Book review: If I Should Die Before I Wake: One Marine’s Experiences on Iwo Jima

It’s really not fair to give this book a star rating, because John B. Lyttle’s 85-page memoir is clearly not intended as a deep personal narrative but a short informal memory of one man’s experience in a major world event.  It’s not meant for an audience interested in historical detail so much as for family, friends or the kind of true historians who are interested in every scrap of memory without regard to literary niceties like themes, character development and scenic description.

That said, it is a decent picture, if not particularly vivid, of a young Marine’s  involvement in the Battle of Iowa Jima. If you have at least a little knowledge about the origins of the battle and the nature of this especially daunting challenge, Lyttle’s reflections can add a human connection that more-traditional narratives and analyses are not likely to provide.

I chose the book because, in a search of the Internet, I found a reference to my uncle, Jim Stotz, who was killed in the battle.  The piece that I discovered was very fragmentary, and I hoped that reading the entire book woukd give me a clearer picture of my uncle – who he was and how he lived and died, that my mom might appreciate. As it turned out, the reference to Jim Stotz is, like so much else in the book, just a brief glimpse. But placed in the context of Lyttle’s personal experience and the other reading on Iwo Jima I’ve done, I did get a sense of the courage, determination, fear, revulsion, sadness, terror, uncertainty, discomfort, agony, loneliness and devotion to duty he and all the Marines involved in the assault must have felt during that horrific month or so of fighting on a god-forsaken heap of ash in the middle of a vast ocean.

Other than limited history lessons in the classroom and passing rwferences in other reading about World War II, my limited knowledge of the battle comes from.the book Lions of Iwo Jima, by Feed Haynes, which coincidentally describes the actions of the Marine unit of which I believe my Uncle was a member. In fact, Haynes cites references from Lyttle’s book in the footnotes to Lions. Like so much of what goes into any battle in a major war, this experience demonstrates the unbelievable rigors to which young men are assigned and which they somehow accept and overcome.

I am not one to glamorize or glorify war, but seeing Iwo Jima through the eyes of someone like Lyttle gives me precious insights into the nature of war, the horror of battle and the extra-human spirit of the very young men like my uncle whom nations send off to fight. Considering that Lyttle’s  If I Should Die Before I Wake was written six decades after the event, it also helps show how people assimilate the major events in their youth, what they remember and what they consider important about the crises that shape them.  The book is not great literature, but it is a real and unvarnished personal reflection by someone who experienced firsthand the events of the assault and capture of this strategic  little island.