“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.
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..."
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.
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.