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Local veteran of Iwo Jima J. Shelton Scales dies at 97
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Retired Marine Col. J. Shelton Scales (seated) died Tuesday at King’s Grant. Scales served in the Marine Corps and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He is shown above last year accepting a flag that was flown in his honor over the U.S. Capitol and a proclamation from the city of Martinsville honoring his contributions. Shown are (from left) Lt. Col. Ken Bowman, adjutant American Legion Post 47 Chatham; retired Lt. Col. W.C. Fowlkes; retired Col. Greg Eanes; Martinsville City Councilman Danny Turner; local historian Rocky Rockwell, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and 9th District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

J. Shelton Scales, a retired Marine Corps colonel who survived the battle on Iwo Jima during World War II, died Tuesday.

Scales, 97, died at King’s Grant Retirement Community, where he had lived in recent years. He was retired from the insurance field and active in the community for many years.

A native of Sandy Ridge, N.C., Scales graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in June 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce.

That October, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was a member of the first Officer Candidates Class and 4th Reserve Class in the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico. He remained there as a staff member until 1943.

In July of that year, Scales became commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines.

According to a March 2005 article titled “Into the Meat Grinder” in “World War II,” although Scales was in the Marines before the war started, he did not see combat until February 1944. He was in the 4th Division’s combat debut on Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands, where he led Company A, the article stated.

In October 1944, he was named commander of the 3rd Battalion where, according to the article, he told his officers his leadership philosophy: “Obey the rules, work hard and enjoy liberty.”

As a battalion commander at age 27, Scales was responsible for the welfare of about 900 men whom he led into what is remembered as perhaps the Marine Corps’ most brutal battle of World War II.

The 4th Marine Division was part of the V Amphibious Corps’ three-division assault on Iwo Jima. Eighty-thousand Marines, the largest force of Marines ever engaged in a single battle, were committed to the assault, the article stated.

Iwo Jima, which at 8 square miles is smaller than the city of Martinsville, was important strategically because the U.S. forces needed an emergency air field and a base for fighter planes in that part of the Pacific, Scales said in a presentation in February 2011 at King’s Grant to mark the 66th anniversary of the start of the battle.

Scales was a commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. His division was one of two that landed that day.

An average of 190 men were killed on each of the 36 days that the Marines battled to take the island, Scales said in the 2011 presentation.

Even Scales, who saw some of those nearly 7,000 servicemen killed in front of him, had a hard time comprehending the magnitude of the loss.

“It just boggles my mind,” he said three years ago.

The offensive was expected to take 10 days or less, but that was a huge underestimate, Scales said.

U.S. forces had bombed the island for 72 days before the Marines landed there, Scales said. By the time the battle was over, all but 800 of the estimated 22,000 Japanese on the island were dead, he said.

On top of those killed on the American side, there were 19,000 wounded and 2,400 who suffered combat fatigue, according to Scales.

“They made us pay for every inch of that island as we went north,” he recalled.

Part of what made the fighting so difficult was an estimated 15 to 20 miles of underground tunnels the Japanese had dug on Iwo Jima, Scales said. He described a scene in which Japanese fighters would peep from the tunnels, shoot at the Marines and disappear from sight.

“The Marines were on Iwo Jima,” Scales said. “The Japanese were in it.”

After watching the first waves of Marines land on the morning of Feb. 19, he was ordered to lead his men onto the beach around 1 p.m.

“That beach was unbelievable, almost indescribable,” he said. The area was crowded with Marines, and “every round was getting four or five” of them.

“When the ramp of the landing craft went down I said, ‘Oh Lord,’” Scales said. “It was wall to wall dead men.”

Scales said he could not explain why he wasn’t hit that day when so many others fell around him.

“Just pure luck, I guess,” he said.

When one audience member at his presentation asked about the psychological effects of such a bloody battle, Scales said he and his men coped by relying on their training.

“That’s what saved you from going crazy in this situation,” he said of the intensive training before the battle, which included rehearsal landings on San Clemente Island off the California coast.

“People getting killed, that’s battle for you,” he said. “You just keep doing your job.”

Before they left Iwo Jima to return to their base in Hawaii, Scales said he and others visited an area where many dead were buried.

“We walked among crosses and the occasional Star of David (marking the graves) and saw men that we had known for several years,” he said. “That was the most poignant, heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever — well, let’s don’t get on that.”

In the 2005 article, Scales said, “Iwo Jima was a graveyard for the dead and hell for the living.”

Scales was awarded the Legion of Merit medal for that campaign.

He was ordered to inactive duty as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve in November 1945, according to an account of his service that he wrote. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in May 1951, and he was placed on the retired reserve list and promoted to colonel in April 1958.

In the 2005 article, Scales reflected on surviving the war — and those who didn’t.

“ ... You don’t give your life for your country. You don’t give it. It’s taken from you, in many cases brutally,” he stated.

“Survival,” he added, “involves no rhyme or reason and is absolutely rolling the dice.”

In Martinsville, Scales joined Burch Hodges Stone Inc. in May 1946 and retired there on May 1, 1982. He was president of the company during his last several years there.

He was a nine-year director of the Virginia Association of Insurance Agents and was president of the Virginia Financial Services Corp.

He was a charter member and elder of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Martinsville. His community involvement included the Martinsville Jaycees from 1946 to 1963, including president in 1949 and recipient of the Distinguished Service award as Outstanding Young Man in 1951; Kiwanis Club of Martinsville, including president in 1957; lieutenant governor of the Capital District’s Second Division of Kiwanis in 1988-89; charter member and former secretary of the local SCORE chapter; charter member of the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Co., which was organized in 1949; trustee of the Blue Ridge Regional Library from 1988 to 1993; and a member of the Patrick Henry Community College Foundation Board from 1994 to 1997, as well as a previous term.

Scales and his wife, the late Mary Stacy Crockett Scales, had four children.


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