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WWII vet speaks about time at Iwo Jima

John Tierney | Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Anyone who has ever taken a high school American History class should at least be vaguely familiar with General Douglas MacArthur, but it was the work of Admiral Chester Nimitz that won World War II in the Pacific. That was the message Monday of Ivan Thunder, a Navy Seabee veteran who served at Iwo Jima.

Thunder, who has written two books about his experiences in the Pacific theater in the Naval Construction Battalion, spoke Monday at Notre Dame ROTC classes. His talk focused on issues he addressed in his second book, “Iwo Jima and the Pacific War: Recollections and Essays,” specifically the cult of adoration surrounding MacArthur, even though Nimitz was more influential in U.S. victory, Thunder said.

“We could have bypassed everything MacArthur did and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the war,” he said.

Thunder stressed that MacArthur’s conquests only accounted for a small portion of the overall gains in the Pacific Ocean – those in the Philippines and New Guinea – while Nimitz controlled the entire ocean from Hawaii in the east to Okinawa in the west.

Additionally, Thunder said that Nimitz’s victories are far more famous than those of MacArthur. He asked, “Have you heard of Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa?” He then informed the audience that Nimitz led the American forces to the victories at each island.

“But, have you heard about Buna, Lae, Finschhafen, Hollandia, Sansapor, Biak, Numfor, Morotari, or Leyte? Probably not,” he said of territory taken by MacArthur.

Thunder recalled a time shortly before he left for Hawaii – after he had already been in the Navy for some time serving in Panama – when he stopped in Chicago. During the visit, Thunder got his hair cut at a barber shop that was decorated with two posters – one featured President Franklin Roosevelt and another portrayed General MacArthur.

Thunder was perplexed by MacArthur’s presence on the barbershop wall for 60 years, he said, until he uncovered a memo written by an aide to someone on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The memo claimed that it was a group of newspapermen who promoted MacArthur, led by William Hearst and Robert McCormick, then head of the Chicago Tribune.

It is society’s responsibility to remember Nimitz as the real victor in the Pacific theater, Thunder said.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard history professors say MacArthur won at Iwo Jima, but he didn’t. That was Nimitz,” Thunder said.

While Thunder’s second book puts a great emphasis on the Nimitz-MacArthur controversy and other historical debates of the war – such as the decision to drop the atomic bomb – his first book, “Her Last Letter,” is an autobiographical narrative detailing the Seabee lieutenant’s personal Iwo Jima story.

Thunder published the narrative, written in the third person under the pen name Michael Dalton, in 2004, nearly 60 years after the battle.

“I wrote the book because I felt it’s a story worth telling. It includes romance and my life in Panama,” in addition to the actual Iwo Jima battles, he said.

Thunder, 94, is a 1937 graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering. He entered the navy reserve shortly after graduation and received an active-duty commission as an ensign in April 1943. He was promoted to lieutenant shortly before leaving Honolulu for Iwo Jima. Unlike 24 percent of his non-combat construction Seabee battalion, Thunder survived the invasion and went on to receive more letters from his wife. Thunder currently lives in suburban Chicago with his daughter and her family.