At 17, he was on the beach at Iwo Jima.
For more than 40 years, Koester “could not talk or think about the years of World War II and his involvement.”
In the 1980s, a remark by his son Mike on the vast network of tunnels the Japanese had at Iwo Jima helped Koester begin to “tell little bits and pieces of that horror.”
Then last year, he was able to participate in the Honor Air flights to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial.
Koester said the trip brought back “memories of his time on Iwo Jima ... I was one of the few to get off.”
For the U.S. Marines, Iwo Jima was the most costly of World War II. There were 26,000 Marine casualties and 6,821 deaths and 22,000 Japanese deaths.
Soon after his Honor Air trip, Koester’s former Laborers Union in Indiana offered him another opportunity to visit the Memorial. He said he watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Memorial Cemetery.
“I came home and attended a couple of funerals,” he said. “I just could not take any more thoughts of death.”
To help him deal with his thoughts of death and Iwo Jima, he wrote his memoirs.
Koester’s dad died when he was 6 months old. The family, which included a brother, his mom, uncle, aunt and cousins, moved often, he said. He lived in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. It was the Great Depression and “people were trying to survive.”
Koester changed schools about 20 times, so “I more or less quit trying to go to school when I was in the seventh grade.”
He did attend one week of eighth grade in Michigan. Mostly he tried to find work to help the family. At 15 and 16 he was working on the railroad as a “section hand.”
When he heard about an opportunity to help the war effort and be involved in flying, he decided to find out about the Civil Air Patrol. While hunting for the office of Civil Air Patrol, he met a Marine recruiter.
“He could probably recruit a stone statue to become a member of the greatest active duty force in the world,” Koester said.
He decided to become a Marine as soon as he turned 17. And to help him achieve his goal, he appealed to court for a birth certificate that said he was 17.
His journey with the Marines began in Evansville, Ind. The recruits were transferred via train to San Diego for training.
He noted he missed getting to wear the “expert” marksman badge by one point. Expert marksmen went into the infantry. The 16-year-old recruit was selected for the tanks, mainly because the assignment officer thought Koester knew how to drive a tractor.
He had just turned 17, when the 5th Tank Battalion, 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif., received orders moving toward action..
Koester said they were sent to Hilo in the Hawaiian Islands where they trained. They shipped out on a convoy of hundreds of ships with no one certain where they were headed.
Koester said, “As they zigged-zagged northward, the Marines were briefed on the beaches.”
The Marines’ objectives were to land on the beach side, take the tanks up a “bank of black volcanic sand,” then head for the landing strip, which was the reason they wanted the island.
Because of his age, he was put in the second echelon. Koester was with the reserve tank crew for Company A. He didn’t hit the beach until the second day.
He said the landing craft took them toward a circle of landing crafts which were going full speed in a circle to keep from being hit by enemy fire.
“Finally all in the circle formed a line parallel to the shore, then headed for it at full speed,” he said. Shots being fired by the enemy caused water spouts around the boat.
“A landing place was hard to find,” Koester said. The beach had “nearly a solid line of disabled and destroyed American vehicles.”
Once on the beach they quickly began trying to climb the hill.
“The enemy had the beach zeroed in and could hit any part of it when they wanted ... there were dead Marines laying around.”
The tanks had not been on the island long before the Japanese began targeting the flame tanks. So the tanks began going in threes — the flame tank leading and one ammo tank behind on each side.
Koester said there was a feeling “you were going to die. You just didn’t know when.”
He said if one individual got up in the morning by himself, he was shot dead by a sniper. The same was true of two people. “But if three popped up at the same time with rifles ready, the sniper would not shoot.”
He said they were always puzzled about how the sniper was able to get in the area. Another puzzle was what would happen to the sniper’s body?
It was in the 1980s, he learned the Japanese had miles of tunnels running through the island. They were using the tunnels to transverse the island and take potshots at the Marines.
One of the most unforgettable moments for Koester came as his crew delivered supplies away from the fighting.
“The truck chugged along the side of the airstrip next to the flat beach for about a mile before we began to see the flock of white crosses sticking up out of the sand. The land near the crosses was covered by a dark green in contrast to the black sand that surrounded the white rock on the airstrip,” Koester said.
He said when the truck stopped near a bulldozer, he “realized the green places were green blankets that Marines carried on the tops of their packs. The forest-green blankets had a black stripe near one end that was considered the top of the blanket. That blanket was given to a Marine when he got his first tissue in boot camp. It stayed with the Marine until ... each spot of green was a blanket holding its Marine for the last time.”
The bulldozer was scooping out places for bodies and pushing sand over them.
Another “forget-me-not moment,” Koester said, had to do with an assignment.
Koester’s sergeant was ordered to take the six members of the reserve crew and join headquarters battalion. They were to be stretcher bearers. They went toward the big end of the island in search of the battalion. The next day they found the battalion headquarters — there were six men there under the command of a second lieutenant.
Koester said, “He told he was the only officer left.”
The battalion had had 250 percent replacements. Now with their addition it was at 13. He said, “We didn’t have to wonder if the number 13 was an unlucky number or not.”
A sniper shot one of the Marines. Two of the others loaded him on a stretcher and took him toward Mount Seribachi.
This left 10. The battle had gone on three times longer than anticipated. The Marines were short on supplies and many were starving.
Koester said one day as he investigated an approaching vehicle, two Navy personnel stopped. They asked if he wanted biscuits. When he told them there were 10 members of his group, the Navy man opened an “insulated barrel” and started picking out biscuits. Koester had him put them in his helmet.
He took them back to the lieutenant, but before he could give the biscuits out, they came under attack. After some time under fire, one of their group picked up an anti-tank weapon and stopped the mortar attack.
Koester said he picked up a biscuit, stepped back and yelled, “Your biscuits are getting cold!”
He noted, “the Lord must have been watching over the 10, for there were no injuries after all of those close air bursts nor the battle for the biscuits.”
Koester said another time they came under fire from shells, but these were not Japanese shells. The Marines were laying a smoke screen of white phosphorous to allow the front lines to pull back.
He said the lieutenant was on the radio telling them to “raise the barrage or give us orders to pull back.”
Koester said when the shelling stopped, a group of infantry from the 6th Division appeared. A captain told them to move out of there.
He said they headed in the direction of Mount Seribachi in search of the 5th Division. An officer told them to take any landing craft back to the ship.
Koester said they were near the airport when the U.S. flag went up over Iwo Jima. He said he kept telling people there were two that went up for many years.
Koester said a cry to look, “There’s our flag on Mount Seribachi!” went out. It was a flag, he said, but they could not tell if it was American or Japanese without field glasses. Later they looked and there was a “Stars and Stripes” that could be seen without field glasses.
“A permanent reverence came to that 17-year-old for that flag and the many thousands who had given their all to help place it there,” Koester said.
The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan ended the war. But Koester did not get to go home.
When he returned to Hawaii, many in the 5th were sent home. But transfer home was based on points, Koester said. He didn’t have enough to go home.
He was attached to the 2nd Marine Division and sent to Nagasaki.
He said the area hit by the bomb was “brown earth ... there were no green fields in sight nor any trees. For a long distance there were no houses, no buildings just thick brown dusty dirt.”
After his return home, Koester was married to Hazel for 55 years. They had four children — Naomi, who lives in Cleveland; and three boys — Johnny, Steven and Michael.
He got out of the Marine Corps in Palestine, Ill., and used the G.I. bill to receive his education.