75 Years After Iwo Jima, Heber City Remembers ‘Uncle Pete’

Mar 8, 2020, 6:13 PM | Updated: 10:58 pm

HEBER CITY, Utah — A quiet street corner in a residential neighborhood of Wasatch County is just about as far from a Pacific island as one could imagine. But on that corner, blocked off from traffic by police cars and orange cones, a community came together in memory of a place on the other side of the globe.

In front of that crowd — some standing, some seated in plastic folding chairs — stood Curt Jones and his brother, Randall Jones. Curt said he doesn’t much care for public speaking, but he felt a bit of a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who couldn’t.

“The end isn’t far off,” he said, leaning into the microphone. “I have seen hell at its worst, and I am lucky to be alive.”

Those words don’t belong to Curt; they were written by his father, Dick Jones, who was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

“Pete and I split up on the beach, thinking it would be better that way,” Curt continued to read. “I talked to a fellow who had moved up to relieve us that night. He had seen Pete and told me he was with the artillery, in a mortar outfit behind the lines, and I’m glad to say he’s safe.”

Dick was speaking of his brother Pete — the two Utahns signed up together and found themselves landing at Iwo Jima at the same time. Heading to war had been Pete’s idea — Dick was seven years his senior.

Pete and Dick Jones landed on Iwo Jima at the same time.

“When their father died, dad kind of took over the reins,” Curt said. “Pete always wanted to serve. He was 14 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Between that time frame of 14 to 17, there were three or four years of total chaos in the world. Pete was really, really anxious to get in, and do his part.”

By the time Pete was old enough, Dick was a married man — but nevertheless, the two brothers set off together.

“My dad told his mother that if Pete ever joined up, that he would go with him,” Curt said. “He always protected him before that, so he was going to be his savior.”

The stakes were high as the brothers were dropped on the beach, facing what was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war.

For five long weeks, the Marines faced one of the most heavily fortified areas in human history. They were surrounded by a sea of bunkers, tunnels and artillery sites. Their goal was to capture the island of Iwo Jima and take over three airstrips, which Allied forces hoped to use to press forward towards Japan.

U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima faced a heavily fortified enemy, on an island filled with caves and tunnels. (National Archives)

Casualties on both sides numbered in the tens of thousands.

As Curt read in his dad’s letter, the brothers had a discussion; they agreed the wise move would be to go forward separately.

“They decided to split up, so the chances of them taking maybe a mortar round or something like that wouldn’t take both of them out,” he said.

Pete went with a mortar crew, while Dick went to work carrying stretchers — a job he explained in a letter to his mother.

“To balance the stretchers, you have to stand up perfectly straight,” Curt read. “For the first time in my life, I wish I were shorter. Two or three times while we were pinned down by machine-gun fire, I would lay and watch the little ants crawling around, and I envied them because they were so small. I even unfastened my cartridge belt one day, to get an extra inch closer to the ground.”

Eventually, Iwo Jima fell. Curt’s dad made his way safely back to a ship — Pete never left that island alive.

U.S. Marines raise a flag on Mount Suribachi. (National Archives)

“Just now, I’m resting behind the lines. I haven’t seen Pete yet. I surely miss that big lug,” Curt read from his dad’s letter. “I haven’t washed or shaved for two weeks. Don’t worry, I’m still looking for Pete.”

The crowd in Heber listened to that letter in silence. In a way, those words were exactly what they came to hear — they weren’t just there to remember the Battle of Iwo Jima.

They were there to remember Pete.

Curt and his brother stood before a newly installed slab of stone that reads, “Private Kay Pete Murdock Jones.” Thanks to a partnership between Marine nonprofit group “The Corps” and the Eagle Scout project of Kaden Smith, the park has been named in the honor of their uncle.

The memorial to “Uncle Pete” stands behind the helmet and dog tags of his brother, and in front of the park that now bears his name.

Curt said the community will now know Pete’s name; a name his dad never forgot.

“While growing up, I can still recall the nightmarish screams that we heard at night,” Curt said to the crowd. “At times, they must have terrified my mom. She was the bravest. We’d ask if dad was okay. She would sweetly explain that ‘It was just the war, and he was OK.'”

Looking back on it now, Curt acknowledges that his dad wasn’t truly OK. He wasn’t just dealing with traumatic memories of war, but of coming home without his brother. Curt said the nightmares would often wake the family.

“That would just strike him in the middle of the night,” he said. “Us kids, we were real small when he was doing that.”

Curt paused to correct himself. His father passed away in 1987, and the pain never truly stopped.

“When dad came back, those memories stuck with him,” he said. “Certainly, Pete’s death pronounced that. I think many veterans come back and have that problem. There’s so much that went on out on the battlefield that we have no inclination about at all.”

Curt acknowledges it’s difficult for him to explain what his dad truly went through. And though his father can’t be there to explain it himself, his words can.

The letter Curt read to the crowd was written before his father learned of Pete’s death. Curt’s brother Randall read one that was written after.

Randall Jones reads from a letter his dad sent home after learning of his brother’s death.

“I guess by now the government has notified you of Pete’s death,” Randall read. “I didn’t hear about Pete until I was on the ship that brought us back. A lot of the fellows knew but didn’t tell me until we were ready to board the ship. I wouldn’t believe it until it was verified.”

Private Kay Pete Murdock Jones was killed by a single bullet on March 9, 1945. After hearing the news, Dick asked permission to go ashore to see where Pete had been buried.

“They have the cemetery fixed up real nice, mother,” Randall read. “It is on a little knoll overlooking the ocean. I talked to the chaplain in charge, and he said Pete’s burial and services were held March 15th. It gives you such a helpless feeling to stand there and look down at their graves.”

The flag that covered Pete Jones’ casket flew over the ceremony in Heber City.

It’s been 75 years since that teenager lost his life and his brother returned home alone.

“I have talked with some of the fellows who were with him when he died,” Randall read. “He died instantly, without pain. He gave a good account of himself and went down fighting. That may sound brutal, mother, but it was a big relief to me. I have seen so many of them lay there in agony for hours before they could get them out, and then die on the way to the hospital. He always said if he got it, he hoped it would come that way, instead of die of old age.”

Pete’s body stayed on Iwo Jima until it was eventually brought back to Heber.

“When the ship started away from the island, I wished to God there was some way I could pick up that boy of ours in our arms and bring him home,” Randall read. “If a prayer by his grave would help, I did the best I knew how.”

Curt and his brother read those letters, standing just a few feet from their dad’s helmet and dog tags, and beneath the 48-star flag that covered the coffin of their Uncle Pete. In a way, the new memorial at their side is a way of making sure the wishes their dad expressed at the end of his letter are fulfilled:

“Remember, chins up. It’s our job now to see they didn’t die in vain.”

Curt Jones reads from a letter his dad sent home during the fighting on Iwo Jima.

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75 Years After Iwo Jima, Heber City Remembers ‘Uncle Pete’