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:

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. 

For the Love of Phyllis: A Valentine's Day Story

Here is a sweet Valentine's Day story. It is the story of Bill and Phyllis Madden. 
* * * * * * * * * * 

In truth, theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats."

Now Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way.

On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:

"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."

Reunited again! This photo of Bill and Phyllis was taken at the hospital where Bill was recuperating from wounds he received on Iwo Jima. 

Bill and Phyllis were married for 69 years, and they truly lived happily ever after. 

Tribute to a Marine

We recently lost a great Marine, Al Pagoaga. In many ways, he personified the Marine Corps. A rough exterior, a tough persona, completely indefatigable, and yet, lurking there in the shadows behind all that, was a true heart of gold. Al lost his leg on Iwo Jima to a Japanese mortar, but you would never know it. His posture was always perfect, and at 91 years of age, his military bearing was impeccable.

Just last November he lost his wartime buddy and our dear friend Bill Madden. Having known the two of them is simply unforgettable. Bill was a sweet and tender English professor; Al was still the tough Marine, able to hold more beer than most young guys today. Put them together and they were something to be reckoned with. It's hard losing both of them within just a few months, but it's not surprising. Al saved Bill's life on Iwo, and friends like that are never far apart. Semper Fi Marine.

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. 


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. 

The Cute Couple

"Eat your heart out girls. We've been married 70 years." The absolutely darling Mrs. Johnson told us this right after laughingly declaring that the cute (and very tall) Texan was HER man and for us to steer clear of him. Oh they'd had a lot of fun over the years she said. "We were hippies" after a fashion. For their Honeymoon they took bicycles and went all over Norway, camping out and occasionally staying in local hostels.

Before she met Bill, she'd been warned that Marines were a dangerous lot and she shouldn't date them -a rumor probably started by some Navy fellow-, but now she was curious. Finally she got the opportunity to date a very confident (aren't they all though!) Marine. One evening he took it upon himself to teach her some of the drill steps. When he ordered her to march towards him, but neglected the order to halt (hoping she would walk right into a kiss), she saw through his games and decided that yes indeed Marines were a wily lot, but she certainly liked them. Soon after she found herself the tall Texas Marine of her dreams, Bill Johnson, and proposed to him. He accepted and they were married. Miss Personality pretty much describes her to a T. And Gary Cooper 2.0 describes Bill. Together they make the cutest dream couple. And we will all be happy if we can be just half as amazing at 90 as Mrs. Johnson is.

Bill: An All American Marine

Last night I started a brief instagram post with these words, 

"Even the most beautiful things cannot last last forever."

It is true. But in a way, that is what makes them so beautiful. If you'll excuse the cliché, beautiful things are like flowers - we appreciate them so much more when we only get to experience their beauty for a little while. 

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

One of these beautiful flowers was a retired English teacher named Bill Madden. He was soft-spoken and gentle. He dressed in the way you would imagine an old lover of the arts would dress, including a slightly faded, but very neat, blue cardigan. He lived and breathed poetry and could recite countless classics from Keats, the Bronte Sisters, and Emily Dickinson, to the slightly lesser known (but still wonderful) Eugene Field and Alfred Noyes.

Once, Jubilee and I spent a delightful afternoon with Mr. Madden comparing notes on our favorite poets. We had a little disagreement over the merit of Kipling's writings, but that only added to the color of our conversation. Emily Dickinson's "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" brought on hilarious laughter at the peculiarity of her writings. It was all so impromptu and lovely that I shall never forget it. 

But with all these gentle qualities, you would never have guessed Mr. Madden to be a former United States Marine, one of the men who fought with "uncommon valor" on the battlefields of the Pacific. Instead of commemorating his 19th birthday with cake and ice cream, he was storming the beaches of Iwo Jima. There were no candles for him to blow out and the fireworks in the sky were not a celebration of life, but more out of a line from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, "Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volley'd and thunder'd. Storm'd at with shot and shell, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Hell."

A young and adorable Bill Madden

Looking over the island's landscape, he later recalled, "[It] reminded me of the witches scene in Macbeth. Clouds of sulfur fumes steamed up from nearly every crevice of the ghostly terrain."

Mr. Madden survived Iwo long enough to see the inspirational flag-raising and watch nearly all of his close friends blown to pieces before he himself was wounded and evacuated. It took nearly 50 years before he was able to write and talk about the horrors he witnessed on that nightmare of volcanic rock. "Forever impressed on my mind," he wrote, "are the sights and sounds of young boys being ripped apart by the steel fragments of mortar shells. My hand trembles whenever I write about it, even after half a century. I will never forget the unmistakable "ka-zoom" of mortar shells exploding into a clustered body of troops and then the "zing" of fragments of body, sand, and steel flying past my ears as I dived for cover. Life can never be the same once it is experienced under those conditions."

One friend, Red Griffiths, miraculously survived a fearsome bullet that ricocheted around his helmet, entered his neck, and exited his back. Another walked into a machine gun ambush and was paralyzed from the waist down. "So many more of my buddies dropped one by one with wounds: Neilson, Johnson, Lanier, Strome, Mitchell, Rebstock, and Hernandez, to name a few. I myself was buried alive my a mortar shell on the edge of my foxhole, but was dug out immediately by Al. That blast robbed me of my hearing for 24 hours... Even more fearful to contemplate after I was rescued was the smashed but unexploded grenade lying beside my head." And the stories go on. 

My first meeting with Mr. Madden was unforgettable. Jubilee and I had traveled to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion. It was one of the first times we had traveled alone like this, but the opportunity of being around so many of our wonderful Marines quite put away any concerns. The first afternoon of touring brought us to a local Military Aviation Museum where we all gathered outside before going in. 

Marine Corps buddies, Al (left) saved the life of Bill on Iwo, shortly before being wounded himself. 

"Excuse me," said a soft voice. Jube and I turned around to see a lovely veteran whom we hadn't yet met. "May I please ask what two such nice young ladies are doing in a group of us old people?" We laughed and told him how we wouldn't miss a gathering like this for anything! "I was on Iwo," he said, "And the guy over there saved my life... A mortar shell hit right by me blasting my eardrums and burying me alive. Al came and dug me out, and, if it weren't for him, I would be dead. You know," he continued, hardly pausing to take a breath, "My wife passed away three months ago. And you girls remind me so much of her. We were married for 69 years. She was the love of my life." He pulled out a photo of a gorgeous brunette and showed it to us. In an instant, our laughter nearly turned to tears as we realized how fresh the loss was for this gentle man. 

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

We continued to chat for the rest of the day, beginning to put together the pieces of a life which could be considered that of a truly all American boy. In love with his high school sweetheart (though unsure that the love was reciprocated), he signed up as a United States Marine to follow in the steps of his older brother. Completing bootcamp, he was shipped off to the Pacific for combat, hardly after his 18th birthday, hoping all the while that he would survive to return and marry the girl he'd been in love with for so long. 

Now, let me just pause and take a minute to tell you the story of Bill (Mr. Madden) and Phyllis (his wife). Theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats." 

"It was a picture to show me the ring she bought with money I sent her from overseas because I didn't know what to get her for some special day, a birthday, Christmas, or something. My Marine buddies fell in love with her from her picture and said they were going to write to her and take her away from me.  I said, "ok, just try," and I gave them her address.  Several of them did write to her, but she turned them down diplomatically, as I knew she would." -Bill M.  

Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way. 

On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:

"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."  

They were married for 69 years. 

I already told you a bit about his experiences on Iwo. After meeting him at the reunion, Jubilee and I chatted with him over email, exchanging stories nearly every week. It was frequent for him to talk about Iwo in those emails- the buddies he lost and the nightmarish events that were burned into his memory. But more often he talked about what he wanted future generations to know. He didn't want the sacrifice of those men forgotten, as so many have already done. I know at times he wondered if the price we paid on Iwo was worth it. But I think it was. The freedom we have in America today is an example of that. 

As we continued to talk, he became less the formal English teacher, and more the personal friend. Though this did come with one difficulty. "Call me Bill instead of Mr. Madden," he said. "I give you permission, although I admire you for the respect." I protested. It's not really my habit to call people I respect and who are a great deal older than me by their Christian names. It just doesn't seem right. However Mr. Madden eventually won over. "And you can just make it Bill, not Mr. Bill... We're just Liberty and Bill now." Well that was the end of that.

We talked about family and life. He told me Marines never build their houses at the bottom of a hill, and when our house flooded last spring, I understood why. He gave me valuable advice for our futures: Be careful in choosing a boyfriend - "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Many people rush into marriage and then decide to quit within five years. That's not the way to go. Don't be in a hurry. I know you will use good judgment... I sure hope you girls someday have a man who will love you as much as I loved Phyllis, and still do."

Photo credit: PRWEB

Lastly, he also taught me to be an ardent Chicago Cubs fan... but my wait to see them win wasn't nearly as long as his. In fact, Mr. Madden had been waiting 70 years to see the Cubs play the Series. In late 1945, while he was recuperating in the Navy Hospital in Chicago from wounds he received on Iwo, word got around that in gratitude for their service, the Chicago Cubs were offering free tickets to any of the patients in that hospital. The tickets were given to the Navy officials, who in turn made the happy announcement with one stipulation: That they would be required to "scrub down the deck" and do various other hospital cleaning. Well, gentle though Mr. Madden was, he was not about to be pushed around by some stuffy Naval officer, so he stiffly refused. "They're sure to play the Series another year, so I'll go then." 70 years later as he told this to Jube and me, it was still evident that his dignity had been offended. We had to laugh. But as we all know, the Cubs didn't play the Series the next year, nor the next, nor for many years after that. A staunch Cubs fan, Mr. Madden held out hope. 

This past October, I heard that after all these years he was finally going to be able to see the Cubs play in the World Series. I know he was so excited about it. As I cheered for the Cubs' win, I was so thrilled knowing that his wish had finally come true. Little did I know that night that he had passed away just a few days too early, on November 1st. He never got to see the Cubs win their game.

Even though I knew his health was poor, and we discussed it frequently with each other -the merits and otherwise of possible medications and procedures - it still was a shock to hear. Despite the vivid and harsh impact Iwo Jima had left on him, he still continued to look at life as beautiful, grateful for the many years he had been given. But I know he was happy to go. The last few months of his life he continually told me how much he missed his wife, Phyllis. "You don't know what it's like to live with someone you love for 69 years, and then not have them with you." Still, I'm selfish enough to want him here a little longer. Just one more chat, one more conversation. I only got to know him in the latter part of his life as the years had faded him and ill-health and pain made basic things very difficult, even dreary for him. But still he had shared so much kindness to Jube and me, that it only makes his passing so much the harder. He was truly one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met. Mr. Madden's life story seems to be one of the truest examples of the Greatest Generation. And I know, I for one will certainly miss him. 

Dinner with Fred


Yesterday, Jubilee and I were invited to attend a special dinner put on by the Nimitz Foundation with our dear friend and Iwo Jima veteran, Fred Harvey. Mr. Harvey's stories from Iwo are among the most descriptive and remarkable that I have ever heard, and when hearing them, there is no doubt as to his bravery. 

On February 20th "His three man patrol (which was sent out to establish contact with the adjoining company) was ambushed by heavy fire from an enemy machine gun and one of the men was seriously wounded." Mr. Harvey, "dragged the fallen Marine under heavy fire to the shelter of a nearby hole. Remaining with the wounded man while his companion went for aid, he held off the hostile forces with his rifle and hand grenades until the arrival of the rescue party." (The next morning) "Then, exposing himself to enemy fire and directing accurate heavy fire on the Japanese position, he successfully covered the evacuation of the casualty." He received the Silver Star for this remarkable and courageous event. 

About the 7th day of action, he took 3 grenades which gave him a purple heart and put him out of action for the rest of the war. His stories of the post-war are almost as wild as when he was in the Corps, and never ceases to leave all listeners on the edge of their seats and nearly choking with laughter.

I Meet Sir. C. Aubrey Smith; We Talk of Korea, the Cold, and the 5th Marines

“You were at the Chosin?” I was directing this question to an 80-something year old gentleman with a moustache somewhere in between Nigel Bruce and Ron Swanson. His hat said, “Chosin Few,” his lapel pin said 1st Marine Division, and his tie was covered in Marine Corps symbols...  I was asking an obvious question; there was no doubt as to the identification of this character, but it was more a preambulary statement than a query. 

“Yes. I was.” He said a bit gruffly.

I pulled up a seat and sat down next to him. We were in the green room of the Iwo Jima Reunion in Arlington, Virginia, last February. It had been a busy afternoon, and now people were coming in and out of the room with drinks, chatting, and relaxing. 

“It was pretty cold there.” I said to the Chosin vet. 

“You’d better believe it.” He grunted. “Got frostbite on my feet. Couldn’t walk from it.” There was a definitive stress on certain letters in the words he used, sending him up north quite a bit... likely to some part of Massachusetts. 

“I can’t imagine it. I’m from Texas, and we start freezing over when it gets down into the 50s. What keeps you going when it is so cold?”

“Training.” He said simply. “We became robots. We were so reduced by the cold, the only thing that kept us going was our Marine Corps training. We didn’t know what we were doing. But that is where the training became important.” He stated these facts as they were, though with a bit of a shiver in recalling the memory. 

A few weeks previous, I'd been reading up on Chosin, and was delightfully surprised to run into one of the men who fought there, though at an Iwo Jima reunion of all places. 

"American Marines march down a canyon road dubbed "Nightmare Alley" during their retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea." Photo by David Douglas Duncan

The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (or Frozen Chosin) summarized: A terrible, complicated battle fought in North Korea between the allies of the United Nations: United Kingdom, South Korea, America, and the United States 1st Marine Division, against the North Koreans and Red Chinese during the winter of 1950 (November 27-December 13). 

One of the most iconic photos from the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. "A dazed, hooded Marine clutches a can of food during his outfit's retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, December 1950". Photo by David Douglas Duncan

Some have compared it to the Battle of the Bulge fought in WWII. But the Marines who were at Chosin say it was worse. Our soldiers were poorly fed and poorly equipped, and our high casualty rate was caused more from the extreme temperatures than anything else. The cold was more than unbearable, at times dropping down to -40F. The boots they'd been issued to help with the cold only made their feet sweat profusely during their marches and freeze instantly on stopping. This created many cases of frostbite and trench-foot. It was miserable in the extreme. 

At night the men were warned about falling into too heavy a sleep or zipping up their sleeping bags. They might not awake from the former (many froze to death in their sleep), and as for the latter... the cold could freeze the zippers shut, making them easy prey for the Red Chinese who had no qualms about slitting the throats of defenseless Marines trapped in their bags.

And then, there was the most nightmarish part of it all. The enemy was unceasing. Every single Korean combat vet I've spoken with has told me the same thing almost verbatim: "The enemy never stopped coming. Charging forward madly, with an endlessness to them. It didn't matter how many you took down with fire, they continued, and continued, until all were too exhausted to go further." Just like your worst nightmare when no matter how hard you strive, all your efforts are in vain, nothing you do seems to help anything, and the situation only gets more desperate. (To get a better understanding of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign I recommend reading here). 

The U.S. Retreat at Chosin Reservoir

As I talked with this Chosin vet, his gruffness began to wear off, and I saw underneath a charm similar to the dashing old actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. True confession, when I was very young, this screen actor had made a lasting impression on me as the ultimate charming old gentleman. His portrayal of the gallant Colonel Zapt in Prisoner of Zenda, or the grumpy-but-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather of Little Lord Fauntleroy, were just a few that quite stole my heart. Thus, sitting across from this fascinating and delightful curmudgeon from Massachusetts (who in every way seemed to characterize Sir Smith), it felt like I was being taken on a virtual trip to the battlefields of Korea, personally guided by Sir C. Aubrey Smith, only with a strong Massachusetts accent and Marine Corps written all over him.

"How long were you at Chosin?" I asked, interested in continuing the conversation. 

"Till the middle of December, when I was wounded." Said Sir Smith (as I shall call him). "My sergeant sent me to the back for medical attention. When I got there, I was told they had no place for me and to go back to the front. I made the hike to the front lines again and got bawled out for returning. The sergeant sent me back again. This time I told them how it was and what was what, so I stayed back till I got shipped home."

His 6-month war in Korea was over. 

"And you were in the 5th Marines?" I checked.

"Yes indeed. The best regiment in the Marine Corps!" 

"I don't doubt it," I said, amused. "Actually, I just finished reading a book about a brother regiment of yours - A Company, 7th Marines... Baker 1/7 I believe it's called.”

Hardly had the words "7th Marines" come out of my mouth when there was a virtual explosion from Sir Smith. 

“Bah. Those 7th Marines! They’re no good at all. Always behind the action at a safe distance, making us do all the dirty work. We take a hill, they get the glory. Those no good....” My charming friend was obviously not biased at all. 

A friend of his nearby turned and said, “Bob, isn’t that the Company with the Chinese guy in the pink vest?”

“Kurt Lee. Yes," said Sir Smith with a chuckle. "The fellow was crazy. Always running into battle with that ghastly pink vest so that his men would always know where he was at all times.”  

“So you saw his pink vest then?” I was thrilled. Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee was a truly remarkable soldier. The first Marine Corps officer of Chinese decent, he quite proved the mettle he was made of during the Korean War. Gallantly leading his men into action, he would holler out orders in Mandarin, successfully causing disarray and confusion in the ranks of the Red Chinese. Then he would wildly attack them with little care for his own protection. His men watched in awe as Lt. Lee stood tall and straight, marching about and giving orders during the hottest parts of the fighting, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of bullets whizzing around him. Eventually, he was wounded, but he did not allow this to interfere with his duty. Indeed, he and another Marine made a daring escape from the American hospital to return to the front, despite being covered in bandages and wrappings. No, nothing mental or physical would ever come in the way of this brave Marine's determination. 

And as far as the pink vest was concerned, if he thought it would inspire his men, than who cared if it made him the perfect target for the Red Chinese?

Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee in Korea

Sir Smith guffawed at my excitement over the vest, “Of course I did! Everyone did! He didn’t seem to realize the enemy would also see where he was at all times. What did he think anyways? He could have gotten us all killed. There is no place on the battlefield for foolish heroics.” 

I couldn’t help laughing. These “foolish heroics” Sir Smith spoke of (and highlighted above) had awarded Lt. Lee none other than the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor given by the United States.

“Besides,” his eyes twinkled, “He was in the 7th Marines that...”

I had to laugh again. The 7th Marines may not have been up to Sir Smith's standards, but with men like Lt. Lee in their ranks, they were certainly a fighting force to be reckoned with.

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

But though we joked about the eccentricities of the officers, the events of the summer, fall, and winter of 1950 had left a deep and terrible impression on Sir Smith. He told me that the reality of what he had gone through was finally catching up on him. About 50 years after his service in the Marine Corps, he suddenly started having nightmares about the fighting in Korea. He dreamed about things he'd seen or done that hadn't crossed his mind in decades, and out of the blue thoughts attacked him that left him with little mental peace. 

"I have to go to a PTSD group now." He told me somewhat grimly. "I'm the oldest guy there. All the others are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't help much, but I keep going." 

We all know that the end-date of a war doesn't mean it's over in the minds of the fellas who fought there, but it's still hard every time I hear it from their own mouths; that each day they are re-fighting the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or Iwo Jima, or Normandy. Thankfully, though, my new friend has a tenacious fighting spirit and probably wouldn't allow himself to be easily overcome by these nightmares.

We talked for some time more, till the dinner bell rang concluding the weekend. It was a lovely time I spent chatting with Sir Smith. Learning from such a charming curmudgeon about the rougher side of Chosin combat (as well as a few humorous anecdotes) was a remarkable experience. It is regretful that so few know anything of the Korean War, or even the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. The difficulties of Chosin were practically unparalleled in American history. That any could survive it is truly a miracle. But they did, and once again I was reminded of the endurance of the human spirit when it is put to the test - especially the United States Marine Corps at Chosin. 

"Did you remember the sarge and the gunners mate?"

Last year in my Memorial Day post I mentioned a Navy Corpsman name Bert Cooper, and how he never forgot the sacrifices of two particular men who died during the Okinawa Campaign. It is such a moving story, and so perfectly sums up the reasons for why we have a Memorial Day, that I thought I'd share the story again in his own words. 

----Excerpt from Bert Cooper:

I remember one thing vividly about my service. On Okinawa [there was] this big ugly Marine (I swear he was uglier than Ernest Borgnine, who was a good actor, but an ugly actor), he was tough and muscular, and built like a tank; and his men loved him. We had him as a patient and he called me over to his stretcher in the tent there, and he says, "Doc, I don't think I'm gonna make this one." I said, "Oh come on, we never give up." He said, "I know. I just feel it in my body. I'm not going to make it this time." (And he'd been shot up several times on other island campaigns). And he says, "I wonder if anyone will remember me." So I looked him straight in the eye and I said, "I'll remember you Gunny. I'll remember you the rest of my life, I promise you that." So he died that evening.

Across the tent was a young sailor in a stretcher also. And he called me, "Hey Doc." He could hardly talk, it was only a whisper. About the only thing pink you could see were his lips. He was in a gun tub with eight other guys, gunnery men. And it got hit by a kamikaze and killed all seven, he was the only survivor if you can call it a survivor. When we got him he was black as this mic here. And we knew he didn't have much time left. But we kept him going for about a day and a half, and everything we could do... And it was amazing, the doctor even said he didn't know why he didn't die instantly from all these burns. So he calls me and I kneel down to his stretcher. I say, "Yeah gunner". And he says, "Doc, I'm an orphan. Who is there that's gonna remember me?" I says, "I'm gonna remember you. I'll remember you every day of my life. I promise you that. I'll remember you."

To this day, every night I ask myself when I pull the covers up to my chin, I say, "did you remember the sarge and the gunners mate?" And 99 times out of a 100 I thought of them during the day, and once in a while if I didn't , I go to sleep saying, "I thought of you guys." And I've been doing it every day since. It's not a burden. It's a testimonial to what men will do or have to do to save the freedom for the rest of us.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

This is the true meaning of Memorial Day. Thanks to Bert Cooper, those two brave men will never be forgotten.

Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt.2

First sight of Iwo Jima

“What does returning to Iwo Jima after 70 years mean to you?” I asked a 90 year old, soft-spoken Marine.  

He started to tell me, then stopped. We were on the top of Mt. Suribachi overlooking the island of Iwo Jima. With his good arm, he had just pointed out to me the location of his landing beach and subsequent movements. At his side hung a limp prosthetic arm, a memento of the 12 days he had spent on the island. 

“Give me a minute.” He said, his voice choking a little. He looked back over the island, trying to get control of the emotion in his throat. After a few moments of silence, he started to speak again, but his voice cracked. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you. It’s too...” His hand instinctively went to his prosthesis.

“It’s okay.” I told him. Without saying a word, he had expressed everything. 

- - - - - - - 

The morning we departed for the island of Iwo Jima, we left our hotel on Guam at the unrighteous hour of 3 or so o’clock in the morning. Most the folks on the trip (self included) had only enjoyed 2 or 3 hours of sleep, but excitement and anticipation proved to be a good enough antidote. In the airport, we were joined by the rest of the crowd, all in all totaling about 450 people (3 planes' worth).

During the flight, I turned around to introduce myself to the two veterans behind me: Sam Weldon, 4th Division, a real brass-knuckles Marine; and Frank Pontisso, 5th Division, much more soft-spoken than his companion. They both came from way up north, their accents betrayed. For both of them, Iwo was their first and last combat. Mr. Weldon came off the island relatively unscathed, with the exception of almost complete loss of hearing. He ended up as an MP on Guam. Mr. Pontisso was less fortunate. On his 12th day, a mortar blast exploded near him and two of his buddies. All three survived, but his right arm was badly damaged. With it packed on ice, he was shipped off the island. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, in a few moments we will be approaching the island of Iwo Jima...” It was almost amusing to hear the Captain say this over the loud speaker. The usually dull, “Welcome to your destination,” was changed entirely by those two little words Iwo Jima

The plane circled the island three times before landing, so that all who wanted could cram into a window seat and grab a shot of this historic island. The island was beautiful. Not in the way the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful to a sailor who has been at sea for many months, or New York Harbor was to the immigrants in the early 1900s. But beautiful in the haunting sense of the stories it holds, the bravery and courage unequaled, and a history that must never be repeated. 

I looked over at Mr. Pontisso in the seat behind me and couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. The last time he’d seen the island was the day he was hit by a mortar. Diving into a foxhole, a corpsman had given the wounded marine a shot of brandy before he passed out. The next thing he knew, he’d been taken off the island and hospitalized. Everything was going fine in his recovery, until gangrene set in. There was no choice but to amputate the arm. His war was over, and he was sent home with a Purple Heart.

Mr. Pontisso looks out the window as we circle Iwo Jima, moments before landing. 

Mr. Pontisso looks out the window as we circle Iwo Jima, moments before landing. 

Now, 70 year later, he was coming back. I snapped a quick picture. It is strange that a piece of  lava in the middle of the ocean can hold so much significance to us. 

- - - - - - - 

Immediately after debarking, we headed up to Mt. Suribachi. From the top of Suribachi, we could view the entire expanse of the island; an impressive view, but not exactly the same view the flag-raisers had 70 years ago. Then, the surface of Iwo had been bombed to pieces and hardly a lick of foliage was to be seen on the island. Today, it is completely covered in greenery and can almost be considered lush.

Iwo Jima today. Photo Credit: Mark W. Stevens (Iwo Jima Association of America)

This was a bit disconcerting to some of the vets who had been hoping to find familiar landmarks. Now covered up with shrubbery, it was like finding a needle in a haystack to get precise locations. One of them remarked to me, “We should just bomb it again. Then I’d be able to find my way around okay.” 

On top of the mountain, an exciting chaos was ensuing. Veterans and friends crowded around the Marine Monument for a photo, or raised their flag on the pole briefly, all the while dodging news cameras and photographers. I had to gulp and hope it wouldn’t go away too fast. 

Time did seem to halt a few times as I talked to a couple of the veterans coming back for the first time. They spoke slowly, carefully reflecting on their surroundings. One of them said that no matter how much you prepare to revisit the old sites, it still kind of hits you hard. 

With Sgt. Coltrane at the Marine Memorial on Mt. Suribachi

“I’ve been having nightmares for 70 years.” Sgt. J. Coltrane told me while we were sitting atop Suribachi. “I’m hoping that after this, I won’t have them any more.” 

Standing up there, I remembered the story Colonel Bill Henderson had told my dad the first time he went to Iwo Jima in 2005. In his outfit was a young Marine who had earned the name “Buttermilk” due to his youth and inability to order anything stronger at a bar. The Colonel didn’t know him too well, being new to the unit, but he recognized him still. After landing on the first wave,  Henderson (then a Lieutenant), was struggling to get his men together and up the beach.  At one point, he looked over and saw Buttermilk standing in the sand with a dazed face. “Buttermilk!” He shouted out. “Get up and go. Don’t just stand there. Move it!” Knowing they had to keep moving forward quickly, he was surprised that the young Marine just stared blankly at him. Realization hit a moment later. The lower half of Buttermilk’s body had been blown completely off. Colonel Henderson later reflected, “He very slowly toppled over. At moments like that, there was little choice but to move on or die, paralyzed with fear, confusion, and anger.”

- - - - - - - 

The ceremony on Iwo Jima was formal. The representatives from both America and Japan spoke, followed by a wreath laying. Each side paid tribute to the men who died; they spoke of forgiveness and healing, and the unity between our countries. It is always striking to me to see two countries that warred so viciously with each other, make peace, and then for the next dozens of years became strong allies. 

Lt. General Stackpole, Lt. General Snowden, and Lt. General Smith lay the wreaths.

Lt. General Stackpole, Lt. General Snowden, and Lt. General Smith lay the wreaths.

Speaking of forgiveness, we had, with our Military Historical Tours group, a special guest: Mr. Tsuruji Akikusa, a Japanese Naval Radioman. Mr. Akikusa had aspired to be a fighter pilot, but his father, not wanting him to die, had him sent into the Japanese Navy. This would be a safer place for his son. But it wasn’t. Before long, 18 year old Mr. Akikusa ended up on the island of Iwo Jima. Through a translator, he described to us what it was like to watch the first Americans land on the island. In a small bunker near the beach, he saw the landing crafts approach, the marines unload and begin climbing the beach. There was no opposing fire. Quite anxious, he asked the officer next to him, “Why are we not firing?!”  At that moment, the cannons erupted from the hidden bunkers and tore up the first Americans. Mr. Akikusa was relieved, but also horrified. 

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

Throughout the rest of the battle, he remained on the island, but never fired a shot. As the end drew near, many of the Japanese soldiers in his bunker committed suicide. Then it was evident they would soon be overcome. He heard shouts and cries and saw the Japanese officers shooting the soldiers who were crying in fear. Afraid that they would shoot him, he didn’t say anything. Soon, his bunker was hit, knocking him unconscious. A few days, later he woke up in an American hospital tent. He learned that one of the War Dogs had sniffed him out during a patrol. When the Marine accompanying the dog saw that he was still alive, he brought him back for medical attention. Mr. Akikusa was one of only 1,000 Japanese to be taken prisoner on the island of Iwo Jima. Over 22,000 Japanese soldiers had been killed or committed suicide. 

Mr. Akikusa spent the next year as a prisoner of war. Fearing his survival would cause shame for his family (who thought he was killed on the island), he never wrote home to tell them he was alive. It was one of the moral codes of their culture to die an honorable death in battle rather than suffer the disgrace of surviving, or worse -become a prisoner of war (This is one of the reasons the Japanese treated our POWs so poorly; they considered them to be disgraced men for surrendering). Eventually, after the war ended, he decided to go home. He arrived just in time to discover his school was having a funeral service for him and the other boys in his town who died during the war. He went quietly in, removed the picture of himself and sat down to attend the rest of the funeral. His funeral. 

- - - - - - - 

Mr. Akikusa attended the official ceremonies with us -the Americans. I’d seen him earlier in the hotel lobby. He was wearing a hat with GoArmy and USA pins on it. Knowing he was Japanese, but not having met him yet, I wondered how he came to be wearing a hat with American insignia. After hearing him relate his story, I knew. He concluded his comments by saying, “They say I was captured by the Americans. But I don’t like to say that. I wasn’t captured. I was rescued.” 

Tsuruji Akikusa, and General Lawrence Snowden. As Gen. Snowden said, "Once enemies, now friends." Photo Cred: Mark Stevens (IJAA)

Tsuruji Akikusa, and General Lawrence Snowden. As Gen. Snowden said, "Once enemies, now friends." Photo Cred: Mark Stevens (IJAA)

Mr. Akikusa is an example of a man who once was our enemy, but now he is a friend. Some of the veterans on the trip were unsure about meeting someone they would have considered a bitter enemy. But putting aside enmity and deciding to forgive, they were able to shake his hand and welcome him as a friend. In response, Mr. Akikusa appreciates and respects our country for “rescuing” him. 

The polaroid instant from our meeting. 

After the ceremony, I saw that he was sitting alone with his translator. Walking up to him, I took his hand and told him how grateful I was for the peace between our countries and thanked him for coming with us - his former enemies - back to Iwo Jima to remember our fallen soldiers. He smiled so kindly and replied similarly. Pulling out my Polaroid, I asked to take a picture with him. If you remember Polaroids, they print instantly, so a moment later, I gave him one of the prints. He smiled when he saw the photo, and his translator explained to him that it was a gift from me for him. With almost tears in his eyes and holding tight to the picture, he thanked me. 

It was brief, but the interchange meant a great deal to me. My great-great uncle died in a POW camp in the Philippines. His sister was very bitter against the Japanese for the rest of her life. I have known many people who experienced great hardships at the hands of the Japanese in WWII. But at the end of the day, forgiveness is one of the greatest acts a man can offer another.  “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger... be put away from you...forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 

- - - - - - - 

Following the ceremony, several of us piled into the back of a jeep and headed down to the beach. Getting to the sand was entirely different from anything I had imagined. You read about the difficulty the Marines had climbing the sandy embankments: move forward three feet, sink backwards and in two. It was impossible to dig foxholes for protection because of the texture of the gravelly sand which caved in and cut up the skin. It was all this and more.

Jim Skinner USMC on the beach where he landed in 1945

My cowboy boots sank up to the top and sand poured in. Walking in them was like wearing moon shoes as I tried to walk. Because of time constraints, we didn’t go too far out onto the beach, but I heard later that some of the folks tried “storming the beaches” again, and found the task of scaling the inclines tremendous. (Side note: up to 10 months later, I was still finding sand from Iwo Jima in my boots, despite cleaning them and wearing them regularly)

I mentioned that the sand was rough enough to cut skin. Hard to believe, but true. Coming up from the beach, I tripped and cut my knee. The cut was small, but 13 months later, I still have the scars from it. With such a small incident leaving such a permanent reminder, I couldn’t help but think about the poor fellows who crashed into the sand for protection or fell wounded. I’ve been calling it sand, but really it is volcanic ash; the same hard, rough, gravelly volcanic ash that greeted the Marines on Iwo 71 years ago. 

I'm here with my friend, Mr. G. and his granddaughter just after we've come off the beach. 

With evening coming, we headed back to the airstrip to fly back to Guam. We boarded our plane all in tact, carrying several additional pounds of black Iwo Jima sand. This sand was so popular that for a few minutes there was question if some poor soul would have to dump their portion to lighten the load of the plane. There were no volunteers and in the end everything was fine. Our flight back was uneventful (though two of the other planes ended up being grounded for a couple of hours before returning... Another story), and we chatted with the veterans and folks on the plane. Our trip was coming to a close. 

Mr. C. Burney signs my LIFE magazine. The cover depicts a blockhouse being blown up on Iwo Jima.

The next day was the last day of the tour, finishing up with the closing banquet at the Pacific War Museum, a fabulous museum in Guam that boasts excellent artifacts and tremendous military equipment (jeeps, trucks, guns) scattered around the grounds. Nothing like enjoying your dinner at the base of a WWII anti-aircraft gun. 

This may seem like the longest article I’ve ever written. Probably is. Unfortunately, as long as it is (and if you have persevered through it thus far, bravo and thank you), only highlights were mentioned. So much happened in such a short space of time that it is hard to put it all down and get it out the door. But for now, here are a few lessons I learned from Iwo Jima. 

There is no underestimating the power of forgiveness:

On this trip, I met veterans who had carried great animosity and hatred toward the Japanese for the past 70 years. Understanding that what the Marines on Iwo Jima experienced is beyond our comprehension, it is still hard to see men in their 90s continue to carry bitterness against their enemy when their time left on earth is so short, because bitterness eats at the soul like nothing else. But, even the most angry man can overcome and forgive. I saw that happen. 

The Brotherhood of the Marines:

It is rare you find a bonded brotherhood like the Marines. What makes a 90+ year old man make an incredibly arduous trip across the world to a barren and desolate island? Especially one that holds only the most painful of memories? Because he feels it is his duty to go back and pay his last respects to the comrades and friends he lost. Mr. Pontisso said about his wounds, “I don’t deserve the Purple Heart, it’s the ones who never made it back that do.”

He may have lost his arm 71 years ago, but to him, he came out with his life when so many others didn’t. He went back because it was important to him that he remember them and that others remember. The strength of the brotherhood was so strong that he and others were willing to put aside the personal pain of the memories and make one last return. One last Reunion of Honor. 

We must never forget:

In an old war movie from the 1940s, White Cliffs of Dover,  there is a scene at the end which always brings tears to my eyes. The young man, John, has been mortally wounded fighting in France during WWII. Lying in a hospital in England, he tells his mother about a conversation he had with another soldier. The interchange between the mother and her dying son pretty much sums up why we must never forget.

"That chap, the American, he said he'd really start to fight the day war ended: for a good peace, a peace that would stick. He didn't know he was going to die, you see. He said that God would never forgive us, either England or America, if we break the faith with our dead again. Write his mother a nice letter. Tell her that…,oh well, you'll think of something....

A few moments later a parade comes by, and his mother looks out the window.

How well they march, John... There is a look of greatness about them. All the strong young boys. Beautiful and proud with dreams. Just like you, John. They'll help bring peace again. And as your friend said, "A peace that will stick." …. You know, John, we must never forget what that American boy said to you. God will never forgive us if we break faith with our dead again.” 

The memory of the boys who died on Iwo Jima, where “uncommon valor was a common virtue,” mustn’t be forgotten. Neither should the boys of Peleliu, Tarawa, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Monte Cassino, El Alamein, Normandy, the Hurtgen forest, the Battle of the Bulge... None of them. If we forget, what was the point of their sacrifice? 

I will never forget this trip to Iwo Jima. And I will make sure no one around me ever forgets either. If we are a grateful people, we will not forget the sacrifices of the men who died for our country. In Ernie Pyle’s book, Brave Men, he wrote, “I don’t believe one of us was afraid of the physical part of dying. That isn’t the way it is. The emotion is rather one of almost desperate reluctance to give up the future.” 

So, thank you to all the young men who gave up their futures. The men who will be forever young in our memories. We may live to be 95, but they will always be 19 years old. God forbid that we ever break faith with them and, in our selfishness, forget the reasons we still live in a free country.

Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt. 1

One year ago today, I stepped onto the runway on Iwo Jima Island for the first time. It was a surreal moment for me. 11 years before, I had first really learned about this terrible battle and it impacted me tremendously. A little later, when my brothers (then 10 & 12) returned from going to Iwo Jima with my Dad for the 60th, I told myself I would visit the island some day. Now, at 18 years old, it was actually happening. And the experience was unlike any I've ever had. 

Now, if you've read any of the previous things I've written about Iwo Jima, you'll know the story and it's characters mean an awful lot to me. This time, however, I'm going to tell you a little about when this dream of an 8-year old girl finally came true, and I made the journey to an island of bravery, courage, and sacrifice, called Iwo Jima. 

The whole experience of getting to Iwo Jima is a story in itself. Preparations, passport anxieties (doesn't that always happen?!), surprise blessings, surprise complications. But in the end, it all worked out, and on March 16, 2015 after a fabulous send-off, we flew out of LAX airport with nearly 30 Iwo Jima veterans and an enormous amount of family of veterans, friends, relatives, and the like; all going to pay respect and remember.  

Airport buddies! Both 3rd Marine Division guys.

Our flight was made up into two 7+ hour flights. Despite the great length of the travel time, it ended up becoming one of the highlights of the trip.  On the first flight from LAX to Honolulu, I had the great pleasure of sitting with a wonderful Vietnam vet who has been traveling to Iwo Jima for the last 15 years. For 7-hours straight, we talked and talked, covering almost as many miles as our plane.

The next flight from Honolulu to Guam, I spent standing in the back of the plane chatting with the veterans and others who congregated there, or walking up and down the aisles meeting the other members of our tour. Carrying an April edition of the 1945 LIFE Magazine featuring Iwo Jima was a great conversation opener for the vets. They thumbed through the pages, telling me various facts about the pictures and articles in it. The 7 hours flew by as everyone got to know each other in this wonderfully relaxed way; and some pretty remarkable stories were swapped before the "fasten seatbelt" sign came on for landing. 

Hafa Adai! The traditional Chamorro (Guam) welcome

We arrived in Guam sometime pretty late on the 17th. Of course our hours were all mixed up since we had passed the international dateline and were now 15 hours ahead of the rest of America. Tired as we were, the entire group was welcomed to the hotel with a delightful reception. 

The next few days were spent traveling to various historical spots on the Island of Guam. Among our group we had many veterans who took part in the fighting for Guam in 1944. Several had been back over the years, but for those coming back for the first time, it was a stirring experience.

One of those to be making a first return trip was the last Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient Hershel W. Williams. In previous years, he had refused to return to these battlefields as the memories were too painful, but as the 70th anniversary approached, he decided that it was time. Like the other veterans returning for the first time, there were many emotions and memories that came back to Mr. Williams.

Hershel W. Williams MOH with his great-grandson on Iwo Jima

One afternoon we had made the trip up to Nimitz Hill and the Admiral's home there. After some commentary and talks outside, everyone went in to the Admiral's house for refreshments, and I found myself with Mr. Williams, his friend, an entirely empty portico, and a spectacular view of nearly all of Guam.

After a few moments of silence, Mr. Williams began to talk about his first experience of combat on Guam. It was more stream of consciousness spoken aloud than an intentional conversation with either me or his friend. He told us of those first nights in combat when the slightest noise made your hair stand on end. The expectation of any moment hearing the blood curdling, "Banzai!" charge and the suicide attacks that immediately followed. When they finally did come, it was when least expected. Charging at you in the dark they screamed, "Die Marine! Die Marine!" Jumping into the foxholes they fought a fierce hand to hand combat. A comrade fell or an enemy was killed. I hardly breathed for fear of breaking his stream of thought. These were memories that had remained on a dusty shelf for 70 years, but now, looking over the very landing beaches and locations where he had fought and distinguished himself, they came flooding back. His reverie ended, but the memory of this moment will stick with me. 

Jim Skinner, USMC 

Another morning on Guam, one of the veterans, Jim Skinner, came up to me with a book of photos from his time in the Marine Corps. He had been telling me about it over the last few days, and I was quite eager to see it. For probably half an hour, we looked through the book, and he told me about each picture. They were all great. Pictures of his girlfriends, Marine Corps buddies, training, family, and all the general photos you would find in an old military photo book. But there were two that stuck out to me the most. Turning the page he said, "This is a picture taken right before I killed my first Jap... and this picture is right after. You can see there he is in the corner of the picture." He didn't take glory in these two pictures as if they were trophies of war, but saw them as they were, a photographic documentation of one of the most life-changing moments in the career of a combat soldier: the first time he kills. Mr. Skinner is another story in itself. A story of bitterness and redemption. He passed away two months after our trip to Iwo Jima. 

Lt. General Snowden with Naval radioman Tsuruji Akikusa 

I would be greatly remiss if I did not mention Lt. Gen. Snowden, the real driving force behind the return trips to Iwo Jima. General Snowden, an Iwo Jima veteran himself, through his gracious relationships with the Japanese government over the years, made it possible for American veterans, families, and friends to travel to Iwo Jima to pay respects and remember. A remarkable man with a very commanding presence, he talked to the entire group before we flew to Iwo, strictly admonishing them as to how our behavior and attitude should be on the island, as it was entirely a gift given to us by the Japanese to make this trip.

The day before we flew to Iwo, to better prepare everyone, Military Historical Tours (the groups which makes these trips to Iwo Jima every year) hosted a symposium on the battle of Iwo Jima. By then, more attendees and veterans had trickled in, and we had quite a crowd. The symposium was most excellent and couldn't have been more informative. During the afternoon, I listened in on some of the veterans' interviews that were taking place in the hotel. This was uniquely special because the the vets being interviewed were about to make their first trip back. On the edge with excitement and apprehension, they talked freely about their experiences during the war, their reasons for going back, and their fears and hopes of what the morrow would bring. Healing? Closure? 

Iwo Jima 71 years later

Iwo Jima. It's hard to put into words the meaning behind those 7 letters. I think for most people, it's an interesting assortment of vowels and consonants. One Iwo veteran told me, "A 50-something year-old once came up to me and said, 'What does "I Survived I-W-O" stand for?' Realizing it was pointless to explain, I just told her, 'It means, "I Survived the International Women's Organization"."

(l-r) Gene Bell -3rd Marine Division, Liberty, and Ken Jarvis, son of an Iwo Jima veteran. I am holding Mr. Jarvis' father's license plate which says, "Iwo J 1945."

The reality is they ARE letters that stand for something - They spell out the names of the nearly 7,000 boys who never left the island and 20,000 others who became casualties of war. The Battle for Iwo Jima was long, bloody, and hard. But when those Marines saw the first plane emergency-land on the secured airstrip, they knew that, as costly as it had been, it was completely worth it.

Last weekend, I (Liberty) had one of the greatest pleasures and honors of my life attending the reunion for the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima held in Arlington, Virginia. For the last 11 years, Iwo Jima has held a unique and special place in my thoughts. Something about this particular battle has wrapped it's way around the strings of my heart, and as time goes on, it only becomes tighter. When Admiral Nimitz said, "Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue," he was only speaking the truth. The Marines in this battle fought with a persevering endurance so strong, against an enemy so fierce who seemed to stop at nothing to achieve the complete defeat and humiliation our brave boys and beautiful country of America. But despite the odds, our fellas overcame and the battle was declared our victory. 

The Iwo Jima veterans at the WWII Memorial

If you speak to an "Iwo Jima Survivor" today, they won't tell you much. There are just some things that even now, 71 years later, cannot be repeated. A veteran of the Korean War described it perfectly when he said, "People ask you about 'what war is like,' but the minute you start telling them, they don't want to know. They can't handle it. They don't know what it's like to see [hundreds] of dead men. . .all the time. They can hardly bear to see one dead person all cleaned up in a casket." 

But on occasion, they do open up, and when they do, it is an emotional experience. This past weekend, among the humorous and lighthearted anecdotes of "those good ole' days in the Corps," I spoke with several Marines who shared some very personal stories with me. Their words and accounts were told with almost an angst at speaking of things so sacred and tender. Tender because they have lain buried deep in their thoughts for 71 years. And few will ever understand. 

Hearing the stories as I did, so real and raw, it is hard for me even now to repeat them. Partly because of how close I feel to these stories and the ones telling them. I was not there to experience them, but it is almost as if I could experience it all through the eyes of the veteran; and in their voices hear the sounds of battle, the tension of the combat, the smell of gunfire, the loss of friend and comrade. Waiting for a night attack. A close call. Then another one. Until the point where they no longer took note. On and on and on. Then, a brief respite. Only to be repeated again and again. For the veteran of this living nightmare, tears dried up many years ago. . .or at least they don't come as easily now. He just looks back on it all with a contemplative solemnity. Maybe wondering at the high price spent for freedom. But for the listener, this "second-hand" experience of what war is like brings many new tears. Tears of sorrow, compassion, and gratitude. A fuller understanding. . . but also a recognition that the enormity of it will never be fully grasped.

Two of my 5th Marine Division friends. Mr. Harvey (left) was in the Paramarines prior to joining the 5th Division. Mr. Lauriello (rt) experience 37 brutal days on Iwo.

Another reason the retelling is so hard is the fear that repeating the stories will cheapen the sacrifice. It can happen that we become so accustomed to tales of bravery that we are desensitized to the depth of pain behind it. We forget that the boy who died on the beach moments after landing, took a bullet for his friend behind him, and that friend has carried the memory with him for 71 years. The memory of a life cut off in his prime: no family, no future, no life. Not even a minute more. When a day rarely passes without recalling this scene to mind, a 30-second mention by a TV news-anchor just does not seem to do the memory justice. 

Regardless, their stories must be repeated. They must be passed on so that the sacrifice of our courageous boys will not only continue in our memory, but also be remembered in our deeds and actions. Their lives purchased an extra 71+ years of freedom and prosperity for us here in America. May we never do anything to soil the purity of the blood that was shed for our country. Please, never forget Iwo Jima.

Jerell Crow - Coast Guard at Iwo Jima

We learned recently of the passing one of our sweet Iwo Jima veterans: Mr. Jerell Crow. Mr. Crow was a Coast Guardsman during WWII, but the U.S. coast was the last place he was to be stationed. Taking part in the invasion of Iwo Jima, Mr. Crow landed some of the first waves of Marines onto the island and continued until all troops had been taken off the ship. Even 70+ years later, Iwo was a subject too difficult to talk about. "[I] have never wanted to go back. The first day there was all that I needed to remember it." And anyone who has read anything about the Battle for Iwo Jima understands why.

Before even Iwo Jima, Mr. Crow had already had his share of experiences. A newspaper clipping he sent us from shortly after the war says, "While serving on Guadalcanal, [Jerrell] Crow was operating a small boat carried on a destroyer. The boat making for shore, was attacked by the enemy and destroyed. Crow and the marines swam to the island, where they were out of contact with U.S. forces for 47 days. Only six of the men were alive when they were picked up after U.S. reinforcements came to the island. For wounds sustained and for his bravery, he received the Purple Heart, and the Silver Star."

Following Iwo Jima, came the landings at Okinawa and regrouping in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Thankfully this invasion never came, and after four long years, the war came to an end. Mr. Crow was one of the brave and silent men to serve our country when she needed him most, and for that he will never be forgotten.

"They were good Marines, the finest."

"What sticks with me now is not so much the pain and terror and sorrow of the war, though I remember that well enough. What really sticks with me is the honor I had of defending my country, and serving in the company of these men. They were good Marines, the finest, every one of them. You can't say anything better about a man." 

R. V. Burgin, 5th Marines, 1st Division, survived over a month of brutal combat during battle of Peleliu Island in 1944. It was supposed to be a "quickie" in and out. But it wasn't. The battle lasted from September 15 to November 27, with nearly 20,000 casualties. Today, you can go to this haunting island and see what is left from that terrible battle in the remains of military equipment, blown out pillboxes, and sometimes even unburied bodies. It is a tragic picture of the reality of war. But is was an island where boys became men and leaders. 

"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. 

James "Jim" Skinner 1922-2015

In March of 2015 I (Liberty) traveled to the Island of Iwo Jima for the 70th anniversary of the battle with a wonderful group of veterans including veteran James "Jim" Skinner. For one week I had the privilege of talking with him every day and hearing his wonderful stories from his childhood to his triathlons at 90 years of age. One morning we sat down and he showed me pictures from his wartime scrapbook. Pictures of his buddies during the war, girlfriends, training, military life, etc. As we walked through these pictures, he told me stories of hand to hand combat with the Japanese on the Islands of Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima, and showed me a photo taken moments before he killed for the very first time. He spoke frankly to me of the roughness and brutality of his war; a war in which many of his experiences caused him to hold bitterness toward the Japanese 70 years later. 

Mr. Skinner (center) on his way back to the beaches where he landed, 70 years ago.

Last week I received the painful news that Mr. Skinner passed away on May 24th, 2 months after our trip, and just two days after his 93rd birthday. It was a privilege to have spent that brief time on Iwo Jima with him.

A few days before our March trip to the island, our group learned that we were to meet one of the last surviving Japanese soldiers from the Battle of Iwo Jima, Tsuruji Akikusa. A pervading theme of this "Reunion of Honor" was forgiveness. After listening to the words of our trip leader, Lt. Gen. Snowden, Mr. Skinner resolved to put aside his bitterness to the Japanese and shake hands with Mr. Akikusa. Afterward, I asked him how he felt meeting his former enemy. He told me that he felt great peace in his heart to have reconciliation and forgiveness with a former enemy before he died. He had been bitter towards them for 70 years, and it was time to let go. For me to see this complete change in him over the course of a few days was one of the most beautiful signs of redemption and forgiveness I have ever witnessed. 

Mr. Skinner and Mr. Akikusa. Once enemies, now friends.

Iwo Jima: 1945-2015

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. What was supposed to be a 3 day in-and-out ended up being 35 days of brutal, intense fighting between the Japanese and American forces, culminating in over 26,000 American casualties. The cost was terribly high, but the capture of the island was crucial. If we could take the Island of Iwo Jima, we could use it as a staging point to get to mainland Japan. It would also provide a much needed landing base for American bombers and P51 mustangs on their missions to and from Japan. The battle was long and hard and bloody. From February 19 to March 26, the Marines moved slowly forward, taking ground bit by bit, but at tremendous expense. Years beforehand, the Japanese had built miles of caves and tunnels underneath the ground, laid mines, prepared bunkers and pillboxes for the ultimate defense of the island. The Marines quickly found out that the only way to get the Japanese out of these pillboxes was by flamethrower, a horrible, yet effective weapon. On February 23, 1945, five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. There was still a long way to go. It would be another month before Iwo Jima was taken, but the sight of Old Glory flying high and proud sent a message to every man on that island: We are here to stay. 

10 Years ago this next week. WWII veteran and Iwo Jima survivor Ivan Hammond with two of my brothers, Jubilee (left) and me. Photo credit: 

One of my first memories of meeting Iwo Jima veterans was 10 years ago this month. For the 60th anniversary, Fredericksburg, Texas held a grand reenactment of the battle and over 25,000 people turned out to watch it. It was simply packed. I was only about 8 years old at the time, and I didn't completely comprehend the significance of it all except that my father told me, "This is an historic moment. Pay attention to the people you meet and remember them. There will not be many opportunities like this again." So I did. Over the anniversary week, I followed my dad and two brothers around, lugging a gigantic yellow and white cassette player in a little pack I carried on my back. I brought along several blank cassettes, and for every veteran we met, I would turn that recorder on and listen for all I was worth. I don't remember the names of most the Marines I met that day, but I remember standing in awe at the stories they told us. One man in particular, I will never forget.  He had on a bright red coat with pins and medals, and a red hat with gold colored trim on it; somewhere on the hat were the words Iwo Jima. I listened to the stories he told my dad and brothers, and wondered at the bravery and sacrifice of such a man. To me, only a little girl of 8, he seemed to me the oldest man I'd ever met. As I look back now, I realize he would only have been in his late 70s, a mere spring chicken compared to the fellows of today; yet what he had done for this country was amazing to me. And I've never forgotten him. Every time someone brings up the Battle of Iwo Jima, I remember that man. At one time a brave young Marine ready to conquer the world,  then standing in a grassy little area in Fredericksburg, talking with my brothers and me, his hair was white and his hands a little shaky, but his voice was strong and a spirit of fearlessness was about him that was unconquerable. I will never forget him.

Photo credit: Patrick Johnston Times Record News

This last weekend, my sisters and I were able to attend one of the last Iwo Jima Reunions. For two days we visited and talked with veterans of this great and horrible battle. Marines, Navy Corpsmen, Air Force, and even a SeaBee all gathered together for one last time in Texas to remember and pay tribute to the comrades they left behind. It was a moving experience. They told us their stories looking at maps and replica newspaper clippings. Each man had played a different and unique role in the winning of Iwo Jima, but like all true heroes, they downplayed their own actions and declared the true heroes were the ones who never made it home.

Photo credit: Patrick Johnston Times Record News

The weekend was short, but sweet. In many ways it was an apropos conclusion to my first meeting of Iwo Jima veterans 10 years ago. 10 years from now I doubt there will be any Iwo Jima veterans still alive, none left to tell their own story. The Battle of Iwo Jima stands out as the bloodiest battle in the history of the Marine Corps. More Medals of Honor were given out during this battle than any other during the war; and it was the only time Marine casualties were more in number than the enemy. The level of courage required was high, but for the Americans fighting on Iwo Jima, "uncommon valor was a common virtue." It is only fitting that, on the 70th anniversary of this battle, where so many lives were lost, we stop for a brief moment, and remember those boys who endured and sacrificed so much for you and me.