It was Feb. 19, 1945. In the distance, a nondescript mountain stuck out aboveone end of an unappealing land mass—Sulfur Island, or as the Japanese called it, Iwo Jima. In the hundreds of landing craft making their way to the beaches of this spit of land 600 miles from Tokyo, Marines were readying for the fight as their ungainly assault boats heaved and rocked, clumsy in the tossing waves. Resolute under camouflage-covered helmets, they cradled their M-1s, mentally preparing for the hellish quarry that lay in wait. A Marine could be seen smoking a last peaceful cigarette; another, chewing gum in a tense rapid cadence. All the bravado and small talk, loud profanity and quiet prayers, had already been spoken, replaced by a churning cacophony of diesel boat engines, attack aircraft, big ships’ guns, and huge shells passing overhead; all of which, including these men, were focused on an exploding landscape ahead.
They came from every corner of America, men as different from each other as their myriad backgrounds, but now one-and-the-same, dedicated brothers-in-arms, identical in their lethal purpose, about to meet the spectre of war for the first time. Others had already seen bloody action, like Frederick Gregg Truran.
At 29 years old, Sgt. Fritz Truran was considered the “old man” among the mostly 19- and 20-year-old Marines, and had already earned his stripes in combat. He was the kind of veteran squad leader younger Marines were eager to follow, the kind who would bring them valor, then bring them home safely. He was also “the cowboy,” the famous rodeo champion—and he was there among kids who had only viewed such characters from afar with a popcorn box in their grip instead of a carbine. But there he was, one of them, a 4th Division Leatherneck, indistinguishable from the rest, except for his sergeant chevrons and a small unauthorized decoration on his fatigue shirt—a gold button-shaped pin, slightly larger than a nickel, with the initials CTA and the stylized image of a turtle.
The landing craft yawed onto the volcanic sands, its occupants steeling for the encounter, forcing thoughts of home, family, and sweethearts to the backs of their minds, ready to dismount, the ramp soon to fall open; mindful of a gate swinging open in another life, into a different kind of action…
A little over a decade earlier, young Fritz Truran was breaking horses for people around Compton and Long Beach, Calif., where his family had moved. After their father died, Fritz and his brother Bill were the only support for their mother and 10 sisters. They were entering local rodeos on the weekends and training horses in between, when Fritz took on a young horse belonging to his uncle Dewey Burden, a businessman in Compton. There was something special about this bronc; he was good-looking and athletic, and he moved with fluid strength. His color was a rarity, pure white without an off-color hair on him. His uncle called the colt “Silver Tip.” After several weeks, Silver Tip was ready to go back to his owner, and Fritz was ready to get to rodeoing. A few years later, Uncle Dewey sold the horse to a foreign buyer for “a fabulous sum.” By then, Fritz was on the road full time, setting his kack on some of the toughest horses of the day.
He was a gifted bronc rider and a tough competitor whose reputation was growing fast. Friendly demeanor and positive ways stood out on this adventurous soul who enjoyed a drink of whiskey with friends and was unafraid of a fight, though he was never a brawler or a drunk. One of his contemporaries described him as “good hearted, good company, and a loyal friend, very popular with all the rodeo people.” In that world, the handsome hard-twisted young cowboy was growing into an unbeatable bronc rider.
In the opening decades of the 20th century, rodeo was still an evolving concept, with roots in both the old local ranch cowboy contests and the famous Wild West shows of an earlier era. Early rodeo companies, owned by personalities like Tex Austin and Col. W.T. Johnson, traveled to small towns and big cities, almost like circuses, providing day-long thrills and entertainment for people to whom cowboys, cowgirls, bucking horses, and wild races were glamorous and unfamiliar. They performed in settings as far away as Soldier Field in Chicago, Boston Garden, New York’s Madison Square Garden, and London’s Wembley Stadium. Before long, producers began to tighten the venue, shorten the events, and make it more of a fast-moving sport.
This changing rodeo landscape was Fritz Truran’s world as he mounted his career in the mid-1930s, a time when economic depression was suffocating the confidence of the American people, who, when they could, sought opportunities for escape from the hard times. Action-packed hometown rodeos provided entertainment and put triumph on display. For the Depression-era generation, horse racing and rodeos showed that odds could be beat and victory could be had. Rodeo seemed to scoff at the idea of subjection to economic forces, and the spectators could, for a little while, forget their problems, cheer the contestants in the arena, and claim a kind of surrogate victory of their own.
Various rodeo producers were operating by their own rules, and consistency needed to be brought out of chaos, so the rodeo companies and committees formed the Rodeo Association of America. RAA paid little respect to the cowboys’ concerns, presuming they would always be there to ride, rope, and please audiences. To protect their own interests, the cowboys soon formed the Cowboy Turtles Association. “Turtles” because “they were slow to organize but finally stuck their necks out.” Fritz Truran was number “49” to get his Turtle pin. With new respect for the rodeo cowboys as professionals, the sport prospered, and more importantly, so did the cowboys who could win.
Fritz was consistently in the money at shows across the country, and although his reputation grew, his ego didn’t. Good humored and dedicated to the sport, cowboys liked traveling with him. He was uncomfortable with celebrity, but that didn’t diminish the fame. There was even a comic strip starring “Fritz Truran, Champion Cowboy.” Some of his friends were movie greats like Yakima Canutt, Ben Johnson, Harry Carrey Jr., and even John Wayne, but Fritz did not attach himself to the reputation of others. Celebrity held scant attraction, as did much of anything beyond the arena and the opportunity to top off the rank horses. He lived for rodeo, and little else. Friends who knew him best said he believed he could ride any horse, but that wasn’t something he would brag about, or even talk about—he just knew it.
Frequently asked to make guest appearances and go on the radio, Fritz was cooperative but shy around strangers, and hated doing it. His traveling partner teased him about radio interviews when he would just nod in response to questions, forgetting that radio listeners can’t hear a nod.
Everybody knew Fritz, but the rodeo secretaries were always misspelling his name, leaving out the second ‘r’, so he finally just gave up and started spelling it the same way: “Truan.”
For young Fritz Truran, the road and the arenas were home enough. There was no need for a domicile, and his winnings were routinely mailed to his mother in Compton to support the family. Maybe that was part of what made him ride his best every time. Fritz kept riding and winning titles, ultimately including World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider in 1939 and 1940, and World Champion All-Around Cowboy in 1940. In 1941, he was the recipient of Pendleton’s coveted Sam Jackson Trophy.
As impressive, or even more so, were the tough horses he rode, many as famous as the champions themselves, impossible for most riders on the circuit. Hell’s Angel was called by some the greatest bucking horse in the history of rodeo. Fritz rode the 1,300-pound half-Percheron to the whistle—not just once, but five of the seven times he drew him. Other folks thought the best bronc ever was the famous Five Minutes to Midnight. Fritz conquered him, too. Also, Hoochie Koochie, Starlight, Crying Jew, Bloody Island, Hell to Set, Jack Dew, Conclusion, Home Brew, Doc Depression, and Made in Germany. They were the rankest of the rank with reputations bigger than most of the men who tried them on. These horses proved Fritz Truran up as one of the toughest bronc riders in the business.
It would have taken a force of nature to open up room in his mind and heart for something besides the roughstock, but that force did come along, in the person of a petite, fiery, red-haired beauty who was making a reputation for herself as one of the most exciting trick riders in the rodeo business. Norma Holmes was born in Henryetta, Okla., in 1924, and rode at the local area shows until Bob Wills encouraged her to perform at the Ada, Okla., rodeo. Soon afterward, she joined Gene Autry’s Flying A Rodeo Company and thrilled crowds across the country. At break-neck speed, Norma and her horse, “Rojo,” performed incredible trick-riding feats few other riders had mastered. Fritz and Norma married in 1942, and had the unlikely idea of a “power couple” of rodeo existed, this might have been one in the making.
There was another force coming over the horizon, a force of nations that was engulfing the world. Dec. 7, 1941, had ushered a war footing across American life that would sooner or later touch virtually everyone. Fritz was at the top of his game when he loaned out his rodeo gear and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on Dec. 7, 1942, just one week after he and Norma married.
After basic training, Fritz shipped out to Hawaii, where preparation was underway for the next round of island landings in the Pacific. In Hawaii, he befriended many local cowboys, the “Paniolos,” and even organized an all-service rodeo to benefit wounded comrades. In 1943, he was wounded on Tarawa Atoll. After his recovery, in 1944, he won the Hawaiian bronc riding championship.
Later that year, Fritz returned to the mainland on leave for a month, reuniting with Norma and entering some rodeos, including Cheyenne (Wyo.) and Boulder (Colo.). These few weeks were a needed respite of pleasure and happiness, but it would soon be time to go back. One of his friends observed, “Fritz was quiet and reticent, and seemed greatly changed. From his conversation, one knew he had seen plenty of action, and he was ready for the war to be over.” In a few days, Fritz and Norma said their farewells as he boarded a vessel for Hawaii, and the reality of war returned to their consciousness.
The ramps on landing craft were falling open all up and down the shore, turning thousands of Marines out onto Iwo Jima’s black sand. For a few minutes all was quiet. Then hell broke loose, the shoreline becoming a bloody kill zone as the Marines struggled to get off the beach. In the coming weeks, Marines battled forward, inches or feet at a time, with a fierce tenacity that inspired Adm. Chester Nimitz to remark in their honor, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
It is said that in combat what you fight for is the man on your left and on your right, and for things more tangible than high ideals—things that truly define you, like the little Turtle pin that had come loose and caused Sgt. Truran to run back through enemy fire to recover it.
Four days into the battle, cheers went up at the sight of the Stars and Stripes waving in stubborn defiance on the mountain, but the fight was far from over. Fritz’s Marines kept slogging, sticking close to their sergeant, literally digging the enemy out.
On Feb. 28, 1945, Sgt. Fredrick Gregg Truran was leading his Marines in a charge up Hill 382 in the bristling sector of battlespace known as the Meatgrinder, when, in combat’s cruel suddenness, he was brought down by enemy machine gun fire. For a moment, time froze as their sergeant fell to the ground. Then, as quickly, his men paid the only possible tribute by getting back into the fight.
It was three weeks before the dreaded telegram reached Norma Truran, a sudden widow just 20 years old who had shared precious little time with her husband. Word soon spread in the rodeo world that their invincible friend had fallen. That August, at the Honolulu rodeo, contestants and 6,000 spectators stood in silence as a horse bearing an empty saddle was led into the arena, and Taps was played by a Marine who had been at his side on Hill 382. For all who knew him, and many who knew about him, an unwelcome emptiness had invaded the place where once stood a popular young cowboy full of wit and extraordinary ability.
In his early years, Truran trained a horse that would be sold for a handsome price to Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who was only ever seen aboard a white horse.
Over the years, remembrance has come in many ways. A Marine officer campaigned for the rodeo arena at Kaneohe, Hawaii, to bear his name. John Wayne was inspired to his role in
The Sands of Iwo Jima
because of their connection and friendship. His peers in the sport saw to it his story would reside at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, as well as at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Of course, titles and trophies don’t tell the full story, and we should hope such things are not our only legacy. For Fritz, his character added value to his feats. His sense of humor and enthusiasm were contagious. He was proud but not self-important, brave but not a bully, confident but not arrogant. However, if only a single word were allowed to describe Fritz Truran (or Truan if you like), it might be “indomitable.” He would not back down, whether from a fistfight, the rankest of bucking horses, or the enemy in battle.
After Iwo Jima, American GIs and their commanders could taste inevitable victory, and Adm. “Bull” Halsey” was boasting he would ride Emperor Hirohito’s white horse, Shirayuki, on the streets of Tokyo. He probably had no idea that, years earlier, our cowboy who fell on Hill 382 had trained Shirayuki—back when he was called Silver Tip.
Fritz’s longtime traveling partner, Gene Pruett, a world champion himself, said, “Fritz had that indefinable something that sports heroes are made of, color in action and in personality. I’m talking about the color that made Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth the best known names in the world.”
Gene may not have realized how elegantly he declared the depth of his good friend’s undaunted spirit and character when he also observed, “I guess he rode every tough bucking horse in the world.”