The Bombs Bursting in Air: A short story for the 4th of July

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Sharing this story from a couple of years ago... a little something to get you in the mood for Independence day.


"Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air??

Lt. Col. Tom Kalus is one of those very rare Marines who happened to be a participant in two of the greatest moments in Marine Corps history: the Battle of Iwo Jima (WW2) and the Chosin Reservoir (Korea). Both events are known for their intensity of the fighting and the bravery of the Marines against unbelievable odds.

Shortly after I met Col. Kalus, he related a story to me which remains one of my favorite ones I can remember a veteran telling me... 


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One evening of the Marine reunion we both attended a few years ago, Col. Kalus asked me, "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air?"

Of course! Who can forget those inspiring lines written by Francis Scott Key and sung so often at sports events and holidays.

"When I was on Iwo," he went on, "About the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song, the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine had said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. I know I never will listen to it again the same.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

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The Flying Horsemen Come to San Antonio

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

In October, San Antonio was invaded by the extraordinary Flyboys and family members of the 449th Bomb Group Association, the Flying Horsemen. And what a terrific invasion it was! By the very kind invitation of the association, Faith and I spent 3 memorable evenings with them, getting a first-hand, crash course history lesson on the Flying Horsemen.

Between January 8, 1944 and April 26, 1945, the 449th Bomb Group flew over 250 combat missions out of their base in Italy. Their losses were great as their targets were often the most heavily defended ones in Europe. "From the time they arrived in Grottaglie until they departed at the end of the war, the 449th lost a total of 135 aircraft. Of those, 111 were lost in combat and 24 were non-combat related losses." (449th Bomb Group Association). But their indomitable spirit persisted, making them "one of the most distinguished and decorated combat units of World War II."

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But this indomitable spirit went further than combat missions. Several of the veterans in attendance were ex-POWs. One in particular, a native Texan, Harvey Gann, was captured on January 30, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft 4 near Grosstychow, Prussia. During his 15 months imprisonment, he attempted escape three times and finally on the fourth attempt, he was successful. However, by the time he arrived safely behind Russian lines, the war was within days of ending. "And to think I could have just waited," he laughingly told me. 

Each night there was something special planned for the reunion. The first night was a fun, "Get Acquainted Party." Folks dressed up in the smart styles of the WWII era, there was group singing and a special anniversary cake for Mr. & Mrs. Harvey Gann, who were celebrating 71 years that day.

A little snippet from Squadron Night at the 449th Bomb Group Reunion last evening. Lt. Ed West (B-24 Navigator) & Faith sing, "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

The next evening was Squadron Night, a personal favorite for me. This evening was all about celebrating the four squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group: 716th Squadron, 717th Squadron, 718th Squadron, and 719th Squadron. The veterans and family members sat at tables which represented their Squadron, and just like Texans, whenever an opportunity came up to applaud or cheer on the squadron, it was duly taken.

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During the evening, there was a terrific panel where each veteran was given an opportunity to share some anecdotes from the war or (in one delightful instance) sing a few wartime songs. This was followed by a fascinating lecture on the Willow Run Factory, a B-24 Bomber manufacturer owned by Ford Motor Company and based out of Michigan during the war. At the peak of her operations in WWII, Willow Run was producing 1 B-24 Liberator per hour! I can honestly say I never thought I would be so interested in a factory, but the history of Willow Run and her current restoration projects blew my mind. 

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Saturday night, the final banquet was held at the Tower of the Americas, a memorable location to close out the reunion.

As an outsider and onlooker, I have to say how much I loved seeing the enthusiasm and personal pride that was had for each Squadron and the 449th Bomb Group. This wasn't just an annual social get-together. It was a genuine and concerted effort to honor the men of the 449th BG and educate the younger generations on their sacrifices in WWII. Everyone I talked with at the reunion was so knowledgable about the 449th and spoke with such ardor about their relatives that I kept walking away from these conversations greatly moved and motivated to learn more. 

The amount of planning and coordination that went into the entire reunion was outstanding. I really must thank the organizers, specifically Denise Reigal, for including us in this special, special reunion. It was such an honor to meet your veterans, listen to their narratives, and even share a few songs with them.

Though the weekend was short, our hearts were quite captured by the Flyboys and family of the 449th Bomb Group.

Related Reading: Remembering a Statistic: The Crew of the B-24, "The Lady in the Dark"

If you are interested in learning more about the 449th Bomb Group Association, I highly recommend you check out their website. It is full of easily accessible information and content which will keep you reading for hours. I have greatly enjoyed pursuing the articles and documents they have on the website. https://449th.com

Remembering a Statistic: The Crew of the B-24, "The Lady in the Dark"

https://449th.com/willding-crew/

https://449th.com/willding-crew/

Remembering that tonight, 73 years ago, the B-24 Bomber "The Lady in the Dark," was hit by flak, causing her to crash during a bombing mission over the Brenner Pass in Italy. With one exception, (Frank Visciglia, killed while attempting to bail), all crew members survived the crash. 3 were taken prisoner by the Germans, and the rest arrived safely behind American lines.

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A few months ago we had the honor and pleasure of meeting one of the survivors of this crash, Radio Operator, Bud Rosch, at the annual 449th Bomb Group Reunion. His fabulous personality captivated us, and his singing stole our hearts. When I realized that tonight, December 28, was the anniversary of his plane's crash, out of curiosity I started reading the after-action reports written by his crew members (https://449th.com/willding-crew/). It was remarkable. The 449th Bomb Group lost an awful lot of bombers in Italy during the war. There are plenty of statistics which will tell you that. But there is something about reading the reports and then putting a face to it which immediately takes a statistic and makes it personal.

I can't say if Bud Rosch always remembers December 28 as the day the, "The Lady in the Dark" went down. But I do know he will always remember his crew. Guys like Wilding, Tuttle, Stringham, and Visciglia, living, breathing men who he served with so bravely during the war.

For us, it's certainly worth marking the day on the calendar. Not for the date's sake, but for the sake of guys like Frank Visciglia who became a statistic when he didn't make it back. Remember him, Bud Rosch, and the rest of the crew of "The Lady in the Dark," and at least to us, they will never become statistics.

Example of a B-24 Bomber in WWII. "Twinkletoes," from the 716TH Squadron, 449th Bomb Group.  (Courtesy  https://449th.com/collins-crew/ )

Example of a B-24 Bomber in WWII. "Twinkletoes," from the 716TH Squadron, 449th Bomb Group.  (Courtesy https://449th.com/collins-crew/)

Jerry Yellin: The Fighter Pilot Who Found Forgiveness

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December is a busy month for everyone, but amid all that's going on, we wanted to take a moment to remember a dear friend who just passed away: Captain Jerry Yellin, WW2 Veteran, P-51 Pilot, and a man who left an undeniable legacy.

At all military reunions I attended with Jerry, whenever I turned around, there he was exhorting the younger men and women. He spoke so kindly and with such sincerity that anyone listening couldn't help but be drawn to his every word.

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At one reunion, I walked through the hotel lobby and saw a huddle of enormous basketball players. Then I saw Jerry. He had them hanging on every word as he shared a message of forgiveness, hope, and love. I had to smile.


When World War Two ended, America and the rest of the world was ready to move on. But Jerry Yellin couldn't. The memories were too difficult. He experienced a grief and guilt from them that dragged on for years. He even contemplated taking his life.

For Mr. Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where, “There wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun... The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away.”
— The Washington Post
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His wife helped him through much of his PTSD, but the real turning point came when he learned his son was going to marry the daughter of a Japanese man, trained during the war to be a Kamikaze pilot. He could hardly believe it at first. So many of his friends had been lost at the hands of the Japanese, and now his prospective in-laws were to be the very enemy he had fought against. 

Mr. Yellin, a captain in the 78th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, counted 16 downed pilots in his unit during the war... “The feeling that one has when a buddy dies? You just can’t emulate that. We have a burden civilians will never understand.”
— The Washington Post

It was at this time he realized he had to make a decision. Continue to live with his mental suffering and bitterness, or release the hate he'd stored up for years and turn to forgiveness and love. He chose forgiveness. With this change, hope and life was restored, and he devoted the rest of his years to spreading a message of peace and love. In fact, he soon came to consider his son's father-in-law, a former enemy, one of his dearest friends.

Learning to forgive our enemies is a message that never gets old. Thank you Jerry for setting such a beautiful example for us. 

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Gung Ho! The Marine Raiders Reunion

Last Tuesday, Mother and I decided we didn't have enough going on, so we hopped in the car and drove to San Diego for the WW2 Marine Raiders 75th Anniversary Reunion. We'd only heard about the reunion a few days earlier, and though we had talked about going, we didn't make the decision until about 3pm Tuesday afternoon. By 8pm, we were on the road. 

Of all the impromptu things I've done, this has to be one of the most rewarding that I can remember. For three days, we received a crash course on the Marine Raiders of WWII, the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands Campaign, and the brutality of war contrasted with the physical endurance and courage man is capable of enduring. As I write, my head is still spinning from everything we experienced. 

The Marine Raiders of WWII were a highly trained branch of the Marine Corps who, though only in operation for a little over two years (1942-1944), were very effective in Pacific Theater campaigns. Three of the men to play a significant role in the founding of the Raiders were Col. Merritt Edson, Col. Evans Carlson, and the President's own son, Col. Jimmy Roosevelt. Their goal was to form an elite fighting unit similar to the British Commandos. This fighting force would be able to make quick and efficient guerrilla-type raids on the Japanese-held islands, helping to pave a way for the Army, Navy, and regular Marines. The volunteer Raiders were hand-selected by Edson and Carlson based on the skills they had excelled in during bootcamp. After selection they were sent off for more specialized training. 

By Summer of '42, they were ready to head out. Edson led the 1st Marines Raider Battalion (Bn), Carlson led the 2nd Bn, Lt Col. Harry B. Liversedge had the 3rd, and Col. Roosevelt the 4th. Under the leadership of these men, the Raiders soon adopted the names "Edson's Raiders" and "Carlson's Raiders."

On August 7th, 1942, the 1st Battalion made their landing on the Island of Tulagi, thus opening up the Guadalcanal Islands Campaign. Tulagi resulted in a victory for the Allies, but it was just the start to a long, long war. Early September of '42, was the Battle of Bloody Ridge, or the "Battle of Edson's Ridge." It was a success for the Raiders, but only after a fierce fight. Many of the Raiders we spoke with reckoned back to Bloody Ridge as one of the hardest moments of the war for them.  

One of them, PFC James Campbell, told us of an incident when he was assigned to watch over the dead and wounded men on part of the Ridge. Right around daybreak, the Japanese, hiding in the trees that overlooked his part of the Ridge and a nearby field, saw him and sent a brisk fire his way. He dove into a foxhole for protection, but unfortunately it wasn't big enough. The fellow who had started to dig the hole had neglected to complete it, leaving it just a bit too short for Campbell's very tall frame. Crouching down and holding his legs to his chest as best as he could, he managed to fit in the hole with just his knees sticking up above ground. "I'm laying there and the bullets [were] hitting all around my knees. That's it." He recalled. "I'm gonna be shipped out of here with a hole in my knees!"

At that moment, "An Army fighter plane of all things showed up." said Mr. Campbell, "The Army!" Fitted out with a machine gun, it came over the ridge and spotted the Japanese among the trees.  The plane started shredding them with fire, and that was the end of it. Campbell's knees were spared. But it was one of the few times during the war he was sure he was a "goner." 


The more you read about war, the more potential there is to "get used to it." But I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing grown men break down remembering their lost comrades. It grabs at your heart like few things. I've never been quite so affected as when a tall, strong, brave Marine - trained to endure the toughest fighting and the most grotesque warfare - broke down in tears as he explained to me the mental war he's had to relive for the last 75 years. As I sat at an empty table with him the first morning, he told me story after story from the Battle of Bloody Ridge, scouting patrols that went awry, and friendly fire. At one point, he extended is arms out and said through tears, "I've had men die in my arms! People don't understand. You NEVER get over it."

A little while later, a tender-hearted Submariner cried telling us that the worst moment of the entire war for him was preparing 5 Raiders for burial at sea. "Cleaning them, making sure the fluids were out of their bodies, then putting them in the sacks, covering them with the flag... I can't forget it." He said through tears. "We said a prayer and released them." He felt a kinship to these Raiders. He had delivered them from island to island, and now 75 years later he still felt responsible. He had been only 17. But they were all only 17. 

Another Raider, one who had survived at Guadalcanal, Bloody Ridge, the Solomons, Guam and all sorts of hell, became very emotional when I asked him about Sugar Loaf (a bloody, bloody battle during the Okinawa Campaign). He said simply, and with great meaning, "We lost so many good men." There was a long pause. "It was terrible." And it had been. He was the sole survivor of his 12-man squad. 


There are countless stories from this reunion and not all of them are tear-jerkers. 

One of the most remarkable "miracle" stories I've ever heard was from Raider, Joseph Harrison. During one encounter with the Japanese, Harrison was called on to help carry a stretcher to the field hospital. The man had been hit in the head, but all they could find was an exit wound in the back of his skull. They carried him back and a little while later Harrison learned that the Marine had indeed survived, but the cause of his wound was most curious: - the bullet which had struck him had entered his right eye, circled a less-important part of the brain, and exited through the back of his head. The total long-term consequence was that his vision went from 20/20 to 20/40. Otherwise he was A-Okay.

Another similar instance Harrison witnessed happened to his unit's chaplain. During another fight with the Japanese, he saw the chaplain fall to his knees, presumably hit. He rushed up and called for a medic, but when he examined the chaplain he saw that the bullet had only hit the helmet, made a hole, ricocheted around the inside of the helmet, and exited, leaving the chaplain unharmed - though significantly deaf. The chaplain never fully recovered his hearing, but his life had been spared!

I asked Mr. Harrison about his return home and the first meal he had. This is a fun one to ask because you hear all sorts of things. I wasn't disappointed. He told me he hadn't had a proper salad or any greens since he had left for the Pacific, 30 months before, so he bought himself several bunches of Celery stocks (made me think of the song, "Celery Stocks at Midnight"), and promptly consumed them. They've been a favorite dish of his ever since. 


On the drive home, Mom and I talked about the themes of the week. We are still sorting through them all, but here are a few that really stood out to us. 

Theme:

The Raiders we talked to seemed to have a deep sense of respect for their officers and an understanding of authority. They saw authority as a good thing and integral to their life, their health, their safety, and the overall success of their mission. 75 years later, and many years older than the highest ranking men around them, they still feel a duty to show the same deference and respect that they would have shown in 1942. Our society today is so egalitarian that a 25 year-old considers himself the peer of a 75 year-old, and often lacks the demonstration of honor to a man, not only his senior in years, but also in wisdom and life experience. I spoke to one Raider who received the Navy Cross and was later commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. When Korea came around, he was recalled and sent to the front lines serving as a Rifle Platoon Commander. This position was difficult for him because he did not consider himself an officer. "I never went to Officer Training School," he said. "I didn't know what to do. So I just had to copy what I had seen my officers do in the Pacific." Years later, a Marine Corps General befriended him as a peer, but again the disparity in rank was a challenge. Not because he felt he was less of a Marine, but because he had so much respect for the position and rank of the younger man. 

 

Another Theme:

The habits and disciplines that you develop early on will stick with you - for better or for worse. Through the intensive training ingrained into them and the brutal combat that the Raiders endured over such a long period of time, many of them were able to excel in later years with a strong work ethic and a general tenacity of spirit. It was inspiring to hear one Raider who, at 93 years old, continues to push and better himself through rigorous athletic training and competitions. A motto of the Raiders states that they are never done being assessed and never done being challenged. Another says, "If you are not moving forward, you have failed." These are not just principles for military combat, they are principles for all of life. 


There was so much to absorb, and we are still taking it all in and processing what we learned. As long as I can remember, I have wanted to meet a Guadalcanal veteran, and last week I had the honor of meeting 16. It was a tremendous blessing, and I am looking forward greatly to reading and learning more, as we have only scratched the surface.

For George: Remembering A Great Marine

Many people come into your life. More go out of it. And a few of them touch your life in ways you couldn't have dreamed. George Cattelona is one of the few.

Anyone who ever met Mr. Cattelona knows what a character he was. One of his favorite sayings was, "I always try and give em' hell where ever I go." But for all his joking around, he had the rare and beautiful quality of true kindness and genuine sincerity. Visiting with him at reunions over the last couple of years and getting to know him better each time, whether it was killing a few hours in the hotel lobby waiting for his car to be repaired or galavanting about the MCX at Camp Pendleton, these two qualities of his became apparent and touched our hearts tremendously.

Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.


Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.

The girls and I fondly called him our "Prospector." He may have been born in the 1920s, but there was an almost intangible aura about him that seemed to come from another time. He saw hard things on Iwo Jima. His before and after portraits taken during his time in the Corps give that away. It was difficult for him to talk about Iwo, nevertheless he did because it was so important for his buddies to be remembered. He was absolutely devoted to their memory.

I know the last few months following his accident were really hard for him. Mom and I were able to visit him in late May, and it broke my heart to see a man who was everything the Marine Corps stood for, everything that is American, noble, brave, and true, suffer so. Just a few months ago it seemed he would go on forever. And now, to hold his beautiful hands, look into his eyes and only see confusion in them; to listen to him talk about the men he served with on Iwo Jima as if they were still there, and to give him answers to his questions that only made him more frustrated. It made me cry. I didn't want to say goodbye and have that be my last memory.

During our last visit, like a break in the clouds on a stormy day as if in answer to my prayer, for a few minutes that old familiar twinkle, (slightly ornery, slightly mischievous), came back into his eyes as he cracked a few jokes that only the George Cattelona I knew could make. He pretended to be annoyed that we were holding up his lunch, but the smile curling up from under his moustache gave him away.

There's so much more about him I've left out. Losing him is hard. Harder than I imagined. In his passing it feels like a world of knowledge, wisdom, love, kindness, and sincerity has passed with him. We'll always love you Mr. C.

Semper Fi: San Diego, Camp Pendleton, and the Iwo Jima Reunion

“The doctor gave me a mask and said, ‘Put this on.’ ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Is it so I don’t spread germs?’ ‘No,’ the doctor said, ‘So they don’t know how old you are.’ I was 19 years old.” 


19 and doing a man’s job. This is what Robert Bergen, Navy Corpsman on Iwo Jima, related to us last Friday as we chatted over a dinner honoring Iwo veterans. This is one of the many remarkable things we heard last weekend at the annual Iwo Jima Association Reunion in San Diego, California, commemorating and remembering the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history.  Last year I was able to go to the reunion in Washington, DC, but as the girls could not make it, we were all anxious to make this one together. Especially as this year was to be a joint reunion of the East and West Coast veterans. So after saving up our pennies for several months, we finally arrived in Carlsbad, California, the headquarters for the Iwo Jima reunion. 

George Vouros, USS IZARD, and Jubilee at the Iwo Jima Reunion

And what a week it was! Unforgettable. Amazing. Excellent company and conversation. There is too much to relate in one blogpost, so here are some highlights.

George Vouros, gunner on the destroyer USS Izard (DD-589), told me that shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed he went down to the Marine Corps recruitment office with his best friend to enlist. The recruitment officer took one look at him (height 5'3"), and then at his best friend (close to 6 feet), and said, “Sorry. You’re too short. You have to at least be 5' 4.” Disappointed, but nonetheless still determined to serve his country, Mr. Vouros joined the Navy. Fast forward a couple years and his ship was just off of Iwo Jima, parallel to Mt. Suribachi. There they put up a fierce defense for the Marines on the island, very narrowly missing a few shells fired from the Japanese on Iwo. 

Little did he know at the time that his best friend (the one he had tried to enlist in the Corps with), was fighting and would be eventually killed on the same piece of volcanic ash that the USS Izard was anchored off of. The tragic irony of life.

This picture couldn’t help but evoke the lines "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the [Camp Pendleton] saloon; The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune," from Robert Service’s poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” No doubt the jag-time tune was something on the theme of "from the halls of Montezuma..."

Ivan Hammond, 5th JASCO, shares a behind the scenes story of the flagraising on Iwo Jima. 

Mr. Robert Bergen, Navy Corpsman on Iwo Jima.

One of the really poignant moments during the event was a veterans’ panel one of the evenings. 10-12 Iwo vets recalled memories from the island, some hilarious, some serious. Mr. Bergen (mentioned above) related an incident with a patient that required immediate and intensive care. The man, a somewhat important figure, had been wearing a fur coat when he got all shot up. The fur from the coat became imbedded in his wounds, and when they opened him up, all they could see was fur and blood. It was impossible to distinguish anything. With little field experience, Bergen asked the head doctor, “What do I do?” “Irrigate!” The doctor said. Bergen had no idea how exactly to irrigate, so he took gallons and gallons of water and flushed it over the man’s body to clean the wounds. Then he patched him up and moved on. Years later he saw in the papers a notice about the ship the man with the fur coat had been on. Wondering if the man had survived, he wrote the paper to find out. Shortly after, he received a letter from the very man saying it was him, and thanking the “doctor” for saving his life. Bergen never had the heart to tell him he wasn’t a doctor, just a simple 19 year-old given a bunch of bandages, morphine, and told to “irrigate!"

During the symposium on Saturday, the sad news was announced the General Lawrence Snowden, highest ranking officer still alive who had served on Iwo, had just passed away. I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting General Snowden 2 years ago during the 70th Anniversary Reunion of Honor trip to Iwo Jima, and he left an indelible impression on not just me, but everyone who came in contact with him. Gen. Snowden throughout his entire life devoted his work to the reconciliation of Japanese and American relations, and you could hardly find a more gracious and noble man, committed to truth and honesty, who loved his country passionately. It was moving to see the response of the men who had served with him the past 30 years during these Iwo Jima Reunions. Stoic men, who hardly ever showed emotion, brought to tears at the passing of this great and revered man. America lost a great patriot, but the legacy General Snowden left will continue on forever, never to be forgotten. You can read more about his magnificent life here: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2017/02/18/lt-gen-lawrence-snowden-battle-iwo-jima-survivor-dies/98098072/


Not all of the weekend was so serious. There was quite a bit of hilarity that went around; and how can there not be when you have a gathering of nonagenarian Sailors and Marines from all walks of life and backgrounds -California surfer, Boston yankee, North Carolina southerner, Nebraska westerner, Greek, Indian, and all around American mutt, all who have had more life experience than pretty much anyone else. Throw in a few walkers, canes, portable oxygen tanks (“Anyone want a shot of oxygen?” - a comment we heard more than once), and it is a constant circus.

Faith and Iwo Jima Veteran Fred Harvey

We swapped old family recipes, discussed business, laughed at the disputes between Parris Island Marines vs the Camp Pendleton "Hollywood" Marines, and heard a few humorously odd stories from growing up in America during the great depression. 

It was a full weekend, both physically and emotionally, but ever so rewarding. Sometimes folks have asked why we don't do more film interviews. Honestly, because the relationships we are trying to cultivate with these dear men is more than just their oral history. No mistaking, we have done some film interviews, and we *always* write down their stories on paper. But in building a long-lasting friendship with them, we are laying in a store of memories for the future when there are no more WWII veterans.

It's hard to imagine a time when these reunions will no longer happen. When we can no longer sit in a room full of Iwo Jima Marines, or Salerno T-Patch soldiers, or hear about the cold of Bastogne from a former tank commander or paratrooper. Our children will probably never know what it was like to know one of the "Greatest Generation," just as we will never know what it was like to chat over coffee with a veteran of "The Great War." And though it seems like they will be here forever, they are gone before you know it. Life is truly but a vapour, here one day and gone the next. Take every opportunity, not just with WW2 veterans, but with your grandparents, elderly friends, and all those beautiful old people that are so often overlooked. 


A Weekend with the Marines: The Fifth Marine Division Reunion Recap


Just a few months late... but here is a recap from last October when San Antonio was honored to play host to the Fifth Marine Division's annual reunion. In 2015, Jubilee and I had attended the reunion held in Virginia Beach, and it was just one of our favorite experiences ever. So when they announced that 2016's reunion location was to be San Antonio, we couldn't have been more pleased. 

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Through different Iwo Jima reunions, we happily knew almost everyone in attendance, and those we didn't know we quickly became good friends with. That is the reality of going to these events: whatever expectations you arrive with, you leave with a brand new extended family. So when October finally came around, we were quite ecstatic. Marines of the 5th Marine Division came from all around the country - including Hawaii - and descended upon San Antonio, and for a whole weekend, it was just one grand party.

The first evening was what we would call "catch up time" as we reconnected with old friends. Faith had been invited to sing, so for quite a while she serenaded the folks with a variety of songs from Glenn Miller's Sentimental Journey to Andy Williams' Moon River and the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody. Every so often, a harmonica or two would chime in, adding wonderfully to the atmosphere of the singing. (Note about the harmonicas. There was a great surplus of these fabulous instruments all week. It seemed as if there was always at least one going, and almost as often a duet. Of course the theme song for the week was the Marine Corps Hymn, but it was closely followed by Swanee River and Oh Susanna!)

At the other side of the room, a couple of Marines and one Navy man were have a rousing debate that boiled down to two things: Who caused the most trouble to their superiors, and who had the best looking photo from their time in the service? Boy, it was hilarious. The discussion concluded with some more harmonica music. Naturally. 

Day 2 of the reunion was spent at one of my favorite museums in America: the National Museum of the Pacific, in Fredericksburg. If you ever get to Texas, no matter where you are, it is worth the drive to visit. A couple of years ago, they renovated the entire museum, and now it is so packed full of information, artifacts, history, military equipment, and everything WWII in the Pacific Theatre related that it will literally take you all day to go through (and that is if you start at opening hours and go to closing). But that is only one part. They have a fabulous Pacific Combat zone where they do remarkable demonstrations and have lots more military equipment, PT boats, and Living History demonstrations, so that will take you another day. Last year, I managed to talk the family into going to the museum about 5 times in 6 months. So we kinda like it (now I'll get off the soapbox and get back to the reunion).

It is pretty much the best experience in the world to walk through a museum on WWII with the veterans who were there.

A special memorial program had been planned for the Iwo Jima veterans in the courtyard of the Museum. When the bus of veterans arrived, they were greeted by an Honor Guard and various dignitaries from the Pacific War Museum. Despite a light rain, the ceremony was beautiful as they remembered the brave Marines who fought for the 5th Division. Instead of a great long description of everything, I'll let the next few pictures tell a little of the story. 

There are few things more stirring to the heart than to watch an old soldier stand at attention for the flag he fought hard to defend. Make that the last remaining veterans of a division who made a name for their entire Corps when the American flag was proudly raised on Iwo Jima, and it nearly brings on the waterworks. God bless these dear men.

Faith was asked to sing the National Anthem, and the all around favorite: I'll Be Seeing You. If the waterworks weren't on yet, the last song certainly brought them on for several of the vets. 

Two of our very hearty and happy Marines. Mr. Hammond (left) and Mr. Bell (right) are two of the driving forces in the Iwo Jima reunions. They also have million dollar smiles. 

I'm here with my good friend in front of a plaque for the ship the USS DeHaven. This ship was named after one of his relatives (and Arctic explorer) Edwin Jesse De Haven. Unfortunately the ship was sunk off of Guadalcanal only 133 days after it was commissioned. The second USS DeHaven did a little better for herself serving all the way through Vietnam. 

One of the most remarkable characters from the reunion, this guy personifies the Marine Corps: Tough, indefatigable, a bit curmudgeonly, but with a heart of gold.


Now I have to introduce you to one of my favorite ladies from the reunion. Her name is Jimmie. At 83 she is one of the most adventurous women I know. For years and years she has traveled all over the globe, and just a few months ago she was in India visiting friends. Whenever I see her, we have the most delightful chats, made even more so by her charming Louisiana accent. 

In the beginning of 1945, Ms. Jimmie was a 12 year old girl who was very proud of her big brother, Harrydale "Harry" Hyde, a United States Marine. He had lied about his age in 1943 and joined at the age of 16. Now, all she knew was that he was off fighting in some corner of the Pacific. That corner happened to be Iwo Jima, where the bitterest fighting in Marine Corps history was happening. 

Ms. Jimmie and the handsome Iwo Jima veteran Sam Prestigiacomo

One day in late April, Ms. Jimmie was alone at the house when the doorbell rang. She ran to the door and found a young Western Union boy waiting. He was there to deliver a telegram. At first he wouldn't give it to her on account of her age, but as there was no other adults and he had a pile of telegrams to deliver, he finally handed it over. When her mother arrived home, she refused to open it, knowing all to well what she would find. Harry was dead. On February 28, he had been killed on the infamous Hill 362, fighting gallantly and earning the Silver Star, the third highest decoration awarded by the United States. It was a bitter blow to the young girl. But that is not the end. Six years later, nearly to the day, on the evening of February 27, 1951, Jimmie Hyde (now Watson) gave birth to a darling little girl. Before the girl was born, Jimmie had already decided what the name was to be, regardless of the gender. The little girl was named Harry.


Faith and Mr. Coltrane

One of the highlights of the weekend was the closing banquet. The line running around was, "you sure clean up well." And they certainly did. It's a mighty fine sight to see an old Marine dressed up in the brilliant blues of the Corps. 

One of the "smashingest" looking of the group was our friend Mr. Coltrane (pictured left). We call him our "Marine Corps Teddy Bear" because he really is just one lovable teddy bear with the sweetest North Carolina accent. A few months ago when we called him on his birthday he said, "I'm 94 today, so it must mean I'm finally an old man!" Then he laughed real hard.  

Mr. Coltrane returned to Iwo Jima last year for the first time since WWII. It was a trip which he had put off for many years, but finally decided when the opportunity came that it was time. He had suffered from terrible nightmares from the battle, and he hoped this trip would bring closure. It was a great blessing to talk with him at each step of the return journey, learning about his war experiences. 

 

Another fabulous sight to see that evening was the Marines of 70 years ago talking to the Marines of today. Comparing notes and stories. It is a tradition that goes back as long as there have been fighters. In the grand old story of Beowulf, you see the battle scarred old men recount the tales of their warrior days to the youths that gathered around. 

And it wasn't just the younger Marines that wanted to hear their stories, but a whole basketball team who also happened to be stopping by the hotel for the weekend. I couldn't help smiling a mile wide to see these big, tough players listening eagerly to the P51 pilot, Jerry Yellin, as he told them his remarkable story of how he went from great bitterness and hatred of all Japanese to love and brotherhood. It is one of my favorite forgiveness stories, and I could hear him retell it over and over again. The long story short, after the war he was very angry at the Japanese. He had lost a great number of friends and didn't think he could ever get over it. Then one day his son came home and announced that he was marrying a Japanese woman. Jerry realized then and there that he had no alternative but to move on with his life and let go of his bitterness. He did and now his life is dedicated to being a goodwill ambassador of forgiveness. This last March he returned to Iwo Jima with his granddaughter who is half American and half Japanese. No doubt it was very touching for all to see. 

Jerry Yellin, P51 pilot, telling stories to a few fellows from the basketball team that was staying at our hotel. 

I could go on and on about the weekend. There are few things like military reunions. It's a gathering of men who all fought together. Maybe not in the exact same platoon or company, but they all fought together on the same small patch of land, experiencing the same things and creating a bond that you can't really find anywhere else. 

With our lovely Reunion Hosts from last year, Leilani and Monroe. They have to be one of the loveliest couples we know. They've been married for over 65 years, but they still go hand-in-hand everywhere. 

36th Infantry "T-Patch" Reunion: San Antonio

Spiffy dinner dates, and a fabulous time at the 36th Infantry Division "T-Patchers" Reunion this weekend... On the bus yesterday at Ft. Sam, our friend Mr. Dietrick pointed out the places he grew up, hunted rabbits, and took training. Other vets shared stories of meeting famous Generals in Africa, the Italian campaign, POW status, and lots more. So happy to have been with these great men. Below are some of the highlights we shared on Instagram.

We're at Fort Sam Houston today with the 36th Infantry Division Reunion for commemoration of the Invasion of Salerno in 1944! Interesting note: The chapel the service was held in is the same chapel where Mr. Dietrick's brother's funeral service was held in 1940. His brother was accidentally killed when his gun misfired as he was coming off guard duty. That was 76 years ago.
Just found this one from the 36th Infantry Division Reunion last week... Meet the Scarborough brothers. We mistook them for twins (as everyone else did) but they're actually 6 years apart! John, the younger (left), doesn't like this so much but he's a good sport. Both served in the 36th, one in WWII, the other during the Korea War. Together they make a pretty cute set of brothers who kept us in stitches of laughter the whole time.
Exploring the museum at Fort Sam Houston. Mr. D. is explaining how the weapons worked.
A fabulous dinner banquet celebrating and remembering the men of the 36th Infantry Division.

"I couldn't move forward, I couldn't move backwards"

The other week Jubilee and I popped up to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion, one of our favorite weekends ever! For three days we were surrounded by the manliest set of Marines with truly harrowing stories of combat on Iwo Jima to tell.

"See that Corsair (above), I was lying in the sand on red beach, D-Day [Iwo Jima]. I couldn't move forward, I couldn't move backwards. We were completely pinned down. I looked up, and there flying over me was a Corsair firing on the enemy. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life."

Two Marines discuss the differences in their bootcamp training.

Another Marine said, "I wrote the battlefield reports for my Company: every casualty we had on Iwo Jima. I was one of only three other men in my Company of 145 men to come off the island without a scratch."

"You don't lose many friends in the Motor Transport... but I lost a few." These words were said with great meaning. 

Two life-long friends and war buddies. 

"I was buried alive on the island, and this guy here (pointing to his friend standing by), dug me out and saved my life. That was right before he lost his leg."

Quotes like this and many more are what we heard. Hard gritty stuff, humorous anecdotes, and tearful remembrances of comrades lost. It was a very special experience for Jube and me to be surrounded by such grand men and soldiers. Every man there had a story that would make any loyal American's heart soar with pride and gratitude.