The HEART of HELL : Untold Story of Courage & Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima

By Major Van Harl
The Battle of Iwo Jima, a major event in the Pacific Theater of World War II—and one of the bloodiest in United States history—began on February 19, 1945. But what happened two days earlier has largely been a footnote, until now… The HEART of HELL.

Only surviving photo from the 449 for the Iwo Jima recon mission of 17 Feb, 1945. This was removed from the smashed camera of the photographer Leo McGrath who was killed on the mission. In the distance is Iwo Jima. The men are still a few hours out as can be seen by the fact they are not in their gear and do not have their helmets on and they look quite relaxed.
Only surviving photo from the 449 for the Iwo Jima recon mission of 17 Feb, 1945. This was removed from the smashed camera of the photographer Leo McGrath who was killed on the mission. In the distance is Iwo Jima. The men are still a few hours out as can be seen by the fact they are not in their gear and do not have their helmets on and they look quite relaxed.
Major Van Harl USAF Ret
Major Van Harl USAF Ret

Wisconsin –-( My father is a retired US Navy Master Chief and I spent the first nineteen years of my life living on or near Navy bases.

In the early 1960s we were living in the Norfolk, Virginia area and went to Little Creek Naval Base all the time to shop and use the swimming pool. Little Creek is an amphibious warfare base. In those days there were amphibious ships left over from WWII, stationed at Little Creek Naval Base. The mission of amphibious warfare ships is to put Marines and Soldiers on the beaches of an opposing enemy’s real estate and then move inland to defeat and conquer.

The US Navy became very proficient during WWII at amassing a fleet of hundreds of different ships, pointing them in the direction of enemy held territory , and delivering troops on the beaches.

For the most part they always accomplished their assigned mission, and took the latest island that appeared on the current invasion plan.

However, the cost seemed to get higher and higher the closer the US Navy got to the main home islands of Japan.

The Heart of Hell
The Heart of Hell

I have been aboard an old AKA (attack cargo ship) WWII Liberty ship that was doing an “away all boats” drill. This is where they launched all the small landing craft as if they were going to run them up on a beach and off load a bunch of howling mad Marines. It was exciting and fun to watch. More importantly no one was shooting at the ship I was on or the landing craft trying to hit the beach. It was training, there was no blood.

In Mitch Weiss’s new book “The Heart of Hell,” he tells the story of a WWII, US Navy amphibious Landing Craft Infantry ship, LCI 449. It is about the crew and the families back home state-side. There is training involving new shipmates and seasoned crew members, but there is also real blood and sadly too much death.

Mr. Weiss wrote the book but, Dennis Blocker, the grandson of one of the sailors who served on the LCI 449, was the backbone of the mission to tell this sad story. Mr. Blocker, after the suicide of his grandfather Cliff Lemke, an LCI 449 sailor, was asked by his mother (Lemke’s daughter) to find out what happened to Cliff Lemke during the war, that so negatively impacted the rest of Lemke’s life.

I spoke to Mr. Blocker at length about his fourteen year quest to find out as completely and with as much detail as possible, the history of the crew of LCI 449. Those shipmates who survived, and those who did not, also to make contact with surviving family members. Mr. Blocker interviewed over 300 crew members, family members, and other Naval personnel who had direct association with LCI 449.

He was able to make contact with family members of the twenty-one officers and men who died on the LCI 449 at the battle of Iwo Jima.

Clifford and Eleanor Lemke
Clifford and Eleanor Lemke

Mr. Mitch Weiss is the author of record for “The Heart of Hell” and it was his ability to make the story of LCI 449 flow to the point you do not want to put the book down. However, the story would have never been written if Dennis Blocker’s grandfather had not served and survived on LCI 449 those first two opening days of Iwo Jima. Had Mr. Blocker’s mother not insisted he seek out, discover and record his grandfather Cliff Lemke’s Navy combat time at sea, and the death and unspeakable destruction, this story would most likely have been lost to the ages

The Japanese army had the LCI gunboats in their sights the moment they headed to the shallow off shore of Iwo Jima. It was two days before the actual amphibious landing of Iwo Jima was scheduled to begin. The LCI gunboats were providing transport and cover for the then new Navy frogmen. Specially trained Sailor’s whose mission was to swim to shore, map the obstacles, the underwater explosive mines and document any other information that would be vital to the Marines who would be landing under fire 48 hours later.

The Japanese assumed incorrectly that a handful of LCI gunboats sitting just off shore of their island was the beginning of the main invasion of Iwo Jima and they opened up with everything they had trying to destroy those gunboats.

Mr. Weiss, through Mr. Blocker’s research, leads you along a noisy, increasing path of violence and destruction that LCI 449 follows in one after another Naval assault on Japanese held islands. You are introduced to the crew members and I must admit develop an attachment to these real life characters as their lives play out in a time of war. Letters saved by family members greatly helped in telling this story. You know somebody is going to die. You do not know who and you sort of hope as you become vested in the character’s real lives, you quietly picked out, and become attached to, that your favorite sailors makes it home in one piece.

As I told Mr. Blocker the book sets the reader up for a nice flowing story that slams your senses and hurts the heart, as first one then nineteen more American sailors and one Marine are violently, and with no chance to recover, destroyed in a matter of minutes.

As General U.S. Grant said in the Civil War, “War is hell” and in this book there is no happy ending. Twenty-one families were emotionally destroyed and many of them never really recovered.

View from bow looking toward the pilot house and gun deck of the LCI 449
View from bow looking toward the pilot house and gun deck of the LCI 449

Sailors who did not die came home, told no one what happened and then proceeded to suffer in silence for the rest of their lives. They failed to communicate to their family and friends just how bad it was in total combat for the crew of LCI 449, but perhaps silent suffering is not completely correct. There were the screams in the night that were not explained to the family. There was the destructive drinking and fighting. There were the brushes with the law. There were relationships with family that never got back on the right track from the day the Navy combat veteran got home and only got worse.

Help was not there to be offered to the combat veteran, and perhaps part of the truth was the veteran did not ask for help. They suffered, the family suffered and then they started to die early in life, like Cliff Lemke did when he finally could not deal with the unending emotional aftereffect of the trauma of his war. His wife, the former young WWII bride, had died and with her death Cliff Lemke’s last bit of strength and emotional support was gone, so Cliff shot himself and left a troubled family to ask “why.”

Mr. Dennis Blocker after fourteen years found out “why” and Mr. Mitch Weiss tells that story to you in a way you will not forget.

Support the veteran, support the combat veteran, support the surviving family and remember you may never get a happy ending out of their story or your story.

War will never go away and this story in another location and another time will play out yet again. If it is your story, your life after combat, there will be some kind of ending, even if it is not truly happy. Life must go on and survivors must be helped to deal with their trauma and experience. Sadness is sometimes all you ever get.

Sometimes you sail into the Heart of Hell and you do not sail out.

Gundeck of the 449 looking forward between the two 40mms
Gundeck of the 449 looking forward between the two 40mms

About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret., a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School.  A retired Colorado Ranger and currently is an Auxiliary Police Officer with the Cudahy PD in Milwaukee County, WI.  His efforts now are directed at church campus safely and security training.  He believes “evil hates organization.”  [email protected]

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There are definitely a great deal of particulars like that to take into consideration. That’s an incredible point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly you’ll find questions like the one you bring up where essentially the most important thing will likely be operating in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged about things like that, but I’m certain that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Each boys and girls really feel the impact of just a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

HMLA-167 Warrior

I need to get 15 copies of this book. One for myself and family and 14 for the county school and public libraries.

Greg Burch

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167 Warrior i hope all is well!

Greg Burch

Dennis Blocker

Interesting that the comments are about Sherman and not about these guys who died at Iwo Jima. Some things never change. People are more focused on quotes and bringing attention to errors and not the wonderful article that was written about an amazing story. Thank you Van for an amazing article that does justice to these men and their sacrifice.

Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

Mr. Blocker On 6 Apr 1862, Gen Sherman lead the 5th Division at the Battle of Shiloh. His unit took the brunt of the attack that day, just as LCI 449 and the rest of the LCI gun boats did the opening day of Iwo Jima. Sherman had to fall back to safety at the end of that first day. LCI 449 had to fall back just to survive. He complained to Gen Grant and in one of those conversations Grant told Sherman war is hell. Sherman used it later and got all the credit. For the men of LCI… Read more »


Well said, love the similarities you presented. I am currently reading Grant’s memoirs which has made some great reading.

Greg Burch

Mr blocker, I full intend to read the book about the story above as my grandfather was 3rd Div 21st USMC and very close to that battle. Eugene V Burch fought in Guam, Guadalcanal, and Peleliu for sure but I have yet to vefiy if he was on Iwo Jima or not. He was Wounded in action with a purple heart and for his entire life had “night terrors” as they called it back in 1996 as a kid. Moving forward EVERYTHING i do is because of him and our service members and allies living in hell for our freedom.… Read more »

Dennis Blocker

I hope you will purchase the book. I must warn you that it is a tear jerker and will leave you with a pit in your stomach but it will also leave you humbled that America was worthy to have such men defend her.

Greg Burch

I will purchase it for sure! I cannot help but wander if anyone you interviewed knew my grandfather also! Flags Of Our Fathers and HBO’s “The Pacific” also were a tear jerker! I feel that nothing has impact without what I call a “surprise hit” sadly so many never get this hit to call them to action. The above mentioned shows are what called me to action in honor of my grandfather and men like Major Van Harl. They chose to fight for us and lay their lives down for our simple right to be achieved. The bible says it… Read more »


“War is hell” Sherman not Grant.


And General William Tecumseh Sherman made certain that as many as possible underwent the hell of war, even innocent noncombatant civilians. It was he, you may recall, oversaw “Shermans March to the Sea”, wherein a twenty mile wide swath of total destruction was left behind as he and his marauding “soldiers” made their way from Atlanta to Savannah Georgia, leaving nothing and no one in his wake. Then he and his felllow “officer” Sheridan were directed to go and do the same to the Plains Indians to clear the West for “civilisation” . Yes, war is hell, and he made… Read more »