OWATONNA — Ernie Benesh remembers.
He remembers the smells, the sights and the sounds of battle overseas during World War II in the 1940s, and those are things he likely will never forget.
“It was a hell of an experience,” he said.
On Tuesday, Benesh will share stories and images about his service in the U.S. Marines from 1943 to 1946 at the monthly Veterans Open Roundtable Program in Owatonna.
Benesh, who grew up on a nearly 500-acre farm between Albert Lea and Austin, enlisted in the Marines at 17 years old on June 12, 1943.
After being sworn into the military in the Twin Cities, he was sent to California, where he completed 12 weeks of basic training and additional training at Camp Pendleton. After a two-week furlough to return home, Benesh was shipped to Pearl Harbor, then to Cypan as a reserve, before finally settling in Guam with the 3rd Marine Division.
“I stayed on Guam most of the time, except going to Iwo Jima and back,” he said. “I was there for about 16 months [from June 1944 to November 1945] on the island, and that was a pretty good deal actually.”
Benesh’s division was called to battle in Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945 — the date of the infamous U.S. flag-raising on the island, which he witnessed.
“We were supposed to go to a different island, but they lost so many people in the early days that they called us in, so we had to go in,” he said.
Benesh spent 33 days in Iwo Jima fighting the Japanese, a battle that killed nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers and wounded about 20,000.
“It was the most savage, bloodiest battle the Marines had ever had. It was just terrible,” he said. “I was very fortunate.”
After the battle, Benesh, who suffered a knee injury during the war, was sent back to Guam, where he reconnected with his comrades, old classmates from Albert Lea and even family members, who were also in the service.
In November 1945, he began the trek back to the U.S., and on Feb. 9, 1946, he was discharged from the military and returned home.
“A lot of people ask the question, ‘What was it like?’ I’ve thought of it a lot of times, and I say to them...’I wasn’t a very religious man when I was in there, but I think the good Lord walked beside me and kept me from going through the whole thing,” said Benesh, who has resided in Owatonna for more than 50 years.
The roundtable program will begin at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Owatonna.