6,800 American lives, are still too raw and fresh for Griego, then a 20-year-old Navy corpsman.
“I’ve tried to forget everything,” Griego said, but he remembers the bullets flying back and forth beginning his first day on the island, where he served as a “doc” to Marines.
Initially, Griego was unaware of where the ship was taking him from Honolulu in 1945. Troops that arrived on the sulfurous island experienced a war zone unlike any, with black, ashy beaches outlining a sickly yellow and rocky terrain that spewed smells of rotten eggs. Bombs destroyed anything once green on Iwo Jima.
“That’s the story,” he said. “When we landed on Iwo Jima, that’s when we knew where we were going.”
It’s no wonder why the memories only come back in quick clips.
“Doc! Corpsman! Come fix me up!” were among the yells of the injured who called for medical help. Griego could only do so much in first aid, but as for the severely wounded or dead, he had to pull them from the smoky field, down the steep beaches and onto the ship’s morgue.
After being drafted by the Navy, Griego says he was taught just enough to get by as a medic.
He could not elaborate on many parts of the battle taking place around him other than yells, gunfire and explosions.
After 30 days of fixing others’ wounds among gunfire and smoke, sleeping in a fox hole and only “sometimes” having rations to eat, “that was enough,” he said quickly.
A few weeks after returning from battle, Griego and his group were sent back to the morbid war zone for medical cleanup. When asked what those duties demanded, his eyes shifted downward and his head shook slowly, dismissing the answer.
Griego and his team were back on the sulfur island for about two weeks cleaning up “junk leftover.” He was then assigned to train men at the base in Honolulu who were next to be shipped out as medics for other battles during World War II.
The only memory he commented on when asked about the cleanup phase was being able to take souvenirs.
“The first thing I picked up was a sword, then a rifle.”
Griego has since passed down the sword to his grandson.
Back in Belen, N.M., he reunited with his wife and daughter.
He tried to forget: “I guess you try to put it away and lock it up.”
Nearly 75 years after serving, his stepdaughter, Renee Tabet, is urging him to tell his story. “I’m starting to break open where I can think exactly what we were doing,” Griego said.
Griego said sometimes he credits himself as a good medic who cared for those who fought, but remembering the men who did not come home with him is what hurts him the most.
After the war, Griego continued his working life as an auto mechanic before getting a job at a post office. He said he has tried to enjoy himself for the rest of his life after such a terrible time. Family is what brought him to Colorado Springs, where he has lived for about three years now.
“I’m sorry for the ones that died right away (at Iwo Jima), but I still feel sorry for the ones that haven’t finished the battle in their mind. I’m sure glad I finished my battle.”
Contact the writer: 636-4809 @leslie_m_james