Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors: Home from the Islands

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I arrived home from traveling all over the Pacific Islands with 7 Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers, who fought and spilled blood there 74 years ago.

It was a magical 10 days.

Sponsored by the Best Defense Foundation, we stood atop Mt. Suribachi and watched a Marine point to where he had landed on February 19, 1945. We walked along the side of Suicide Cliffs in Saipan and listened as a former Army Lt. Col. and Green Beret explained what it was like to see hundreds of misguided natives willingly throw themselves over the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of the Americans. And we picked up pieces of the tarmac on which the Enola Gay made her famous voyage, changing the course of history forever.

Even as I write now, I am getting chills up my arms.

There is obviously much to tell. For now, I will give you a sampling of photos, with hopefully more to come in the future.


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Rondo Scharfe. 16 year old Coxswain at Iwo Jima. His landing craft was hit just as he approached the beach. 17 of the 36 Marines on board were immediately killed. Rondo's sternum was split open, his front teeth were knocked out, and his nose was broken. In the chaos, and not aware of his injuries except that he had a huge pain in his chest, Rondo kept telling himself that, "16 was too young to have a heart attack. Just too young to have a heart attack." Before he bled out, someone grabbed him and pulled him ashore where he was saved.

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Fred Harvey, USMC, landed on February 19, 1945 with the 5th Marine Division. He made it 7 days before being seriously wounded after taking 3 Japanese grenades in his foxhole. Fred was evacuated off the island and spent the rest of the war in a body cast in hospital. Later on, Fred received the Silver Star for his bravery during a night patrol early on in the invasion of Iwo, when he was left to defend himself and a wounded comrade after being ambushed by the Japanese.

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Same Flag, 14 Years Apart:

On top of Mt. Suribachi with Iwo Jima Survivor Fred Harvey, 5th Marine Division. Fred and I are holding the SAME flag that my brothers brought to Iwo Jima 14 years ago, when they were 10 and 12 years old. So grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for making this special moment possible.


More to follow shortly…

"Today Christian Day"

"You Christian?" The words were spoken in English by a small Japanese man. He had just entered a dark single prison cell somewhere in Tokyo, and was addressing the bruised and bloodied occupant. He carried a few morsels of food for the American prisoner.
"Yes." Said the American flyboy, turned POW.
"Me Christian." Said the little man. "Today Christian day."
The American didn't understand. "What do you mean?"
"Today Christian day." The man repeated.
The American still didn't understand, and the man repeated the phrase a few more times. Then it struck him. Easter was April 1st. It must be Easter.

Last week I had the wonderful privilege of spending the afternoon with my fabulous friend, World War Two veteran and Japanese POW, Fiske Hanley. Mr. Hanley is amazing. At 98, he just goes and goes and goes. Showing me his calendar, I couldn't help but notice it was all marked up in red!

WWII B-29 Bomber

During the war, he served in the Army Air Corps flying the spiffy new B-29 bombers. A couple of years ago, the girls and I were attending an Iwo Jima reunion out in Wichita Falls, TX. The first day there we ran into Mr. Hanley. "What are you doing here?" We asked. "You aren't a Marine."

"Nope." He laughed. "But I'm an honorary Marine." Then he pulled out a certificate from his jacket and said, "I bombed Iwo Jima a month before the Marines landed... most of our bombs missed the target and landed on the beaches and in the water. We killed a lotta fish. But, we did one good thing. The bombs that hit the beach created ready-made foxholes for the Marines when they landed in February. So you see, they made me an Honorary 'Marine Foxhole Builder.'" We all had a good laugh over this.

Little he know at the time of the bombings on Iwo Jima, that within just 2 short months, his entire war would take a drastic change. 


On March 27, 1945, Fiske Hanley's B-29 was shot down over Japan. He was forced to bail out and parachute onto Japanese soil. Out of his entire 10-man crew, just one other managed to parachute to safety.

It was only his 7th mission.

The story that follows of his capture and subsequent torture by the Japanese as a "Special War Criminal" is one of amazing courage.

Landing in a rice field, Fiske was met by a furious mob of Japanese civilians with farm tools and bamboo spears. He barely escaped with his life when the local police arrived and put the two Americans in a back of a truck. Then they headed to Tokyo for interrogation by the Japanese version of the Gestapo, the Kempeitai.

As an American B-29 Bomber, Fiske was considered by the Japanese to be a civilian killer and a war criminal. From then on he would receive "Special Treatment." This included regular beatings, opening his wounds so they could not heal, starvation, and solitary confinement. By the time he was liberated in August of 1945, Fiske had dropped from a healthy 175 pounds to a mere 96.


When I visited him last week, he related a remarkable story to me.

A few days after his capture, Fiske was lying in a single cell. He was in pain from untreated wounds he had received from his crash. Everything he had heard about the Japanese treatment of POWs told him to expect the worst. Considering the welcoming committee that had greeted his landing, the rumors weren't far from the truth.

The door opened, and a "Peon" came in carrying a stipend of food for Fiske. "I call him a peon," he told me, "Because he was the lowest of the low in Japanese society. Nobody cared about him."

The little man spoke in a whisper, "You Christian?"

"Yes." Said Fiske.

"Me Christian." Said the little man. "Today Christian day."

Fiske didn't understand. "What do you mean?"

"Today Christian day." The man repeated.

He still didn't understand, and the man repeated the phrase a few more times. Then it struck him, Easter was April 1st. It must be Easter.

Over the next few days of his captivity there, he found out that the little man's family had been converted by Christian missionaries a few generations back. But because of their social status (literally at the bottom of the totem pole), no one ever bothered to enforce the religion of the land on this simple Japanese family.

Fiske was only held at that prison for a short time, but all the while he was there, the little Japanese man brought him what ever extra things he could sneak in to the cell.

"Easter is on April 1st this year." He added, 73 years later. 

As he told me this story, I couldn't help wondering about the missionaries and the impact their visit had on an American POW so many year later. You never know what lives you will touch down the road... people who will not be born until you are long passed.

Liberation! Fiske is Far left, behind the guy in the white shorts. 

Mr. Hanley would spend 6 months as a "Special" POW," enduring unending hardships... but this brief encounter was a spark of hope amidst all the darkness.

Wounded on the 15th of January

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I've written about him before as one of the most remarkable men we’ve ever met. A real man’s man, true soldier, patriot, and completely charming gentleman, are just a few of Mr. Gene Gilbreath’s many wonderful attributes. But today, in honor of him and the 73rd anniversary of a significant day in his life, we thought we’d share with you what he told us about this particular day:

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Early the morning of January 15th, ’45, there was a small patrol of us (six of us I believe), going from Cobru, Belgium to Noville. Probably two thirds of the way up, this fellow who was leading the patrol came back and said, “Gene, I just can’t do this any more.” He gave me a Thompson, I gave him my M1, went on up into Noville.

We located a somewhat open garage right close to where we went up, and we stayed there the rest of the evening -or rest of the night. Between 7 and 8 the next morning I was on guard duty, and the boys were awake and I told my squad leader, “I’m gonna go scavenge up some blankets.” (because we had no heavy clothing). I went out and went up the street in Noville, toward -well it turned out to be toward the church- and this first house I went in, up and down and nothing. Absolutely nothing. No sheets, not even a piece of paper. So I came back down, and as you can see, these sidewalks are very narrow. Just as I turned to go in to the second house I heard this big noise. Loud noise. Well, I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, and I don’t remember a lot of pain. It was just I knew I was shot bad, but I don’t remember a lot of pain.

I’d been hit in the chest and hit the ground bleeding and sucking blood. I did a little praying, and I called for the medics. The medics didn’t come. I did that three times and I finally decided, “I’d better get outta here.” I didn’t see the guy that shot me; I haven’t found anybody that did. Any rate, I managed somehow to get this Thompson over this shoulder, held this arm like this, and walked back to where the boys were (which was probably a hundred and... maybe 200, 300 feet maybe). They gave me a shot of morphine, and my squad leader and I started back to the aid station -which was about a mile. I got within, probably a 100 yards or so, I ran out of steam and he carried me the rest of the way and put me on the jeep.

And that’s the last I knew till 10:30 that night in a field hospital in Luxembourg, Belgium... It broke my collar bone, and of course screwed up these radial nerves. Of course broke this arm pretty bad. And I’ve got about this much shorter... Perhaps a half-inch shorter left arm than the right. But radial, radial nerve damage was, was really the most serious part of it."

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Mr. Gilbreath was shipped to England where he spent the next several weeks recovering, than he was sent home for more treatment. His war was over. A couple of years ago, we had the privileged and honor to visit the exact location where he had been wounded and hear from him just how it happened. We could almost see everything as it happened, so many years ago.

Though his stint in the Airborne was shorter than he would have liked, if you ask to him today he will tell you that being in the 101st Airborne was one of the most defining things in his life. Thank you Mr. Gilbreath. 

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. 

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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. 

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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.