A Moment in Time: The Lion of Iwo Jima
By Jeffrey S. Williams
Private First Class Robert Coster woke from his bunk at 4:30 a.m. on aboard the U.S.S. Talladega on Monday morning February 19, 1945. It was still dark and, like most Marines onboard, settled into his routine for the morning. Trip to the latrine, check of the gear and the steak and eggs breakfast – all the essentials for the first day of a major operation.
Around the time that Coster and other Marines from the Headquarters and Supply Company of the 5th Marine Division’s 28th Regiment finished breakfast, naval gunfire rocked the island of Iwo Jima with a continuous bombardment of shells. As Marines gathered on deck to watch the naval gunfire, there wasn’t much to see. It was bad enough that it was rainy and cloudy most of the time, but the smoke from the 5-inch and 6-inch guns of the battleships, destroyers and heavy cruisers of the Navy’s Task Force 54.
By 7:30 a.m., the H&S Company members carefully descended the cargo nets strung over the side of the Talladega and entered one of the 24 LCVP “Higgins Boat” attack transports, bearing the designation PA-208-XX with the boat number comprising the last two digits of the vessel’s identifier. While this was going on, they were most likely under the watchful eye of Master Technical Sergeant Louis Louft, a Marine combat correspondent, who was documenting the loading with his video camera.
The company had 302 Marines in all including Captain Joe Cason, Gunnery Sergeant Ben Avram, Sergeant Joseph Manfredi, Sergeant Robert King, who served as field cook, and other junior enlisted Marines bearing such names as Bevins, Dobner, Graves, Parranto, Scotella Sirico, Tardif, Vermaas, Yekish and Young.
Also assigned were 22 Navy sailors who were temporarily attached to the company, including Chief pharmacist Mate Arthur Abbey, Pharmacists Mate 2nd Class Jack Luse, Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class Gordon Waller, Lieutenant Commander Daniel McCarty, the regimental surgeon, and Chaplain Glenn Baumann.
These were all men that Coster lived with, worked with and trained with. It is unknown who was in the attack transport with Coster that day, it could have been any of these men, or more just like them. Each attack transport carried a crew of four – a coxswain, engineer, bowman and sternman, and could haul 36 troops to the landing beaches.
“We had a couple of hours to wait, so each wave made a circle. A big circle, around and around and around,” said Coster. “Our wave, the fifteenth, landed at H+50, which was ten minutes to ten, so we had a couple of hours to wait.”
The noise of the naval guns, the vessel’s 225-horsepower diesel engine, aircraft flying overhead on their bombing missions, and the constant crashing of waves against the hull, meant hearing was difficult at best. With over two hours to wait until landing, each Marine was lost in thought.
One Marine probably grabbed a hold of the ramp door and perhaps said a prayer. Another Marine most likely found that the sea swell didn’t agree with him and vomited out his steak and egg breakfast. Still others were focused on the mission, their training, home, and, for those, like Coster who were about to see combat for the first time, it was a time to reflect on just how far they had come.
Coster was employed as a draftsman at a shipyard in Baltimore when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was already married to Gloria Boston, who bore him a son, Robert Young Coster Jr., exactly three months before the Pearl Harbor attack. But he didn’t enlist in the Marine Corps until June 7, 1943 and was assigned to the 3rd Recruit Battalion at Parris Island, South Carolina. Immediately promoted to private first class, Coster was sent to the Pioneer Company, Engineer Battalion at the Training Center in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and then in January 1944 was training at Camp Elliot near San Diego, California at headquarters Fleet Marine Force. Shortly after, Pfc. Coster was assigned to the 28th Marine Regiment’s H&S Company, which was just stood up at Camp Pendleton, California, but housed in Tent Camp 1 at Las Pulgas Canyon as there was no billeting available on the main post.
The 28th Marines, like all Marines in the division, immediately set forth on a rugged training schedule. Calisthenics and other physical exercises were instituted along with swimming lessons designed around the proper procedures to abandon ship and keep afloat in the water for long periods of time. Specialized training including climbing up and down cargo nets along with practicing assault landings was also included in the schedule. The Marines worked all week and looked forward to liberty so they could take off and go just about wherever they wanted.
On one liberty in July 1944, Coster and some of his buddies visited the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles. Always one for purchasing gifts for his nearly three-year-old son, Coster ended up purchasing a lion cub that was born in the end of April or beginning of May. The cub is most likely “Sad Sack Smith,” who was adopted as the mascot for the U.S. Army’s 37th Coast Artillery Brigade’s communications unit stationed in Riverside. The cub was sired by one of the zoo’s lions named “Colonel Baker,” who is said to have “really earned his rank” before going on inactive status.
After purchasing the cub, now given the name “Roscoe,” Coster thought better of bringing him to the family and donated him to the regiment instead. The purchase price was a $25 bond ($345 in 2017 dollars) with the Humane Society and a guarantee that he would not be mistreated and that he would be well-fed. How they got Roscoe back to base is unclear other than it wasn’t by taxi or train.
Regarding the feeding, Sergeant William M. Purdum from Wilmington, Ohio, quipped, “That ought to be easy. We’ve got a lot of second lieutenants in this outfit.”
Coster brought Roscoe back to Camp Pendleton and the regimental commander, Colonel Harry Liversedge agreed that the regiment could keep him for a mascot.
During the remainder of the time in California, the lion cub was known to stalk wayward pigeons on post and also wail loud complaints about the swing music that came over the Naval Aid Auxiliary radio.
The Reno (Nevada) Gazette Journal ran a photo of him in the October 16, 1944 edition with the headline, “Playful Yet Tough” with the caption, “Just to show he’s tough as any other Marine, Roscoe, a lion mascot of a marine combat unit at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, gives forth with a creditable lion like roar. Purchased from the Los Angeles Zoo for $25 at the age of nine weeks, he now is five months old and growing at an alarming rate. Roscoe’s Marine masters hope to take him overseas with them.”
When the regiment was shipped to Camp Tarawa, located on the Parker Ranch near Waimea on the Island of Hawai’i, Roscoe was already a star, having had his photograph in such prominent newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Minneapolis Star Tribune, along with The Marine Corps Chevron, which was published for Marines in the San Diego area.
“Roscoe set us apart from the other units in the division. He was a boost to morale. A lion – that’d give any Marine something to talk about,” said Private First Class Robert Snodgrass, machine gunner from I Company, 3rd Battalion, 28th Marines and a former Marine Raider. “We’d say to guys in other units on the island, ‘We got a lion. What do you have, a bunch of jackasses?’”
Getting Roscoe to Hawaii took some trickery, despite the positive publicity. He was most likely smuggled aboard ship in a covered crate but then discovered upon arrival in Honolulu. Upon the discovery, Roscoe was quarantined for a week before being flown from Oahu to Camp Tarawa on Hawai’i.
“We had a good band in the Division. It was led by Bob Crosby, Bing Crosby’s brother. Then we would have these little parades over at the athletic field of about four hundred to five hundred men,” recalled Captain Fred Haynes of the H&S Company. “Roscoe would drape himself over the hood of a Jeep and go over to the parade ground and the band would play. He would howl, or growl madly, much to the discomfort of the band leader.”
“Each morning, the division band marched through the small town (Waimea) exciting the neighborhood kids. Roscoe joined in the procession, often riding on the hood of a Jeep with an escort of Marines trying to calm him,” Haynes recalled. There are several photographs that exist of Hawaiian children with Roscoe that were taken by Marine Corps photographers.
Private First Class Francis Jackson of the Fifth Joint Assault Signal Company recalled that while at Camp Tarawa, some of the Marines kept dogs as pets. When Roscoe got loose one day, he chased a few of them around camp because he wanted to “play,” but the dogs didn’t want to have any part of playing with a lion.
Captain Joe Cason, a Texan, watched a training film that featured footage of British troops in North Africa marching to Scottish bagpipes. The captain procured a set of pipes locally and proceeded to “practice,” much to the chagrin of Roscoe, who let loose with howls and roars from his quarters three hundred yards away. “After a few nights of Cason’s practicing and Roscoe’s howling, Cason was told to find another location to practice. We moved them both far enough away where they could enjoy one another’s music and let the rest of us get some sleep,” said Haynes, who retired in 1976 as a major general.
Since lions require between 10 and 25 pounds of food a day, he had a steady diet of meat from the Parker Ranch, which was supplemented by scraps from the mess hall. When the division embarked for Iwo Jima, Roscoe stayed behind at the ranch waiting for their return.
At 9:50 a.m., after over two hours of circling, the assault transport carrying Pfc. Coster made it to the beach. As was the case with all Marines who landed on Green Beach next to Mount Suribachi that day, he ran as far as he could but then the sand sunk down to the top of his boots.
“It was a mass of confusion,” recalled Coster. “Everybody was trying to be in one space. Four of us just dug in and it was every man for himself. It was just a matter of inching your way in deeper.”
After he reached the company command post, as a topographical draftsman he got his first assignment – build a four-hole officer’s latrine.
Four days after the landing, he witnessed the flag raising on Mount Suribachi.
“I was at the bottom watching it. By that time, I had a pair of Japanese artillery spotting glasses that somebody brought from the front lines to the command post. So we watched the flag go up,” he remembered. “We figured after the flag went up, we had taken our end of the island. But the Fourth Division was going north to take the airfields and they told us we had to join also. So instead of it being over, we just turned and went in the other direction.”
He had a close call later that day that remained with him ever since.
“We dashed across one by one and the sniper again opened fire. I started across with (Pfc. Richard) Graves behind me. A shot rang out and I knew it was close. When I made my way to cover, I looked back for Graves and the rest of the fellows but they weren’t in sight. It wasn’t until three hours later that the others arrived but not Graves, he had been hit. He later died, another good Marine lost to snipers. There were only eight of us left now, one man had dropped out and Graves had been killed,” Coster added.
The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted for 36 days. For the entire Fifth Marine Division, 23,141 Marines went into battle, there were 8,363 casualties listed as killed, wounded and missing, a casualty rate around 37 percent. Included in the list are 104 officers and 2,378 enlisted who were killed.
“I wasn’t injured at all. I was lucky,” said Coster, who returned to Camp Tarawa via the U.S.S. Winged Arrow on April 14.
“We were more than 3,000 strong – the world’s best and we were damn proud of it – but now just a handful remain. Returning to the same camp we left, we were given a wonderful welcome,” wrote First Lieutenant Victor Kleber from H&S Company. “Roscoe, our lion mascot, now weighed 160 pounds, licked the bald head of one of my sergeants (the only one I had left) to show his approval of our return. Yes, my dearest possessions, it’s great to be alive.”
Roscoe grew to be a full-sized African lion, weighing in around 400 pounds. He was fed well and appeared to have a normal life at the Parker Ranch and Camp Tarawa. But after a few months, the veterinarians diagnosed him with distemper. Then he fell quite ill and was put to sleep at the approximate age of 18 months. He is still buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the Parker Ranch.