Last Man Standing
GATLINBURG, Tenn. – While observing Pearl Harbor Day today, many people will also remember the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest and most famous battles of World War II against Japan.
East Randolph native and author Alisa M. Murphy has captured memories of that day in her recently published book, “You Don’t Know Jack,” about Frank Jackson “Jack” Matthews, an Iwo Jima veteran.
Although Murphy’s non-fiction book is not solely about Matthews’ experiences on Iwo Jima, it seems only fitting at this time to focus on that part of his life. Not only did Matthews fight in the longest and most intense conflict of World War II’s Pacific Theater, he was also the only member of his 40-man platoon to leave the island alive.
“In a sense, the book commemorates Pearl Harbor Day because the story talks about where the main character, Jack, was that day and how the attack inspired him to join the military, as well as the reaction of his family and town,” Murphy said.
She knows the character well. Over the past 25 years, she has visited with Frank, her husband’s uncle, during holidays and other family gatherings where he has shared stories about his life. Murphy said all his stories were fascinating, but the one that really caught her attention was about how he played the organ on Iwo Jima the last day of the battle.
Growing up in South Carolina, the son of a minister father, Matthews played a portable organ at revivals all over the south. He wanted to be a university music professor, but that dream was denied because of the war.
“The attack on Pearl Harbor was the start of his desire to join the United States Marine Corps but, at the time, he was only 15,” Murphy said. “Normally you’d have to be 18 to join, but with a parent’s signature, you could sign up at age 17, which was Jack’s case.”
When Matthews joined the marines and went to war, a chaplain learned of his skill to play a small, portable organ and he was often asked to play during church services aboard ship and everywhere they went.
“He was probably the only person to ever play the organ on the island of Iwo Jima,” she said. “He played outside because there was nothing left on the island – just destruction. After the battle ended, the soldiers sat on crates or on the ground while he played a few standard hymns.”
According to Murphy, on the final day, Matthews played the organ at 30-plus church services, and he composed a version of the National Anthem to play specifically for those services.
“Once he told me that story, I wrote an article about it called ‘Music in the Chaos’ and sent it to the Marine Corps magazine because I thought they should have the story for their archives,” she said. “They were happy to have the article and printed it.”
Her article set the book process in motion. She said a few months after the article had been published, she asked Matthews if he would consider working on a book together and he said, “Well, I don’t know who would want to know about my life, but OK.”
“His war stories were both tragic and humorous, which came through with his great sense of humor,” she said. “But in the end, the death and tragedy Jack experienced was unimaginable. He carried a flamethrower that weighed almost a third of his body weight – a devastating weapon for burning people alive.”
Murphy said Matthews was wounded three times, but had corpsmen patch him up without reporting the injuries to avoid being shipped out. When a grenade exploded, killing the man next to him, he was blown back and injured his spine. She said another time, a fragment was imbedded next to his eye and a Navy Corpsman yanked it out with pliers.
At some point, the Japanese ran out of standard grenade material and were using ceramics and glass. She said Matthews was hit with one of those grenades and when it exploded, it threw shards into his wrist. He wrapped it up and kept going. To this day, he still has those ceramic shards in his wrist.
“Jack is a fascinating man who at age 17 became a Marine and, by some miracle, survived WWII and went on to fight in the Korean Conflict,” she said. “Now, at 89, he continues to serve the Marine Corps and his country as a docent at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in Quantico, Va.”
Murphy said he never understood how and why he survived Iwo Jima, but one of the most important things he does at the museum is talk to WWII veterans who have had similar experiences. She said a lot of them have never spoken about what they went through, not even to their friends and families, but Matthews gets them talking about it.
“Jack kind of feels like he represents all the people who didn’t make it off the island and is trying to speak for them, as well as all those veterans who died without sharing their stories,” she said.
Released Nov. 9 from Amazon, “You Don’t Know Jack” is Murphy’s second published book. Her first was a children’s book called, “Jack the Drop Falls in the Smokies,” published in 2011.
Murphy makes her home in Gatlinburg, Tenn. As a freelance writer, she has written hiking articles about the Appalachians and Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as travel articles for Motor Home magazine. By day, she is a registered nurse monitoring employee wellness for Dollywood, which is one of Dolly Parton’s entertainment companies. Her husband, Thomas “Mike” Murphy, is a coach bus driver for various entertainers.
For more information on Matthews, as well as videos and photos of the battle, visit online at frankmatthewsiwojima.com.