In the Shadow of Suribachi: Sammy’s Story story synopsis
by Joseph A. Conforti
Samuel Bernstein grew up in New London, Connecticut; and like most young men of his era, his horizons were limited. He lived within the idyllic illusion of America: a time of peaceful hometowns; high school homecomings; and a long, bountiful life. But that peaceful illusion was destroyed in a profound and obscene way. Like millions of others throughout the world, Sammy’s life was unalterably changed. Fate would soon propel Sammy from boy to man on a tiny volcanic island located in a chain called the Bonnin’s. Iwo Jima was a desolate, stinking, sulfurous scab of land jutting out of the Western Pacific Ocean, an island born of violence whose name would forever be remembered with men dying in the same violence.
Sammy Bernstein, an enlisted United States Marine, was one of the seventy-thousand men who stormed ashore Iwo’s volcanic ash. Over sixty-eight hundred of those young men would be killed; and over nineteen thousand would be wounded. The island would become a tomb for almost all of the twenty-two thousand Japanese defending it. If surviving thirty-six days of hell can be considered lucky, then Sammy was one of the lucky ones. He came home.
Sammy’s Story is a coming-of-age story—from his surprise enlistment in the Marine Corps as a naive, young boy to his transition into a battle-ready Marine on the black sands of Iwo Jima. There he served as a Pioneer in the 5th Marine Division, enduring relentless days of vicious hand-to-hand combat, each side giving no quarter. And there he witnessed the tragic deaths of so many of his young comrades, including his best friend who was killed by a saber-wielding Japanese officer during the final Banzai charge. Sadly, it occurred just hours before the men were scheduled to depart the island.
But it is more than a war story; it’s a story of two battles Sammy had to face during World War II. Besides fighting fanatical Japanese soldiers, each of whom had vowed to their commander to kill ten Marines before dying for the Emperor, Sammy had to fight the personal battle of being a Jew in the World War II military in general, and the Marine Corps in particular. Involved in several anti-Semitic incidents during his service, Sammy was to learn the hard way that those with hostile intentions towards him did not always wear a different uniform. In the beginning, it was the single act of a bigoted Marine who “trashed” his seabag of all its contents, leaving a note: “Hitler didn’t get you, I will.” Later, and more significantly, it was the collective action of a small group of misguided Christian chaplains who prevented the Marine Corps’ first Jewish chaplain, Roland Gittelsohn, from delivering his address to the mostly Christian troops at the 5th Marine Division Cemetery dedication service during the battle.
Sammy’s Story is the journey of one boy from one small town in America, a journey to hell and back. It is the story of friendship and loyalty, of bigotry and hatred, and of courage and survival. Finally, it is the story of hope—with Sammy emerging with his fellow Marines from the crucible of Iwo Jima to forge unbreakable, lifelong bonds that transcended hateful prejudice and made a mockery of it.