Seventy years ago, Portland native Bill Gardner squinted through binoculars from the deck of the USS Izard, a Navy destroyer bombarding the Japanese during the battle of Iwo Jima. He could barely make out the summit of Mount Suribachi, where a few Marines were raising the American flag.

The flag-raising – captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal – would become an iconic image of World War II.

“It was an emotional thing. The flag was a great sight,” Gardner said. “Everyone was cheering.”

Gardner witnessed and participated in history.

But other than the short pause to celebrate, he didn’t have time to contemplate the historic moment, as they were engaged in battle supporting the Marines.

“Everything happens so fast you don’t have time to think,” said Gardner, who commands a strong, clear voice and is in good health at age 90.

The Marines suffered heavy casualties because the Japanese were dug into caves and tunnels on the tiny, rocky island.

“We loaded ammunition during the day and fired our guns on them all night long,” Gardner said.

That’s what Gardner was doing exactly 70 years ago.

Rosenthal’s photo was taken Feb. 23, 1945, but the battle of Iwo Jima raged for another month before ending on March 26, 1945.

Casualties totaled nearly 7,000 men for the United States, 20,000 for the Japanese.

Gardner, a signalman second class for the Navy, said it was difficult to know how the battle was faring on the island because visibility was limited. But they could tell Marines were suffering significant casualties when they saw the wounded being transported to medical ships, he said.

One day near the end of the battle, the Izard left its spot near shore for refueling and resupplying.

“Not 10 seconds later, the ship that replaced us got hit. I don’t know how many died, but a lot of people died,” said Gardner, wiping his eyes with a shaky hand.

He said only one sailor on the Izard died – from electrocution – but there were many close calls.

Gardner survived kamikaze attacks, typhoons and artillery fire during his time in battle, from 1943 to 1945. The Izard fought in many of the most famous battles of World War II, including those at the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Philippines.

“The difference between winning and dying in war is as close as an eyelash,” Gardner said. “I don’t know why I’m here. Only God knows why.”

As the Izard was pulling away from Iwo Jima, Gardner saw the island’s new cemeteries, filled with the Marines and Navy corpsmen who had died there.

“I remember as we passed the island we saw three cemeteries, with thousands of crosses and Stars of David. It was just the way it was. It was the reality of what war does,” Gardner said.

The Izard’s crew had another lucky break after Iwo Jima. Because the destroyer accompanied the Marines back to the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, they didn’t fight at Okinawa. Nearly 5,000 sailors died and 28 ships sank in one of the Navy’s deadliest battles.

‘THE LUCKIEST SHIP IN THE WORLD’

Gardner lives in an apartment on Munjoy Hill, decorated with pictures of his family and the pope, not too far from where he grew up in a “three flatter” house in an Irish-Jewish neighborhood. Gardner, his four sisters and father – his mother died when he was a child – lived on the top floor.

They listened to the radio in their small living room to hear the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech blared over the loudspeakers at the department store where he worked in downtown Portland, selling shoes. Gardner volunteered for the Navy after he graduated from high school the following June.

Months later, after boot camp and training to be a signalman, Gardner joined the crew of the Izard at the age of 19 in August 1943.

Gardner said everyone was afraid of what would happen, of not knowing whether you would wake up the next day.

“It was nothing to admit you were scared. We all were,” Gardner said.

His job was to use flashing lights to send Morse code messages to other ships, or raise flags that were coded with messages.

“We were directing the other ships around us,” Gardner said. “A message might be to zig and zag so a sub wouldn’t grab you. We had secret codes and all that stuff. I could still do Morse code today.”

Gardner remembers a kamikaze attack that hit the destroyer next to the Izard, destroying the ship’s bridge and killing many men.

“The kamikazes would come out of the sky and away we’d go. They went right by us,” Gardner said quietly.

The Izard got caught up in a typhoon for several days, and Gardner remembers crew members doing four-hour shifts on deck during the relentless storm.

“The water comes way up over your head, and the ship is rolling from side to side,” he said, demonstrating with his hands. “You’re hanging onto anything you can. It was scary as hell. I don’t think we ate for four days.”

Joe Butler, of Hampton, New Hampshire, was a shipmate of Gardner’s on the Izard. Meeting on the “chow line,” they have been friends ever since.

“Bill did a wonderful job,” said Butler, who as a radioman pinpointed the location of a downed U.S. airplane near Guam, saving the lives of five people. “We were on the luckiest ship in the world.”

Gardner went on leave after Iwo Jima. An old photo shows him mugging for the camera in front of Union Station in Portland in April 1945.

Shortly thereafter, he was deployed again and traveling in the Aleutian Islands – headed to Japan for an invasion – when the ship heard the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped over Hiroshima.

“We didn’t know what it was. The atomic bomb, what the hell is that? All we knew was the war was going to be over. We said, ‘Thank you, Harry,’ ” said Gardner, referring to President Harry S. Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in 1945.

Instead of invading Japan, Gardner was part of the occupying forces in the north. The streets were eerily quiet, he said, and not much happened.

A SURVIVOR RETURNS TO NORMAL LIFE

After occupying Japan for a few months, Gardner left the Navy and returned to Portland, where his girlfriend, Theresa, was waiting.

“She wrote me all the time, so what are you going to do,” Gardner said with a sly smile. They married in 1946 and went on to raise four children.

He worked for the post office, and his wife, who died 10 years ago, worked for the telephone company.

Maryjane Roberts, Gardner’s daughter, said her dad didn’t talk much about his time in World War II when they were growing up.

“It was the times. People just picked up their lives when they came back, and moved on,” Roberts said.

In her dad’s later years, she would learn much more when she accompanied him to reunions of the Izard crew.

“I didn’t realize the extent of the gift that we had until I was older,” said Roberts, 64. “I always knew he was very patriotic. He would cry when hearing on the news the names of the soldiers who died in Vietnam.”

Gardner said he witnessed history, but there’s nothing special that he did while serving in World War II.

“I am not a hero. I did the same thing that thousands of others did,” Gardner said. “We served our country.”