Wanting Nothing More Than to Live

I posted a short version of this story on our Facebook several weeks ago, but I wanted to share the extended version here for you, our lovely readers.

I posted a short version of this story on our Facebook several weeks ago, but I wanted to share the extended version here for you, our lovely readers.

“This was not here during the war.” Andre, a 94 year old WW2 veteran with a slight French accent, said looking around. He had a slightly frustrated tone in his voice. We had picked up our luggage and were walking through the Guam International Airport to the exit. The drab airport infrastructure was almost an insult to his artistic memories of how everything had looked during the war.

“This is just the airport.” I said. “Wait ‘til we get outside.”

“Aha!” Andre declared excitedly as we walked through the exit doors of the airport into the damp humidity of Guam. “This heat I remember. Now it feels like I am back.”


This past March, at the invitation of the Best Defense Foundation, I joined their veterans of the Pacific for the anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. We spent the first several days on the island of Guam exploring the old battle locations. One of the veterans returning for the first time since WW2 was TEC 5 Army Engineer, Andre C. It had been nearly 75 years since Andre was on Guam. His outfit (the 1885th Aviation Engineer Battalion) had the vital responsibility of building the airfields for the B-29s returning from their bombing missions.

A B-29 flying over North Field, Guam, one of the airfields the 1885th built. PC: Pacific Air Force

Shortly after our team arrived at the hotel in Guam the first night, Andre and I and a couple of others wandered down to the beach to get a taste of the ocean air and feel the sand in our toes.

I was quite interested to see how the changes in the island would affect him. With each veteran making his first pilgrimage back it’s different. Sometimes their response is profound, sometimes it’s emotional, and honestly sometimes it’s just like any trip to the grocery store. It just depends on the personality. Andre was a commercial artist after the war, and, though long retired, he is still very much an artist in how he views life.

As we walked along the shore, shoes in hand, dragging our feet through the sand, Andre shared with me story after story of the first few months he had spent in a combat zone. While the sights have changed over the last 75 years, the memories and smells came flooding back to him. Just a couple of miles up the coastline from where we stood lay Haputo Beach, the place where Andre had encountered some of the most memorable moments of his war.

Of course, true artist that he is, Andre is incapable of telling a story bare bones. Instead, he thinks. He contemplates. Then he paints for you glorious word pictures: Not just the sights, but also the colors. Not just the sounds, but also the smells. Down to the textures of the wet and humid jungle air he marched through on water patrols. He vividly recalled the air to be so thick and muggy that the sweat gathered at his elbows, slowly dripped down to his wrist, off his fingertips, and into the contents of the open ration box he held in his hand. "I didn't care." Andre said shrugging. "I was too tired. Too exhausted."

Among the stories, Andre also described his fears - not so much of death, but of failing his fellow soldiers, and a moment of serene peace he experienced one night. A moment so perfect that as he stared up at the bright Guam stars, he truly understood, for the first time, what it meant to live. Not just to survive, but to live, to breathe, to have a future. And most of all, to want to live. More than anything else in the world. A desire. To stay. Alive.

We walked and talked for probably an hour. I have no idea how long it was actually. Those first moments of awe and wonder a veteran experiences returning to an old war-zone, recalling the days and months when as a young boy he was forcibly, by war, transformed into a man - those are the moments for which there is no timer or price.


Support Operation Meatball

Iwo Jima Sand

IMG_20190409_155756_912.jpg

For those who have asked: Yes, we still have Iwo Jima Volcanic Ash available when you make a tax deductible donation to Operation Meatball. The ash was collected on the 70th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima (March 21, 2015) and can be found here:

Iwo Jima Sand (Volcanic Ash)

Description

☆ Black Sands of Iwo Jima ☆

One of our favorite things to collect when we visit a special battlefield or historical spot is to bring back a small rock, a bottle of dirt, or a vial of sand. This sand (which is actually VOLCANIC ASH) was collected off the Invasion Beach: RED of Iwo Jima on the 70th anniversary of the battle. As you probably know, this sand is very rare since Americans are only allowed on the Island once a year during a special commemorative ceremony for the Battle.

**I have included photos in the gallery from my most recent trip to Iwo, and each vial of sand comes with a certificate of authenticity.**

The Iwo Jima sand comes in a mini glass vial with a cork stopper and is packaged in a small brown box with padding.

Bottle height:
Height (with Cork): 1 3/4"
Width: 3/4"

Back to the Island

10399529_482294691963200_4953553441935103556_n.jpg

When I went to Iwo Jima in 2015 with my dad, it fulfilled a dream I'd had since I was 8 years old. It completely changed my life, and I was pretty sure that my first time there would also be my last time.

But next Monday, I will be helping escort 6 veterans (including one of my dearest of friends) back to Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. I'm still waiting for reality to hit. But I am deeply grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for this opportunity to re-live those childhood dreams all over again and in the company of such heroes.

28167733_800213356837997_899954604977715111_n.jpg

Consequently, I have been studying like a madman in preparation. I feel like the word "excited" is an inadequate one to describe how I feel about returning to Iwo and making my first trip to Saipan and Tinian. The history of these islands is one that I feel so deeply connected to.

Iwo was my first introduction to WW2 when I was 6 or 7 years old. And some of the first stories of war I ever heard were from veterans of Saipan who described what it was like to watch the poor brainwashed natives take their own lives by jumping the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of what they had been told were "cannibal Americans."

Over breakfast one morning, a Marine (*see endnote) showed me a picture of the first Japanese he ever killed and the cave where he was wounded by a grenade. Another one showed me the volcanic ash that was still in his hands.

I have shared tears with hearty Marines who were making their first return to the battlefields; some of whom had left an arm, a leg, and hardest of all - their best friend.

But it wasn't just a rollercoaster of hardcore memories that makes my connection so deep. Along the way, I was a adopted by this special group of fighting men and given a second family. My Marine Corps family. All these extra uncles who declared I had to run any boyfriends by them for approval first, swore to protect me (in various forms of Marine Corps terminology), and were there to help me through some pretty rough times.

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Going back to Iwo is pretty personal to me. More than the dress blues (which are gorgeous btw), more than the battle facts and statistics - because honestly, none of the adopted uncles are statistics to me - my Marines are living, breathing human beings who went through hell, but still managed to go on and live normal lives.

So what is the word I’m looking for to describe how I feel? Grateful? Heart-full? Thoughtful? Exuberant? I don't know. For now, just consider these words to be the placeholders until I do find the right one.

1625783_482294875296515_5534457912982902020_n.jpg

** Note: The story of that Marine and the photo is not a story of the glorification of death… rather it is part of a beautiful story of forgiveness. When the Marine showed me the photo (one his buddy had taken), he was still angry with the Japanese. He had 70 years angst and bitterness built up that was coming to a climax. By showing me the photos, he was trying to share his story and find clarity in the mental conflict he was still fighting. He needed answers. All week I spoke to him about this, and others did as well… tskaAnd incredibly, the day we went to Iwo Jima, he was able to go up to a Japanese veteran and shake his hand. It was the first Japanese man he'd been willing to talk to since the war. The rest of the trip following that, he was happy and light-hearted. A month later, he passed away. I think he had finally found the deep peace and forgiveness he needed.

Survival, Loyalty, and Faith: The Story of Ben Skardon

Photo Credit: Ken Scar

In early February of 1945, the war in Europe was wrapping up. By May, the Germans had surrendered, and there was "a hot time in the town of Berlin when the Yanks [went] marching in.” The jubilation of the freed countries of Europe was unbounded.  

But for Ben Skardon and the remaining veterans of Bataan, it looked hopeless. After surviving a brutal march, cattle cars of death, multiple Japanese prisoner camps, disease, and starvation, by early December 1944, Ben Skardon and 1600 other POWs had been crammed into the hold of the Japanese passenger/cargo ship, Oryoku Maru.

Sitting for days… Each man sitting between the legs of the man behind him. Thus began a 47 day nightmare of horrendous inhumanity and barbarisms. The lack of air and water. The confined space. The constriction of movement produced near panic.
— Ben Skardon

En route to Japan, the Oryoku Maru was attacked by US Navy planes from the USS Hornet. Unmarked and unidentifiable as a POW ship, the Navy planes had no idea they were bombing their own men. The ship was sunk and 270 POWs were killed. Loaded onto another cargo ship, the Enoura Maru, Skardon and his fellow POWs were again hit by friendly fire in the harbour of Takao, Formosa, killing another several hundred men.

Among those killed was Otis Morgan, a man to whom Skardon owed his life. Morgan and another man named Henry Leitner had worked tirelessly to keep Skardon alive when he lay sick and dying of starvation and disease. Trading what few valuables they had left (including Skardon’s Clemson Ring), they managed to bribe the guards for the necessary items to keep their friend from death’s door.

Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan (PC CBS News)

When Skardon succumbed to the tortuous sufferings brought on by Beriberi (a vitamin deficiency disease which causes nerve inflammation and heart failure), Morgan and Leitner spent hours around the clock wiping his eyes and rubbing his feet to help reduce the pain. During a time when it was “every man for himself” to survive, the three men had stuck together to keep each other alive.

But even their close friendship could not prevent Morgan from becoming one of the hundreds of casualties of the Hell Ships. When the ship docked on January 30th, of the 1,619 POWs brought aboard in the Philippines, hardly 500 had survived the barbaric 47 day crossing.

“Survival, Loyalty, and Faith,” Ben Skardon told an auditorium of people gathered to hear him speak 76 years later. "Survival: To maintain life, to endure. Loyalty: To family, to friends, to country. Faith: In the fellow man and the Almighty God." Those were the keys to his existence during the unthinkable experiences he had endured as a prisoner of the Japanese.

PHoto credit: CBS news

Despite all odds, Ben Skardon (now a retired Army Colonel) had survived. He had survived one of the greatest tragedies in American history. But why had he survived when so many others had died?

In his speech two weeks ago at White Sands Missile Range, he explained how he never gave up. Once a man had given up the hope and fire inside of him to survive, Skardon explained, it was very rare that that man would live to see another sunrise.

To live without Hope is to Cease to live.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The loyalty of his friends and to his country had also kept him alive. Morgan and Leitner never got to see their homeland again, but because of the sacrifices they made for their friend, their names will never be forgotten - not by Ben Skardon.


On March 18, 2018, for the 11th time, 100 year old (“100 and 7/10," he corrects me) Ben Skardon made his annual pilgrimage to White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March. After a weekend meeting the marchers, encouraging them for the difficult task they were about to undertake, and sharing personal experiences from Bataan, Col. Skardon set out on his own Bataan Memorial March.

He doesn’t have to. After all, he is over 100 years old… but he feels obligated. An obligation that is 76 years old. Leitner and Morgan did not have to exert themselves to save Skardon’s life, but they did. And now, Col. Skardon feels it is a small thing to march in their honor.

Proud to March with ben's brigade and wear a my great-uncle's photo

In past years, Col. Skardon has marched 8.5 miles of the rugged desert terrain. Nearly 7 of those miles are dubiously sandy, uneven, and difficult for the average person, much less a senior. But Col. Skardon has been defying the term “senior” for years, continually proving the mettle which helped him to survive his years of imprisonment.

This year, as the members of Ben’s Brigade gathered for the annual pre-march dinner, I asked a few of them if the Colonel would be going the whole 8.5 miles. “It’s hard to know… but we’re hoping for 3 miles” was the general response.

“I’m going to go as far as I can,” the Colonel told me.

The next morning, the marchers, the veterans, and Ben’s Brigade gathered for the opening ceremonies. It was an electric atmosphere. The Bataan Memorial Death March is no easy marathon, and every one of the participants either knew that or figured it out pretty quick. Having completed the whole 26.2 miles last year, I can tell you the feeling among the marchers is just enough excitement to get them up in the morning, but just enough nerves to question the sensibility of the venture they are about to embark upon.

Members of Ben's Brigade, including Col. Skardon's nephew, Sgt. Hooper Skardon

But all those nerves disappear when, moments before they cross the start line, the marchers are greeted by Bataan Death March survivors, ready to shake their hands and wish them well before heading into the New Mexico desert. It is an utterly inspiring sight. Over and over again my throat choked and I teared up as I watched the marchers, wounded warriors, ROTC, active military, veterans, and civilians pause to shake the hands of the very men who were the reason for this memorial march.

wounded warriors shake the hands of bataan survivors moments before they head out to the grueling New mexico desert

“Good job. We’ll see you in 26 miles!” The veterans would say, and off the marchers would go.

When the last man crossed the start-line, Ben’s Brigade formed up.

“Oosh,” said Colonel Skardon, a command his Japanese guards would holler out for the prisoners to “keep moving.”

At mile 1, we halted. “If you want to cheat,” said the Colonel in his refined southern accent, “You can’t. We’ve got the record right here.” The Colonel says that if you take a photo with each mile marker, it's proof that you didn't cheat.

By mile 2, we began to hit the sand.

Mile 3, the sand was beginning to get rough. The Colonel made his mile stop and announced, “We’ll wait here 30 seconds. One, two, three, four, five, Oosh!” We continued.

Col. Skardon at mile 5

Never a complaint, occasionally throwing out a piece of humorous advice, or offering a witty comment, Colonel Skardon pressed on.

“The voices spoke,” he said, as he rested a hand on the mile 4 marker, “but I have prevailed. I’m gonna try one more mile… before I take the night.” He added with a twinkle, “You know what that means? If you get into that damn automobile, you get bayoneted…. but me, I’m the commander. You’ll be in front of me.” His announcement complete, with a chuckle and a mischievous grin, he ordered the well-known command, “Oosh!”

After completing 5 miles, Colonel Skardon took a seat in the car that followed behind us over the sandy desert terrain. He left us with this parting, “I have some urgent business to take care of, but I’ll join you at 7.”

Before too long we were re-joined by the Colonel, and by the time we reached the finish-line, he had completed nearly 7 miles. I can’t quite tell you what an incredible feeling it was to watch 100.5 year old Bataan Death March survivor (or should I say “year-young” after the feat he completed) cross his personal finish line. Inspiring? Oh 100%.

During the march, I had contemplated the life of this man, listened to stories from his family and friends, and watched him put one foot in front of the other, unfaltering in spirit.

Colonel beverly skardon crosses his personal finish line at the bataan memorial death march

Despite age, memories, a full life, this man who had marched the same trail and endured the same horrors of Bataan which took my great uncle's life had just completed another yearly pilgrimage, “as a tribute and honor to my Clemson friends,” Otis Morgan and Henry Leitner. “Two and a half years in the prison camp and we became like brothers." For his brothers he marched.

A true testimony to his character and the 3 rules he had given us the day before, “Survival, Loyalty, and Faith.”

For someone like Colonel Skardon, “inspiring” just begins to describe him. But marching with him was inspiring. To me, to the members of Ben’s Brigade, and to every single one of the marchers who shook his hand.

Moments after  Colonel Skardon led the group past the finish line, Ben’s Brigade broke out into the Clemson Cadence:

1-2-3-4
C-L-E-M-S-O-N
T-I-G-E-Rrrrrr-S!
Fight Tigers, Fight Tigers, Fight, Fight, Fight!

A most appropriate ending for this memorable day.


Always Kiss Goodnight: A Story for Valentine's Day

Kanter+irene-and-marvin--1949.jpg

With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought I'd share a sweet story with you.

The article below was written by the American-Statesman a few years ago about a simply darling couple, the Kanters. When I first read this article, I knew I must make their acquaintance, so I invited them to our first WWII Veterans Dinner in 2014. Very happily for us, they accepted the invitation, and the girls and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. Mr. Kanter was completely charming (and very handsome!) and Mrs. Kanter was fabulously spunky. Walking up to an Army veteran at our dinner she declared, "If you see a good looking man in a black sports coat, watch out. He is Navy all the way." When the veteran made a comment about the Army's superiority, she deftly defended her husband and the Navy. Sadly, Mrs. Kanter passed away not too long after the dinner. To know her was an absolute delight. 

With that brief background, here is the article:

Mr. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.


Always Kiss Goodnight

Helen Anders

American-Statesman Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 

It was Halloween night 1944, and a new student at the University of Texas, Irene Wolfson, had a date to a Longhorns football game. Told a blue norther was coming in, but not knowing quite what that was because she’d just arrived from Florida, Irene dressed smartly in a one-button suit with a yellow angora sweater.

“I go out to get in the car,” Irene recalls, “and driving is this sailor with coal-black hair and a fantastic smile.” That, however, was not Irene’s date, although her date was also in the car. The sailor, Marvin Kanter, on shore leave from the Navy, had a date of his own. Still, during the evening when it became clear that Irene had under-dressed for the norther, he lent her his pea coat. The next day, Marvin left to catch a ship out of San Francisco.

“All the way to California, I was picking yellow angora off my pea coat,” he says. His memory of Irene stuck with him just like the angora, and when he was back in Austin — two years later, after World War II had ended — he tracked her down for a date. Then he went home to Missouri and she to Florida, but they corresponded. Irene’s mother saw his picture in her daughter’s room and instantly disapproved.

“He has a weak chin,” she tsked. Undeterred, Irene proposed to Marvin when they got together one weekend in 1947.

“What are your future plans?” Marvin asked Irene, who quickly answered: “I plan to marry you and settle down.” In 1949, they did just that, opting to move to Austin, where Irene quickly landed a job with a fabric store and Marvin worked for a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“I don’t think anyone expected the marriage to last,” Irene muses. But here they are, 64 years later. Irene wound up teaching school, then becoming an administrator, serving as assistant principal of Anderson High School for 20 years. Marvin took a job with the Texas Railroad Commission and spent 34 years of weekends officiating at football games, many of them attended by Irene and their daughter, Shelly.

“Remember that time we put hotdog wrappers on our feet to keep warm?” Shelly remembers, and both her parents laugh.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Now retired, Marvin and Irene take a swim in their pool at exactly 4 p.m. every day (unless it’s too cold) and follow that up with a 5 p.m. cocktail hour. They may be out of the business world, but they’re far from idle. They work from time to time as extras in movies shooting in Austin — in fact, they enjoyed a decent amount of screen time behind Sandra Bullock in a restaurant scene in “Miss Congeniality” — and they travel relentlessly, heading out for a tour of interior Alaska just four weeks after Irene had hip surgery. Talking about all this, they grin at each other like newlyweds.

“We have a lot of fun together,” Irene says.

“We laugh a lot, and we try to stay young,” Marvin says. “And whether the day has gone smooth or rough, at the end of the day, we kiss each other.”

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve had a fuss,” Irene says, “but we do.”

http://www.statesman.com/lifestyles/always-kiss-good-night/3rPiyfI7ktv4v9tooYr2RN/

Jerry Yellin: The Fighter Pilot Who Found Forgiveness

IMG_4190.JPG

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

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

IMG_2180.JPG

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


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

For Mr. Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where, “There wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun... The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away.”
— The Washington Post
Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 4.37.51 PM.png

His wife helped him through much of his PTSD, but the real turning point came when he learned his son was going to marry the daughter of a Japanese man, trained during the war to be a Kamikaze pilot. He could hardly believe it at first. So many of his friends had been lost at the hands of the Japanese, and now his prospective in-laws were to be the very enemy he had fought against. 

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

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

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

IMG_20171222_160547_438.jpg

Gung Ho! The Marine Raiders Reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Theme:

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

 

Another Theme:

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


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

A Few Stories for Purple Heart Day

August 7th is recognized as Purple Heart Day. A day when we remember the military who were wounded in the service of our country. Over 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been given out over the years since this special decoration was instated, and it is estimated that over 1 million of them were given out during World War Two. This is an enormous number. 

A few years ago I wrote about two specific Purple Heart recipients… but today I thought instead of recounting one story, I’d highlight a couple of Purple Heart veterans we have had the honor of knowing. 

19113792_672111529648181_7581895411147195437_n.jpg

Fiske Hanley’s B-29 was shot down in March of 1945. He was captured by the Japanese and held as a “Special War Criminal," during which time he was brutally tortured by the Japanese secret police, otherwise known as the Kempei Tai.

Dan McBride received 3 Purple Heart's during WWII. The first one came not too long after D-Day. On patrol one night, a soldier came up to him speaking German. "I pulled up my rifle, and he pulled up his. We both shot, and we both hit — but I hit more." Mr. McBride escaped with a wounded arm. The next one would be in Holland after he was blown off a dyke by mortar shells, crushing his ankle. "The medic stuck a needle through my boot. I had to walk out of there, and I could hear the bones grinding." His third Purple Heart came in Bastogne when he was hit in the knees from tank shrapnel. He would take part in four of the major battles in Europe: Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Southern Germany.

USMC PFC, Jim Skinner, was wounded by a grenade while excavating a cave during the fighting on Guam in 1944. He recovered just in time to participate in the Battle of Iwo Jima. For years and years afterwords he suffered with great bitterness and anger towards the Japanese. In March of 2015, he returned to Iwo Jima for the first time since the fighting. During his trip there he was able to find forgiveness to his former enemies, even so far as shaking hands with one of them. He passed away a few months later. 

USMC Sgt. John Coltrane was wounded in the arm by a piece of shrapnel during the Battle of Midway. However he never received a Purple Heart for this as his senior officer and Corpsman were both wounded or killed. 

static1.squarespace.jpg

Birney "Chick" Havey served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Besides a Purple Heart, he also received the Silver Star (3rd highest military award) and numerous Bronze Stars. A few months later he would be one of the first men to liberate the horrendous concentration Camp Dachau.

Darroll "Lefty" Lee (centre of picture) was wounded on February 28, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima “There were five of us in this group, a fire team, we were moving up… and we were running across an open area. I don’t know if it was a Jap rocket or if it was an artillery shell, never heard it of course. It landed and the thing that saved me was that sand — it landed and it buried itself… into the sand, and when it exploded it blew me up into the air. I think I was blown 20 to 30 feet — I don’t even remember. Of the five, three were killed and two of us were blown into the air. I remember I was bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ears and couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a thing. When I came to I was just peppered with little slivers — like the corpsman said when we got back to Saipan, we thought they were freckles. Didn’t get it in the eyes, just amazing, but the concussion knocked out my hearing. When they hauled me back then I remembered the corpsman, what a guy, he crawled up there and pulled me back into a hole and all I can remember is his name, Harris, his name on his dungarees. I often wonder if he ever made it.”

Lee Cason nearly lost his life on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944, when his leg tangled in the landing craft's ramp chain. Then he nearly drowned as he waded to shore under heavy fire from the Germans. And again as he made his way up the beachhead. But it wasn't until a few months later that he received his first of two Purple Hearts during the Battle of the Bulge. 

Bataan Death March survivor and Japanese Prisoner of War, Col. Ben Skardon certainly has a lot of history behind his Purple Heart. During the Battle of Bataan he inspired his men greatly, and at 100 years old, he his still continuing to inspire. 

Charming Stanley Zemont tried to downplay his Purple Heart, "It's not much. Just a wound I received from shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge." 

Two magnificent Marines: Al Pagoaga and Bill Madden. Life-long friends, they came out of the fighting on Iwo Jima with indelible memories and permanent external scars. Bill Madden was buried alive by a grenade blast, only surviving when his friend, Al, dug him out just in time. Besides shrapnel wounds, he went completely deaf for 24 hours afterwords. A few days later, Al Pagoaga was hit by a mortar blast that killed three of his friends and left him missing part of a leg. 


All these men (and so many more that we have not mentioned), have paid a price to serve our country: for the rest of their lives they will carry personal scars - badges of honor - reminding them what it takes to keep a country free. We are deeply grateful to them. 


Appomattox and Bataan


152 years ago today, after 4 years of valiant and desperate fighting, General Robert E. Lee surrendered arms, on behalf of the South, to General U.S. Grant. Included in this surrender was our great-great-great Grandfather, John A. Ramsay, Captain of the 10th North Carolina Artillery, his brother Robert Ramsay, and future brother-in-laws Robert, Thomas, and James Beall. Each one of the Ramsays and Bealls distinguished themselves during the war, rising in the ranks and bravely leading their men. Each of them were wounded several times, but recovered to fight another day. John Ramsay, years later would happily recount the stories of his conversations with General Lee, a man he admired greatly. 

But rather than just returning home to a quiet life, John Ramsay recognized the need to help rebuild the South from the tragedies of war, so he dedicated his life to the City of Salisbury (his home-town), following his surveying and engineering interests -including in the construction of one of the town's first sewers. Later he ran for and become Mayor of Salisbury. I think it says something that he was both respected by the old Southerners as well as the new Northerners.

77 years later to the day, on April 9, 1942, our great-great Uncle Private Israel Goldberg, son of Jewish Russian immigrants, surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army and took part in one of the most tragic events in our history, the Bataan Death March. Barely surviving the death march, he died a few months later in Camp Cabanatuan. 

It is amazing to realize that both of our relatives, though on separate sides of the family, and from completely different backgrounds, each took part in such a historical and monumental event as the two greatest surrenders in American history: Appomattox and Bataan. They both had their ideals, they were both fighting for what they believed in. And we are quite proud to be their descendants. 

Ben's Brigade: Colonel Ben Skardon and the Bataan Death March

Sometimes the saying "a once in a lifetime" opportunity can be cliche. The phrase is often used to emphasize the specialness of a certain event or meeting. But other times it can exactly describe something that will truly only happen once and never again. And this is a great gift. Two weeks ago, I was given a gift and "a once in a lifetime" experience when I marched with Colonel Ben Skardon and "Ben's Brigade" during the Bataan Memorial Death March.

Probably my favorite photo from this week. I can't describe the honor it was to march with Colonel Ben Skardon on my great-great uncle's behalf during the Bataan Memorial Death March. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

You probably don't remember me mentioning it in my last article, because, in fact, I purposefully left it out. It was such an important part of the Bataan Weekend that I could not relegate it to a paragraph or two. Who is Col. Ben Skardon? And what is "Ben's Brigade?"

Col. Ben ("Uncle Ben" or just "Ben") is a 99-year old Bataan Death March survivor, American POW, and member of the Clemson University Alumni, who for the last 10 years has made it his mission to march 8.5 miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March in honor of the friends and servicemen lost that fateful spring of 1942, when America suffered the greatest surrender to an outside enemy in our entire history. Col. Ben was a young captain in the 92nd Infantry PA (Philippine Army), when Bataan surrendered. He survived the brutal march, three years of horrendous Japanese Pow camps, the sinking of two unmarked Japanese POW ships, and countless sicknesses and diseases contracted while in the camps, only to be liberated by the Russians in Manchuria, late 1945, weighing a grand total of 90 pounds. His story is one of determination and perseverance. At 99 years old - nearly 100, these qualities are strong as ever, demonstrated again each year as he treks the difficult 8.5 miles through sand and heat. 

And that is where Ben's Brigade comes in. In their bright Clemson orange t-shirts, hoodies, and caps, the brigade is hard to miss - even in a crowd of over 7,000 runners/marchers. On race day, as Col. Ben stepped down from the van that carried him to the opening ceremonies, he conducted the members of the brigade who had burst out singing the Clemson fight song, cheering him, and taking pictures simultaneously. I've never been into sports too much... but the camaraderie and infectious enthusiasm of the Clemson crowd was too much not to join in.

The truth is that until about a month ago, I had never heard of Ben's Brigade. I had read of Col. Ben, but it had been a few years and in the context of other research I was doing. However thanks to the wonderful world of social media and a mutual acquaintance lending a helping hand, I was introduced to this remarkable, hilarious, and all around swell group of people.

From what I understand, Ben's Brigade initially started as only a handful of people who wanted to march alongside Col. Ben as he made this "pilgrimage," but as he continued to make a return to the Bataan March each year, so did his friends; and the handful of people (made up almost entirely of members of Clemson University - past, present, and future) kept growing and took on the fabulous name of "Ben's Brigade." I don't know for sure, but I think this year there must have been close to 50 members of Ben's Brigade making the march with him. 

As I mentioned, an acquaintance from social media who heard that I was going to march contacted me about Ben's Brigade. On learning that Col. Ben was going to be at the Bataan March and participate yet again, I realized that if nothing else happened that weekend, it would be the greatest honor to walk a couple of miles with him. Imagine, marching the Bataan Memorial Death March with a Bataan Death March Survivor! It's extraordinary. 

My friend put me in contact with one of the wonderful people organizing the group, who in turn welcomed me warmly and invited me to join in their pre race dinner, despite my being a complete outsider! Well, this was all too good to be true, and honestly, looking back on the weekend, I couldn't have planned it to be more perfect. 

The evening before the race, everyone gathered for a dinner of true Mexican food (something you don't often find!) and ultimate southern hospitality (even rarer). My host graciously took me around, introducing me to the members of Ben's Brigade, and within minutes everyone seemed like old friends. When I was introduced to Col. Ben, I naturally told him about my uncle, Israel, the driving purpose behind my trip out to New Mexico. Of all the Bataan veterans I met that week, he was the only one I talked with who was held at Camp Cabanatuan during the same period of time as my uncle. His face fell when he heard the name of the camp, and he asked what month Israel died. "August 1942," I told him. "August," he repeated. "July and August had the highest death rates at Cabanatuan... we lost 100 men per day." And his eyes were moist.

That was when I realized something about him. Even at 99 years of age, after decades of remembering and sharing stories of Bataan, he is still moved by the sacrifices of our men. It was touching and beautiful to me. Col. Ben would laugh and tell jokes, always the life of the party, but he is also deeply sincere. He doesn't make this march each year for the publicity. He does it because he feels a duty and responsibility. He feels he owes it to the men who never came back.

Throughout the evening, despite Col. Ben being enormously popular, I had several opportunities to sit and chat about life, the war, his family's Cajun cooking, or the time his father, a choir boy, sang at President Jefferson Davis' funeral. The stories continued.

Listening to this American Treasure, I felt that the stories I was hearing... about Bataan, Cabanatuan, or pre-war life came as close as possible to listening to the stories my uncle would have shared, had he survived. 

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben)

Each person I spoke with that evening had a different story of how he had touched his/her life, been an inspiration to them, or given a good dose of humor just when it was needed. I learned that as a newly appointed captain when the Battle of Bataan started, in a very short time his bravery had been awarded with two Silver Stars (3rd highest US military decoration) and four Bronze Stars. I can only imagine how inspired his men must have felt to have had him as a leader. No wonder then that two of his best friends nearly died trying to save his life when he became deathly ill at Cabanatuan! If only that type of leadership and courage could be bottled up! 

After the opening ceremonies on Race Day, Col. Ben and Ben's Brigade gathered at the start line waiting for all of the runners/marchers to get on their way before starting their trek. It was wonderful to watch people stop by and greet the Colonel and his entourage, old friends and first timers. About an hour after the first runner crossed the start line, Ben's Brigade heave-hoed and headed out. It was pretty terrific to watch this great orange crowd, enthusiastically led by Colonel Ben, move forward.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben). Note: A lady told me that in the 16 years she had been making the March, she had only seen flowers along the way ONE other time! A refreshing sight they were for all runners/marchers.

"You must take a picture at each mile marker to prove you actually did it!" 

The pace could have been considered slow for some people... but considering Col. Ben is nearly 100 years old, it was nothing short of absolutely impressive (I know I'll be fortunate if I'm mobile when I'm 80)!  And it's well known that slow and steady wins the race. At Mile 1, everyone paused to take a picture at the sign post, and Col. Ben gave a little speech about the necessity of taking a photo with each mile marker to prove you actually did it! Then at his command we moved forward.

Because of time constraints and the reality that I still had to complete 24 more miles, I peeled off from the Brigade after two miles. But those two miles were unforgettable. Nothing dramatic or earth-shattering happened, but it was simply the fact that here I was, marching the Bataan Memorial March with one of the men who survived the original Bataan Death March. Between chatting with members of Ben's Brigade and snatching a word or two with Col. Ben, I had to just pause mentally and take it all in. It was terrific. 

At the beginning I said this was a once in a lifetime experience. I think that's right. Everything about it. The March, Col. Ben, the connections with my uncle, the 99+ years of history it involved... I've never heard of another WWII veteran making a trek quite like this. And if you'll excuse a word that is often overused, but so true here: It was amazing. 

Mile 2 was my last mile with the wonderful members of Ben's Brigade, and Col. Ben himself. Right before heading out, I had to get a quick photo with the mile-marker, and longtime friend of Col. Ben, Steve Griffith. Friends for over 60 years, the secret? "Keeping in touch. You have to stay in touch."

So that is the story of Col. Ben and his fabulous Brigade. It's really only a tiny portion of the story. The story of an outsider who became an insider for a couple of days. It was one of the greatest honors for me to be included in such a wonderful group of people, so dedicated and honoring. The short time I had getting to know Col. Ben was truly the highlight of the week. It seemed to bring full circle years of reading and studying about Bataan and my uncle. And he was a living reminder for me, every step of the way.

When we headed out for White Sands, New Mexico, all I wanted was to meet a Bataan survivor and finish the marathon. That desire was more than granted. Not only did I meet many survivors, but I marched with one... even for only two miles. On top of that, I did complete the race -which is always a bonus. After 10 years of marching, who knows if Col. Ben will be up for it next year - at nearly 101 years old. Whether he does or does not... the legacy he has left will continue to inspire. 

Colonel Skardon crosses the finish line at mile 8.5. Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben). 

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. 

IMG_20161009_222753.jpg

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. 

"No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam"

Yesterday's date holds a special significance to me. Obviously the inauguration of our 45th president is significant to America, but January 20 is also the birth date of my great-great-uncle Israel Goldberg who died in a POW Camp after the Bataan Death March. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Bataan, and in honor of this, I am doing something that has been a dream of mine for several years. On March 19, I will run the Memorial Bataan Death March Marathon.

It's not nearly as long as the original March (only 26 miles instead of the full 65), nor anywhere nearly as difficult, but set in the desert of New Mexico, it certainly bodes to be one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. 26.2 miles of sand, dirt, tough hills, direct sun, and more sand. Not as "fun" as the Marine Corps Marathon this past October, but that is not the point. No doubt I will be thinking of my uncle and his brave, brave soldiers-in-arms every step of the way. 

In preparation for this Marathon, besides the physical training, I'm also pressing forward full speed to find any information I can on my uncle's military service. Unfortunately, after they recovered the bodies from the mass grave he was buried in, Israel was unable to be identified. I've done periodic research over the last few years, and even though we do not know which grave he's buried in at Manila Cemetery, there are many things still to learn. And this race has added an extra incentive to push forward full speed.

As tough as this race will be, each sore bone, achy knee, stiff back, and blistered foot will be completely worth it if it can help to continue the memory of the men of Bataan. "No Mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam," was a song they sang because they thought they had been forgotten. But they are not forgotten. And I hope the memory of their sacrifice continues on for generations.

I look forward to sharing more about this later. Until then, you can catch up on two articles I wrote previously on my uncle:

Private Israel Goldberg

Connections to my uncle Israel Goldberg

"Kelley. With an 'E'"

John Kelley (right)

One of our veteran friends who passed away last year was a fascinating Air Force Captain we met through Honor Flight in the fall of 2014. Actually, it was Mom who first became acquainted with him, and then in the following months, through exchanged letters, we got to know him a little better. We were at the WWII Memorial greeting the flights coming in, and as his guardian had wandered off, Mom went up to chat with him for a few minutes. He introduced himself as John Kelley. "Kelley with an 'E'. Not like the way women spell it." He was 95 and adamant. He wanted to make sure it was differentiated from the more feminine version of the name. 

"You look good in the photo. I look like Hell -warmed over!!"

When she mentioned she was from San Antonio, it opened a floodgate of stories. Captain Kelley had been at Brooks Field, and became well versed with all the local hot-spots during his off time. He described later in a letter, "As I mentioned to you, I took my advanced flight training at Brooks Field in San Antonio. And received Wings following graduation from Brooks Field (December '43). At the time I was dating a student at Incarnate Word College, and having a ball. On "Open Post" at the Gunther Hotel. Mostly dancing up a storm. I never had so much fun in my life. I was a New York kid and grew up listening to Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Sinatra; I never missed a beat in the process.

His stories continued and each seemed to outdo the last one. The months following his Honor Flight we stayed in touch through letters. In fact despite health issues making it very difficult to write, he would send quite the tome relating his experiences in the Air Force. 

"Back in 1943, I was en route to the Aleutians flying the A-24 Dive Bomber. Following the receipt of my winter flying gear, my number one friend, Scotty Alexander, and I took the planes for a test hop. That is where it all started. In the air at about 10 o'clock, Scotty dumped me and we got into a Dog Fight. We chased each other trying to get on his tail for a simulated shot. Well, we "crashed" (mid air collision). Both pilots bailed out and made it okay. I was ready to hit the ground when the parachute opened. I still shake thinking about it. I thought I had it. Scotty was found rolling his chute out of the debris. The next day we received two new planes and an 'ass' charging for committing a 'Bad Act.' It really happened in a hurry. We both were spellbound, but reacted to a real issue. We were terribly embarrassed over the act, and let it be known we were sorry to our fellow pilots. 'Gross' to say the least. We did get to combat and completed our missions. We were lucky to make it. It was exciting times."

A theme we saw in Captain Kelley was a genuine pride in having worked himself up from the ground, starting as a "New York city kid" and rising to officer status in the Air Force. 

"We grew up in Queens, New York. I'm a grad of New York University at Farmingdale, New York. Graduated 1939, took agriculture, played football, and had a ball.... I consider myself a good military man. Took orders well and served (obeyed) well. When I was a cadet, I obeyed my last order first. I got to be a cadet, not too shabby for a New York City kid. I was just plain 'with it' as a new cadet."

A highpoint in his Air Force career occured on August 8, 1945: escorting the "A" Bomb to Nagasaki. "I have a photo of my flight (9 planes) when the B-29 dropped the 'A' Bomb. The picture is a jewel and depicts the way it was. Following I got the flight (4-P47s) in close and said, 'Fellows, this is it. The war is over.' And it was... I ended the war with the 'Atom Bomb' drop on Nagasaki. I actually saw the drop on Nagasaki and personally viewed the devastation (what a mess) - total ruin.

Captain Kelley had a long and varied career in the Air Force until his retirement in 1984. Regarding his service in WWII he said, "I [had] made captain in 1944. I completed two tours of combat -one in Aleutians flying Dive Bombers (A-24s) and at the end of the war P-47s in the Pacific... I consider myself as having a charmed life. Exposed to danger but lucky my life was lightened with Aeroplanes.

"Where were you on December 7?"

"The Punchbowl Cemetery" (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) in Hawaii

Everyone my age knows where they were when the Twin Towers were attacked. Pretty much everyone my parents' age can remember what they were doing when President Reagan was shot. And if you ask anyone over the age of 75, they will no doubt be able to tell you where they were when they heard Pearl Harbor was bombed. This is a favorite question of mine to ask. The answers are as diverse as they are interesting. The last couple of days I have made a few phone calls to veterans around the country to ask them where they were on December 7, 1941.

One Marine told me that at the time his family was living in the Panama Canal zone where his father worked as a civilian contractor on the American base there. Coming out of church Sunday morning, they were disturbed to hear every siren, bell, horn, and whistle in the Canal zone going off. As the Military personnel dashed to their respective places, he spotted a Marine in brilliant dress blues run by. Only age 15 at the time, he determined he would enlist in the Marine Corps and wear that uniform. He never got the uniform, but he did join the Marines and go on to fight at Iwo Jima. 

One Korean War vet told me he was 11 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Like many others, he’d never heard of the place before, so for the rest of the war, he closely followed the fighting in the Pacific and European theatres on a large map of the world.

Another friend didn’t find out until the Monday afterward. He was working in his family’s fields when a neighbor came over to tell them the news. They didn’t have a radio in the house, so they piled into their little car to hear the latest bulletins on the car radio. 

There are countless other stories like these. Of course, the stories from the Pearl Harbor survivors themselves are some of the most interesting. Hearing why they had joined up in the first place to serve in peace time, what they were doing the days prior to the infamous bombing, and what happened to them next. 

Tomorrow, we remember the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So tonight, the girls and I are driving up to Dallas so we can spend the day hearing many more accounts like these at a Pearl Harbor memorial event. We look forward to sharing some of the stories with you afterward. 

Dinner with Fred

nimitzdinner

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.

Memorial Day in Fredericksburg

My personal favorite Admiral in WWII, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

This past Memorial Day we spent the day in Fredericksburg at the Pacific War Museum. I think there are few places I would rather spend this precious day of remembrance. After the museum's annual Memorial Day program, we spent most of the afternoon studying and reflecting the Wall of Honor Plaques in the museum's courtyard. This wall of Honor Plaques are remarkable and unique. Some paying tribute to the fallen, others in gratitude for a family member's service during WWII. It took some time, but we managed to look at just about every plaque on the wall (and there are quite a few!). 

While there, we found a couple of friend's names, and talked with a lovely Navy veteran, Mr. Glazener, who volunteers at the Nimitz regularly.  Mr. Glazener was in the pacific during the latter part of the war, and showed us where his ship's plaque was on the Wall of Honor. Though he never experienced action, he did tell us of one dramatic event: As the war came to a close (and the Japanese were fighting their hardest), one of the destroyers in his convoy was hit by a Kamikaze. The kamikaze hit the Bridge, taking it out completely out and killing all the officers in the ship. To save the ship, Mr. Glazener's Destroyer hooked up to the totaled ship and towed her to the closest island of safety. The poor crew were thus happily saved. 

His hand it resting above the plaque to the 6 Destroyers in his group.

He later got out of the Navy and served on the US border patrol for many years. He experienced all extremes from the frostbite cold of Vermont to the crazy border troubles of McAllen, Texas. Car chases up to 140 mph, shootings and knifings (getting shot and knifed himself), and numerous other exciting things. There was no doubt talking to him, that he is true-blue Texan for sure!

All in all, a quiet, but memorable day spent remembering our fallen soldiers. 

"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.

Connections to my Uncle Israel Goldberg

The other day I made two happy discoveries related to my great-great uncle Israel Goldberg. As Memorial Day approaches, his death at Camp Cabanatuan in 1942 has been much on my mind. This afternoon at a monthly WW2 veteran's luncheon, I spoke with a veteran who was stationed at Clark Airfield in the Philippines right before Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I told him that my uncle Israel was stationed at Clark at the same time. Though with a different group, my friend was quite familiar with my uncle's squadron group and could tell me about a bit of what they went through before the Philippines fell into the hands of the Japanese.


The same day, and shortly after, I spoke with another veteran who said that while he was stationed in the Philippines in 1945 he was called up for a very special duty. For an entire day he participated in the honor guard's final salute for every single man buried at the American War Cemetery in Manila. My uncle's remains would not be transferred to Manila until sometime in 1947, but I felt a bit like this final salute would have included him as well.


I have known both these veterans for a while, but had never yet made the connection to my family in this sense. Especially with the first one, it is probably one of the closest linkages I've been able to make to my uncle before the Bataan Death March. How appropriate to make this connection in honor of my uncle just in time for Memorial Day.