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…

Iwo Jima Sand

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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"

"My War" as Told Through the Art and Letters of Tracy Sugarman

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When you are a child, the first rule of picking out a book is, “does it have good pictures?" If the answer is yes, then you open the book and read it. It the answer is no, you put the book back on its shelf. Why read a book with no illustrations?

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Then life catches up on you, you grow up and and have to realize that books aren’t all about pictures. Before you know it, all of your “adult” books just have words in them - long, sophisticated words that little children wouldn’t dream of knowing. And if they could, they would dismiss them as nightmares.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. My shelves (though I love each and every one in them), are nonetheless filled with picture-less books with words starting at 5 syllables each. They are long, sometimes dry, and full of lots of and lots of information. I read them and enjoy. I don’t think about the fact that they are picture-less.

However, once in a blue moon - when the unicorns and werewolves come out and play together- the 6 year old in me pops up and demands that I find books with good pictures in them.

That’s how I stumbled on this particular book, My War by Tracy Sugarman.

“disaster in the channel”

About a two years ago, I was visiting my brother in Florida and happened to stop by the Sanford renowned book shop, “Maya Books and Music.” It was completely charming, and I would have been happy walking away with half the store. But since my pocketbook groaned and declared otherwise, I decided I would have to be satisfied with this little find.

The moment I opened its cover, I was struck by the gorgeous watercolors and sketched images liberally distributed throughout the pages: simple pencil portraits of servicemen the author had encountered, dramatic scenes from a storm in the English channel, friend Tommy doing laundry near a windowsill of daffodils.

“Tommy and his laundry, with daffodils”

Alongside these images were detailed letters to his wife, "darling Junie," narrating his life as a young ensign in the US Navy the months surrounding the greatest naval invasion in history, "D-Day," and interspersed with his retrospective commentary years later when he would publish his drawings and letters.

The impetus for “My War” came from a parting gift Sugarman’s wife, June, gave him as he was preparing to go overseas in January, 1944.

“It’s a little something for both us us.”

I edged open the package and peered inside. Sketch pads! And pens and a tin of watercolors!

“How wonderful! You’re too much, Junie. But those are for me. "What’s for you?”

… Very quietly she said, “For me, it’s your sanity. And maybe some pictures so that I’ll know you’re alive and kicking! Hold on real tight, darling. You’ll be back and I’ll be waiting.”

“Junie” did wait, and hundreds of letters later, thousands of miles traveled, a great Naval Invasion, and a World War, Sugarman came home. At end of the book, Sugarman regrets that he was not able to save all the “funny, wonderful, life-sustaining letters” he received from his wife the months and months he was away. “They were read and reread, folded and unfolded until tattered, and finally abandoned when the next sea-soiled envelope arrived.” But thanks to Junie’s care, his did, giving us this thought-provoking and informative narration.

Tracy and his wife june “a summer day at ocean view”

In his preface, Sugarman says,

“I leave it to the historians to chronicle the strategies and dynamics of the global conflict of World War II. With the perspective gained from more than half a century of scholarship, they delineate the battle lines and campaigns, the tactics and struggles of the world I inherited after Pearl Harbor. They know a great deal about “the war”. But they didn’t live my war.

It is my conviction that ever sailor and soldier in World War II fought his own war. It was a struggle that only sometimes permitted him to see the enemy. But as he stared into the darkness from his ship or beachhead, he very soon began to see himself. So new to manhood, he watched himself grow through fear and loneliness, boredom and exaltation. It was an inescapable odyssey for each of us who served.”

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And such an odyssey he paints! Beautiful and haunting at times:

There are those long twilights here now. The sky is billions of miles away, and you feel very much alone. The water stretches away forever -no waves, hardly a ripple. The ships sit alone in the water, each in its own pool of aloneness. The sky arcs up from millions of empty miles beyond the shore. And straight up there’s nothing. It’s big and empty and very quiet. The sun goes away, and it’s still too big, too light. The emptiness comes off the water and crawls right into you.” (July 1 - T. B.Robertson)

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At other times, he writes the raw and truthful: realities of the high price war takes on youth and innocence:

The inconsistency between the American fighter and the American sailor or soldier is staggering. I remember so well how inadequate I felt when I tried to tell you how wonderful those guys were on the beaches last June. I wouldn’t take back a word of it. I feel now as I did then, but coupled with it goes a feeling of wonder. Wonder as to how such marvelous fighters can be such rotten people… Their conceit, their arrogance, their obscenity and vulgarity in front of anyone shames the life out of me… They never apologize for our own shortcomings, and get a majestic sort of pleasure in making the English painfully aware of theirs. In every conversation the “biggest,” the “newest,” the “cleanest,” the “fastest,” the most and the best of the good, the least of the bad… Individually, I would do anything for any of them. But as a group they are the antithesis of anything I desire. I don’t want to close our eyes and pretend the bad and the wrong and the ignorant aren’t there, darling. Those things are real, and too important to both of us. I want only to reject their standards and their values. They revolt and shock me. (Feb 23, 1945)

In his retrospective commentary, Sugarman adds some thoughts to the harsh words he spoke about the American Serviceman back in 1945:

One of my “kids”

One of my “kids”

There are unexpected surprises that one finds when unearthing an intimate record from one’s youth. The most astonishing to me are those letters from the war that describe my perceptions of many of the men with whom I served. They swing from admiration to revulsion, from pride to anger, from pleasure in their company to embarrassment at their provincialism and lack of sensitivity, yet older is not wiser… It is hard to remember how young we all were when we went of to war in 1944. Most of the sailors on my ships really were the “kids” I wrote of in my letter to June. Put to the test of physical courage, they were remarkable, often accomplishing the seemingly impossible and usually with pride and good humor. When off on liberty or leave in a war-torn England, however, their ignorance and immaturity often displayed itself in ways that were embarrassing to their fellow servicemen and arrogantly hostile to our hosts.

For the most part, these were kids who had never been away from home, who were fearful and tried to cover it with bravado, who had little or no sense of history, and often showed that they resented being there. American education had ill prepared them to understand how uniquely fortunate their own country was due to geography, not because we were born to be “number one in everything.” Nor did most of them understand how indebted we were to those who fought alone for so many years, although the shattered homes and churches and towns around them bore the dreadful testimony to the high price that the English had paid for all our freedom. For too many of the Americans, this war was not really our war. It was their war, “and if it wasn’t for us Yanks, they’d sure as hell lose it.” Thankfully, as a nation, we are a long way from the provincialism that was so rampant in many Americans in World War Two. -Sugarman

But even though he had hard words to say about the things he saw, he never once took for granted the sacrifice these boys were making.

“Young men dying seems to me, somehow, the greatest tragedy. The acceptance of death has been something new to me. And I know that death serves only to accentuate the love of living we both share so dearly. The bridge between is so complete, so final that you finally stop thinking of its terrible proximity and cling rather to pulsating life. Your laughter is a little quicker, your thinking is a little less shallow, your energies and ambitions fired with a new urgency.” (August 17)


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For our heart’s sake, not all his letters dwell on the hardships and seriousness of the job he and millions of the boys were experiencing… there are plenty of carefree and amusing accounts, including one which makes you marvel at the serendipitous happenings that sometimes occur in war:

“I had been napping, riding out the foul weather that had stopped all our work off the Robertson, when Mike, the stewards’ mate, excitedly came in my room and shook my shoulder. “Mr. Sweetenin’! Wake up! There’s a Lieutenant Sugarman looking for an Ensign Sugarman. Is you he?” I stared at the grinning sailor and bolted out of bed and raced up to Operations. The signalman pointed to the LST lying off our bow. "Signal came from there, sir.”

I stared across the water at the ship, rolling wildly in the windy chop of the Channel. Marvin here? It was too impossible to believe. But how marvelous if it were so! My older brother had been my role model in so many ways, and I had been the best man at his wedding. But I hadn’t seen him now in over a year. When I was getting my commission at Notre Dame, Marv and his wife, Roni, were stationed in Alabama… In my last letter from the folks, they were rejoicing that Roni was expecting a baby, their first grandchild. But not a word that Marvin might be shipping out to Europe. And now a few hundred yards away, he was coming to Utah Beach! I could just imagine the folks’ faces when they got the news!"

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In his letter to Junie, he related their first “meeting.”

The weather got more and more wild, and there was no way of getting there. So tonight I called their ship by radio and summoned Marv to the radio! Although strictly against regulation, it was too great a temptation. And honey, he sounded so wonderful! The magic of a familiar voice from home is something so good it can’t be described. Imagine, angel, having Marv right here on my beach! … The conversation was pretty crazy, both of us were so damn excited.

[Sugarman] “Hey, I understand you’re gonna be a father! Over.”

[Marv] “You’re yelling me! Over.”

[Sugarman] "I didn’t think you had it in you. Over.”

[Marv] “Are you kidding! Over.”

[Sugarman] I think it’s wonderful! You got a bottle of Scotch? Over.”

[Marv] “Lots of it. Get the hell over here! Over.”

It’s easy to see in their delighted faces the most happy surprise of being reunited with a bit of home on the beachheads of Normandy.


Another time, he relates an amusing incident that happened shortly before he was shipped overseas to England:

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“Late in January 1944, orders came directing our whole outfit to move out. We had all trained exhaustively and were eager to get to the English staging areas…. As we were packing to leave the base, unsettling new orders arrived.”

Sugarman and two other Ensigns, Tommy Wolfe and “Andy” Anderson, were detached to train a new batch of sailors soon to be arriving. Flattered but disappointed, he resigned himself to the fact it’d be a few months more before going over. However 3 days later, they received new orders: “Three officers and thirty men were to proceed immediately to Long Beach, NY to await transport to the ETO.” There was just one hitch… their new crew turned out to be more in the style of the Dirty Dozen rather then the “ship, shape, and bristol fashion” ones they’d just said the adieus to.

Sugarman wasn’t so sure. He’d grown up in Syracuse, NY and the only “tough characters” he was used to were the ones he met on the Lacrosse field and shook hands with at the end of each match.

“I finally took my buddy and fellow ensign, Tommy Wolfe, aside. A tough, street-smart New York kid himself, Tommy looked and sounded like Jimmy Cagney. He grinned at my concern about our new crews. “Relax, Sug. This is the biggest break these characters could dream of. If we’re tough and fair with them, they’ll work out great. I grew up with guys like them.””

Just as Tommy said, it turned out to be okay. “But I wondered how, at twenty-two, I could make these men believe I was tough enough to take them to war.”

On the train north to New York, June rode with the released prisoners. At the first opportunity, I took her aside. “Are you okay? They giving you a hard time?” She laughed. “They’re kids,” she said. “They’re tough kids. I wouldn’t want to be the Germans when they hit the beach. But they’re really very sweet.” I stared at my wife. “Sweet?” “Well,” she said, grinning, “they’re very sweet to me.””


The book is rich and full. The layers of depth and insight that comes from a mere 23 year-old are striking and cause you to go back and re-read the thoughts he penned to his wife during the tempestuous 18 months he spent overseas. 18 months that changed his life and the lives of millions around the world.

I do think have left me unscathed physically and mentally. I do not feel “older thank my years” nor “hardened by the crucible of fire.” Nothing I’ve seen has changed anything fundamentally in me. Possibly my resolution has sharpened some, my enthusiasm slightly tempered, my tolerance and understanding somewhat broadened. I think that’s happened to most of us in some degrees. Being here, there has had to be an assertion of self and independent spirit. If these are bounded by humility and a decent memory of what actually was, then it should be a healthy influence, not corruption. -Tracy Sugarman

Thank you for the lessons, Mr. Sugarman. And thank you for the pictures.


All quotes and images are taken from the book, “My War'“ by Tracy Sugarman


The Patch Bag

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T H E • P A T C H • B A G || Last April, I did a post on Instagram about my "patch bag." I rarely leave the house without it, and it's one of my favorite conversation starters with strangers. Since I've just finished cleaning and updating the patch bag, I thought I'd share a little of it's background.

Several years ago my English Gramps sent me his Royal Navy patch to wear. I didn't have anything to put it on at the time, so I ended up keeping it with his letters... shortly after, I started receiving so many patches from other veterans that I decided to sew them onto an old canvas Soviet surplus bag that had been sitting under my bed for too many years (my attempt to redeem the bag from it's communist background).

I currently have 16 patches on the bag (with more in the queue) including ones from an Iwo Jima Marine, a Chosen Reservoir Marine, an 83rd Infantry Division (and ex Cavalryman), 2nd ID (2nd to none!) and 82nd Airborne

Besides just being a great way to show off my patches (yeah... I'm afraid I'm pretty proud of this ole bag), it's an awesome way of sharing stories about the wonderful veterans I've known with complete strangers, and getting them interested in history or even hearing about their own connections to WW2!

One of my favorite questions, though, came from a 6 year-old little boy who asked if I had done really well in the Boy Scouts. Not quite little fella.

So there's my story. It's not the fanciest bag ever, but it's been so much fun to travel the world with.


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And More Honor Flight (anecdotes from a week with my vets)

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Following Armed Forces Day, thanks to the kindness of dear friends and family, I was able to stay in the D.C. area for another week and a half greeting Honor Flights that came in. During that time, I was privileged to meet a grand total of 22 Flights and nearly 1,350 veterans (ages 70-101) from all over the United States. If the numbers sound crazy, they are a little. But 100% true. That is the beauty of Honor Flight. It brings together an incredible group of Americans for a united cause. A 100 year old Flyboy wants to see his Memorials in D.C.? Honor Flight can do it!

Here are "just a few" of my favorite moments from Honor Flight Week.

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H U M I L I T Y / If you ask pretty much any WW2 veteran about his service in the war, he will probably tell you (with genuine modesty), "I was only doing what we had to do."

B-24 waist gunner, Mr. H., was even a little more self-deprecating than that when he told me that the 9 months he spent in a German POW camp was, "nothing compared to some of the other guys." Despite the lack of food and poor living he experienced at the hand of the Germans (who were themselves starving), he just didn't think it was that significant. Especially, he said, compared to other POWS like Senator John McCain.

Whether he considers himself to be worthy of the title POW or not is for him to decide. But there is no doubt that this man served our country bravely and well. It was an honor to meet this humble American. 


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Queen City Honor Flight has their hands full with this hilarious and energetic 92 year old. His Guardian and I could not stop laughing the entire time. He told me the three ways to get to his age were:
1. Don't get no tattoos.
2. Don't drink.
3. And, well... we'll leave it at that. 

(He added that I better get my life in order quick).

And during the war...? "The Navy didn't want me so they sent me to Florida." Where he "fought the Battle of the Mosquitoes. They were mighty big and tough!"


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Notes from May 27:

Yesterday while we were greeting Space Coast Honor Flight I spotted one of the veterans wearing his original USMC pins and rank on his name tag. Of course I had to stop and talk with him - Marine alert!!
Mr. Mahoney told me a little about his service (taking basic at "Par-adise Island"), and after we had compared notes on the Marine Corps and talked about our mutual love of this splendid branch, he presented me with his Honor Flight challenge coin!! I was blown away. Something I will treasure greatly. Semper fi!

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For some Honor Flight veterans, the trip is a pilgrimage, more in honor and memory of their fathers' service than recognition for themselves. In speaking with this sweet North Carolina veteran, I was particularly moved by his purpose coming to D.C. Mr. A's father had served in the Navy in World War Two and had been a great inspiration to him growing up. So much so, that he too had joined the Navy, wearing the same uniform his father had worn before him.

When Mr. A. had a son of his own, he hoped that he too would follow in the steps of father and grandfather, becoming the 3rd generation to wear the Navy uniform. The uniform was even a perfect fit. But his dreams were crushed when his bright 22 year-old was killed in a car accident.

For Mr. A., yes, Honor Flight was a chance for his long over-due service to be recognized. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for him to personally pay tribute to his own father and hero.


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This is 3-war veteran Harry Miller. Mr. Miller told me that 60 days after he retired from the Army in 1966, he received notification from his local draft board that he had to register for the draft. Enlisting in the Army at 15 years old, Harry had never had time to register. Fighting in Europe in World War II, already in the Army in Korea, as well as early Vietnam, he was already in! But they insisted.

So after a 22+ year career in the army, he signed up for the draft. Thankfully, he was never called up again. 

Harry also told me that after serving in a tank battalion in World War II, he lost most of his hearing.  "I lost my hearing after... probably the first shell was fired," he said. "And it took five years before the ringing stopped in my ears."

I had first met Harry a couple of weeks earlier when I was in D.C. with Greater Peoria Honor Flight, and had the pleasure of running into him again on Memorial Day! He told me that I should carry an umbrella around so I could really be the Statue of Liberty. A terrific guy, and one of America's finest soldiers!


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Finally, in preparation for Memorial Day, the USAA Traveling Poppy Wall had come to D.C. 645,000 poppies representing every American serviceman killed from World War I to the present. Truly, nothing could prepare for its visual power. Thousands upon thousands of poppies. 

I walked around the corner and had to catch my breath. All I could wonder was how many Gold Star family members were represented by each poppy...

If you have a family member, friend, or friend of a friend who was killed in the service of our country, I highly recommend you check out their website and possibly even dedicate a poppy. Click here to learn more: https://poppyinmemory.usaacloud.com/

645,000 poppies, 645,000 servicemen. This is why we have a Memorial Day.

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Chino Planes of Fame Airshow / May 5-6, 2018

Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

The first weekend in May, I was invited out by the Veteran's History Project to the Planes of Fame Airshow in Chino, California. This event has been on my bucket list for several years now, and it did not disappoint!! My friend, Don Baer, head of the Veteran's History Project, had tirelessly worked for months to bring together a stellar group of guest veterans which included such names as:

Dick Cole: the last surviving Doolittle Raider
Lauren Bruner: USS Arizona Survivor
Ed Lopez: WW2 & Korean War P-47 Pilot
Doc Pepping: Combat Medic with the 101st Airborne Division
Sarge Lenticum: Vietnam veteran who served 3 tours with the 101st Airborne
Muriel Engelman: Army Nurse - Battle of the Bulge
Bob Friend: Tuskegee Airman
Vince Speranza: 101st Airborne - Battle of the Bulge, and many, many more.

D-Day veterans, Pearl Harbor veterans, Air Corps, Flying Tigers... The years, the history, the experience, all gathered together, under one tent. It was spectacular. 

Each day the tent would fill with spectators of all ages, excited to meet Living History. Little children who just wanted to shake the hand of a veteran, retired servicemen and women who wanted to talk aviation with the WWII ace, the airborne reenactor who wanted to meet the original Paratrooper, and then the random sightseer who was there for the planes and hotdog stands, knowing little about history or WWII, but left filled with respect, admiration, and a new understanding of the sacrifices made for our country. 

Vince Speranza (101st Airborne WWII) talks with P-47 Pilot, Ed Lopez

I didn't see much of the air show (typical for me) as I ended up spending most the time chatting away with the veterans. How could I not?? It was such a fabulous opportunity to visit with men from all areas of the war.

I shared a few words, and a few laughs with USS Arizona survivor, Lauren Bruner, the first afternoon. Mr. Bruner had a dramatic escape from this tragic ship, suffering 73% burns.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, despite his terrible injuries, his knowledge and abilities were needed, and he was called up by the Navy. Four years later, his war ended in Tokyo Bay with the surrender of the Japanese.  

Wilbur Richardson: B-17 Ball Turret Gunner - 30 missions.

Sometimes I wonder if Doc Pepping is the reason the sun comes up every morning. His cheerful personality and hilarious sense of humor makes him a delight to be around. During the war, Doc parachuted into Normandy on D-Day serving as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne. 

It's always great to see our friends from the Airborne Demonstration Team!

WWII Veteran, Vince Speranza, keeping the attention of these young fellas. 

WWII Veteran Larry Stevens surprised us with a visit to the Veteran's tent. After chatting a few minutes with Mr. Stevens, I learned that he was in the same bomb group as the uncle of a close family friend. From then on we were buddies. Mr. Stevens is another man who helps the sun to rise in the morning with his grateful, cheerful, optimistic personality. After meeting him, it was impossible to stop smiling.

Veterans Ed McMullen (Flying Tigers) and Col. Dick Cole waiting to be presented with a special award from the Chinese government. 

Mr. and Mrs. McMullen. Mr. McMullen was a B24 nose-gunner who flew "the hump" in the China-Burma-India theater with the 308th Heavy Bomb Group, "Flying Tigers." Meanwhile Mrs. McMullen worked as a Riveter at a Lockheed defense plant. She had one brother serving in the Pacific and the other at the Battle of the Bulge. Thankfully, both made it home. Mr. and Mrs. McMullen have been married for over 70 years and are just as precious as can be.

Jack Gutman, a Navy Corpsman not only at the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, but also the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific. 

WWII and Korean War veteran, Ed Lopez sits behind his impressive medal display. 

Last photo, but definitely not the least!! My new friend, Bob Friend. On day 1 of the air show, Mr. Friend and his daughter were the first to arrive. So I got to spend a good half hour chatting away before the rest of the group arrived, followed by the crowds. During the war, Mr. Friend served with the elite Tuskegee Airmen. But though we talked a good deal about his service in the war, hearing about his fascinating and hilarious family was really the icing on the cake. Couldn't have been a better start to the air show weekend.

It was a smashing weekend at Chino. Many, many thanks to Don Baer and the team of the Planes of Fame - Veteran's History Project who worked tirelessly all weekend (and long before) making it an awesome experience for the veterans and spectators. 


"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.

Fabulous Frank of the RAF

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I'd like you to meet Frank, an RAF veteran of WW2. Frank is simply fabulous. When he was 93 three years old, he zip-lined off the Imperial War Museum's 95ft tall viewing tower (nearly as tall as his years were many) 1,000 feet across the canal to the opposite bank. Twice. He did this for a children's charity. A little earlier, Frank had walked 50 miles in 6 days (remember he was 93 at the time) to raise money for the local Church, St. Pauls. Now at 96, he's looking for new adventures to sign up for and new records to break. 

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In 1940, Frank signed up with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He popped around for a bit, serving as ground gunner for a while, some pilot training, then he was shipped to Canada where he spent 6 weeks studying navigation in Toronto. Capable of any position on the bomber at this point, he was eventually assigned as Bombardier on a Lancaster with 625 Squadron, 1st Group Bomber Command RAF. It was rough going.

"In one 35-hour period alone, he flew back to back missions over Dresden and Chemnitz, with barely a moment’s sleep between 18 hours flying time and briefings. "Some others had it so rough," He said, "that they couldn’t go on. They should have been taken off and given six weeks leave to get them mentally fit. But if you finished you had your documents stamped ‘LMF’ – lack of moral fibre. No-one wanted that.”"*

All in all, he flew 22 missions during the war, and an additional 10 missions afterward, dropping food and supplies for Operation Manna before being discharged in 1946.

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Like many veterans of World War Two, the memories of the war would come back to haunt him in later years, with questions of right and wrong. Each veteran has their own way of dealing with the conflict. As you read with Jerry Yellin, he found his answer in forgiveness. Another veteran I know goes to therapy with Iraq veterans. 

As for Frank, he turned to poetry. If not able find the answers, at least it gave him the opportunity to put into words some of his thoughts.

Fifty years after World War Two / My eldest grandson enquired of the / part I then played and what did I think / about killing people? / Replying to this I recalled  / 'In 1940 I joined the RAF / not for a laugh nor for fun / but because War had begun. / For one who dared, I was scared / up there in the sky - / hoped I would not die...'

Later in a Lancaster Bomer's nose / looking down for the Target Markers. / There! To Port, the Targets lit. / Skipper and Engineer see it too / And the aircraft's course is altered by /10 degrees. / I call, 'Open Bomb doors' and report. / 'Still too far to Starboard: Left - left / Left - left and again left - left. / Keep it steady now Steady Steady.'

With Target under Bomb Sigh's cross / So "pear-switch" pressed; / Bombs all go. / There! Below it's all aglow. / When I call 'Close Bomb doors' / All the crew seems more composed - / When Navigator directs Skipper, / Change course, compass 3-20 degrees.' / Now we're returning to Base. / Will a fight give chase? / Will there be more 'flak?' / All crew hope, maybe pray - / we will see Lincoln Cathedral / when night becomes day. / Not thought or prayer for those we've killed - UNTIL MUCH LATER / Only that another Operation has been fulfilled.

Then at last, the War is over. / And thankful feeling that life is now a "Bed of Clover" and / I am proud to have become a father. / But now for UNTIL MUCH LATER! / Thoughts return of targets bombed / and wondering how many children, / how many mothers did we kill? / In our participation to eliminate / the Nazi ill. 

Until Much Later

FS Tolley - 1995


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Frank will turn 97 this summer. But who's counting years? He’s certainly not. He continues to pop around like the spry young thing he is, putting those much younger to shame.

When we were in Holland last year, we were so pleased to spend quite a bit of time with Frank.  Throughout the weekend, his enthusiasm and energy had us all running to keep up with him.

One particular evening, after a taxing day, he had been taken back to the lodge for an early night. Before we knew it, he had joined our party again with declarations of, "What do you think I am? A child? I'm not the least bit tired. I'm 96. I didn't come to Holland for an early bed!" His semi-irate manner had us all laughing in delight and wanting to be just like him when we are 96. Thanks for the example, Frank.  Though really? How can we ever match up to you?

*Excerpts taken from the excellent article: Lancaster Bomber memories or fundraising WW2 veteran

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. 

Reliving the WWII USO Canteen Days with Roll Call Fort Worth

Last week we headed up to Fort Worth for our monthly WWII Veterans' Luncheon. As I'm sure we've probably mentioned many times before, this luncheon is the highlight of each month for us. About 2 years ago, a dear Iwo Jima veteran friend in the Dallas/Fort Worth area connected us with Kevin Boldt, a retired Army Medic and Care Home operator who would get together each month with about 60+ WWII veterans for a special luncheon to talk about their war experiences. 

Mr. Boldt told us that initially the luncheon was just a handful of folks who would meet at their local Golden Corral. However as more and more veterans heard about it, the luncheon grew until they had to happily move to a much larger facility. By the time we made our first visit, 60+ WWII veterans were on the roster, plus nearly 100 family members and friends.

Richard Stanley, US Army, escorted by the local Civil Air Patrol.

In the last two years, it has grown enormously and now includes numerous veterans of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In fact it has grown so much that in the last few months, after lots of work on the part of Mr. Boldt and his incredible staff, the monthly WWII Veterans Luncheon became officially incorporated and titled, "Roll Call Fort Worth." Their new mission statement: "To share through education, publication, and fraternity, constructive remembrance of Honorable actions taken by American Military veterans and service members." 

Mr. Boldt interviews one of our new veterans, 99 year-old Homer Cox. (Photo credit: Joe Schneider)

At each luncheon, Mr. Boldt takes the mic around introducing new veterans, remarking on birthdays and anniversaries (we have several well into 70+ years of wedded happiness), and then concluding with a special veteran spotlight where he interviews one of the veterans about the service for all to hear.

This last month, the veteran highlighted was with the 7th Armored Division during the Battle of the Bulge. On anniversaries, such as Pearl Harbor Day or Victory in Europe Day, the veterans share their thoughts on where they were and what was going on. It is really a step back in time to listen to them.

Two WWII veterans go over a European Theatre map. (Photo credit: Joe Schneider)

So getting back to last weekend. Honestly, each luncheon tops the last. And last week was no exception. Once again it was standing room only for a house packed with men (and women!) who have bravely served our country over the last 75 years. B-17 pilots, Navy gunners, concentration camp liberators, paratroopers, Iwo Jima Marines, former German and Japanese POWs, and pretty much anything or position you can think of. The youngest WWII vet is about 88 and the oldest 101, with a whole bunch of 90's, 92's, 95's, 97's, and a couple of 99's in between. Pretty, pretty fabulous. I can't even begin to imagine how many years they are all added together.

Two of our adorable Navy veterans. (Photo credit: Joe Schneider)

There are so many- yet so few- words to describe how meaningful and beautiful these afternoons are. In a way it feels a little like the USO Canteen days of WWII. Greeting the veterans as they arrive (en masse), chatting with them about their families, where they grew up, their military service, and keeping them stocked up on coffee and tea. 

They are not the strapping 19-year old soldiers they were when they first visited the USO Canteens in 1944, now they have a few more wrinkles, maybe a walker or cane (and that is a maybe), and perhaps can't cut quite the rug on the dance floor as they did 70+ years ago; but they still have that same twinkle in their eyes, rib-tickling humor, and infectiously genuine delight in life. 

It is always an honor to be a part of such a wonderful family as our Fort Worth friends. 

More photos from last week:

The Cute Couple

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

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

Reading WWII Weekend

The last few months have hurried along faster than any of us expected, and it is quite hard to believe we are halfway through the month of June. Some of us are still scratching our heads and wondering where March and April went. All that to say, that hopefully in the next few weeks, we can catch up a bit on some of the doings of "Operation Meatball."

Two weekends ago, through a great blessing and provision, we found ourselves in Reading, Pennsylvania, after a rather interesting trek up North (the rains of Texas seemed to be following us the whole way).

Each year the Mid Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) holds a grand Airshow over the D-Day anniversary. It's called the Reading WWII Weekend. We've been hearing about this great event for several years now, but the timing had just never worked out; however this year it did, and it was fabulous. For three days, the grounds surrounding the MAAM are transformed into the various theatres of operation during the war.

Walking around you can go from fighting forces on the European front to the Marines of the Pacific. Go a little further and you run into the Brits and Russians, while just a brief turn in the road takes you to home-front America with Singers and Entertainers (like Abbot and Costello) in a little cafe, a walk-in home from the 1940s, Red Cross workers, a movie theatre, Candy-shop and more. 

One of the main highlights of the event is the large assortment of guest speakers and veterans of WWII you can come to hear. A Marine Corps veteran talk of his experiences on Iwo Jima, or a 1st Division man about the Beaches of Omaha on D-Day. An Auschwitz survivor, even a former Hitler Youth member. Their stories are remarkable. 

Because it would take a great while to catalogue the whole lovely weekend, below are some of the highlights.


One of the high points of the Reading WWII Weekend was meeting Mr. Sal Castro and his delightful wife (not pictured). Mr. Castro was a combat veteran of the 32nd Infantry Division and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Civil Air Patrol during the war.


Mr. Sebastian de something-italian-and-very-hard-to-pronounce, an adorable little Italian who didn't walk - he danced everywhere - declared to me, "I'm 93, I still have my hair, and I still have my teeth!" 


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One of the nicest veterans we met was Mr. K., a sailor from the USS John W. Weeks. During one of the musical programs at the event, we were just getting up to escape the rain when he motioned for us to come over. "I have a question," he said. "You look like you are dressed the way they were in the 1940s." "Yes sir!" We told him. "You see," Mr. K. said, "I am a WWII veteran, and I grew up in the 30s and 40s and that is how all the girls dressed then." He then went on to tell us about the clothes and the music of the time, tearing up at the latter. When we asked why the music made him cry, he told us that it was the memories attached to them. Some hard, many wonderful.

The song, "White Cliffs of Dover," was especially close to him and made him tear up because it reminded him of his late wife, a lovely Irish war-bride whose heart he had captured and brought home. "We weren't in love at first," he said about his wife. "We just clicked and got along real well. It was after we were married that the romance came." He told us that he saw her "27 times" during his time in the Navy, and decided to marry her when he was sailing around New Guinea. She agreed and they were happily married nearly 65 years. We eventually had to say goodbye to our lovely new friend, and as we were going he said, "I'm so glad you came over. Because I was sure you girls were dressed like they did (and like my wife did) in 1945, but I had to ask." To see the delight in his face at recalling these old memories really made our day complete, and added a fresh reminder of why we love what we do.


Faith chatting with our a dear friend John McCaskill. Mr. McCaskill is entirely to blame for getting us hooked on Honor Flight, and we couldn't thank him enough for it. 


The whole weekend in Reading was just as lovely as it could be. Though our first, there will be hopefully many more times to come.

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. 

Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt.2

First sight of Iwo Jima

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

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

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

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

- - - - - - - 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - - - - 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - - - - 

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

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

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

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

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

A 16 year-old Tsuruji Akikusa

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

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

- - - - - - - 

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

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

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

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

The polaroid instant from our meeting. 

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

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

- - - - - - - 

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

Jim Skinner USMC on the beach where he landed in 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

There is no underestimating the power of forgiveness:

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

The Brotherhood of the Marines:

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

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

We must never forget:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Singing for a Veteran

One of my favorite parts of meeting and talking with veterans of the Second World War is hearing my sister Faith sing to them and watching their responses. Some sit thoughtfully, others tear up, but the best is when they sing with her. Recently, while we were in Conneaut, Ohio, for the D-Day Reenactment, this happened several times. Faith would begin White Cliffs of DoverWe'll Meet Again, or some other classic from their time, and suddenly out of nowhere we would hear a wonderfully rusty voice chiming in, singing along with her. 

One such veteran was Mr. Arthur Engelberg. At the ripe age of 99 1/2 (he made sure we didn't forget that extra half), Mr. Engelberg is the very picture of the engaging, robust, World War II veteran. He told us that he rises every morning, looks at himself in the mirror and says, "Thank you, God, for a new day, -and thank you for making me better looking everyday." There was a sparkle in his eyes and a bit of a leprechaun in him as he signed my newspaper, "Brad Pitt." He said that his key to life is a grateful attitude. 

Moments like these are really quite thrilling to me when they occur, bringing us back briefly into a bygone era. Today there is not much connection with the WWII generation. My generation listens to different music, wears different clothes, and has entirely different interests. "Fun" used to mean playing outside, even if that was just marching around with paper hats for crowns and sticks for scepters, or kicking a ball in the street with friends. Not so today. Now, fun means chatting every spare moment on a smart phone or playing the latest Playstation or Xbox game.

All of this does not help to bridge the gap between our generations, and it is easy to forget that yes, they were once young like us, too. We may think their music is out of date or old-fashioned, but it isn't for them. The music that is considered old fashioned or retro was at the top of the charts in their day. The movies that are labeled out of date,  or not interesting enough, were the box-office hits of their time. 

Mr. Arthur Engelberg teaches us to sing, Doodle-li-do, a delightful little ditty. He was by far the best singer in our group!

All this to say how important it is for us to understand the time they grew up in, the culture that formed their identity, and all that made them who they are today.  WWII veterans are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. They have richness of experience and perspective from decades of life that we would be wise to learn from.  We have found that when Faith sings to them, a gap is bridged and a connection is made that goes deeper than what an ordinary conversation could do. It seems to say, "I want to identify with you because I care about you; because you are valuable." And they appreciate it so much. Not every one can sing the songs of WWII (I can't for sure), but there are so many ways to show that you are interested in their life, that you want to learn from them, and that you are grateful for their sacrifice. Whatever effort you make is paid back ten-fold when you see their faces. Life is just so much richer for both.