Back to the Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

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

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

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

The Bombs Bursting in Air: A short story for the 4th of July

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Sharing this story from a couple of years ago... a little something to get you in the mood for Independence day.


"Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air??

Lt. Col. Tom Kalus is one of those very rare Marines who happened to be a participant in two of the greatest moments in Marine Corps history: the Battle of Iwo Jima (WW2) and the Chosin Reservoir (Korea). Both events are known for their intensity of the fighting and the bravery of the Marines against unbelievable odds.

Shortly after I met Col. Kalus, he related a story to me which remains one of my favorite ones I can remember a veteran telling me... 


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One evening of the Marine reunion we both attended a few years ago, Col. Kalus asked me, "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air?"

Of course! Who can forget those inspiring lines written by Francis Scott Key and sung so often at sports events and holidays.

"When I was on Iwo," he went on, "About the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song, the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine had said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. I know I never will listen to it again the same.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Support operation meatball

Jerry Yellin: The Fighter Pilot Who Found Forgiveness

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

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

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


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

For Mr. Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where, “There wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun... The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away.”
— The Washington Post
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His wife helped him through much of his PTSD, but the real turning point came when he learned his son was going to marry the daughter of a Japanese man, trained during the war to be a Kamikaze pilot. He could hardly believe it at first. So many of his friends had been lost at the hands of the Japanese, and now his prospective in-laws were to be the very enemy he had fought against. 

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

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

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

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Dedicate a mile of the Marine Corps Marathon to your favorite Marine!

With 15 days left before we run the Marine Corps Marathon we wanted to make a special offer to y'all.

As you know, Jubilee, Faith, and I are running this marathon for the Iwo Jima Association of America to raise money to bring veterans back to Iwo Jima. 

For a donation of $10 or more, we will dedicate ONE mile of the marathon to a Marine of YOUR choice. 

How this works: 
1. Send us his name and time of his service in the Marine Corps. Optional: Unit, location of service, and/or a photo.

2. During the marathon we will have a printed certificate with your Marine's name and information on it, as well as the name of the sponsor (you), and we will take a photo with his certificate, for you, in front of his dedicated mile.

3. Please make sure to include your email address so that we can send you the photo afterwards.

Though we only have a limited number of spots, you are welcome to sponsor as many Marines as you would like, with separate donations. Reminder: Each dedicated mile is $10. 

Click Here to Dedicate a Mile to YOUR Marine

 

For George: Remembering A Great Marine

Many people come into your life. More go out of it. And a few of them touch your life in ways you couldn't have dreamed. George Cattelona is one of the few.

Anyone who ever met Mr. Cattelona knows what a character he was. One of his favorite sayings was, "I always try and give em' hell where ever I go." But for all his joking around, he had the rare and beautiful quality of true kindness and genuine sincerity. Visiting with him at reunions over the last couple of years and getting to know him better each time, whether it was killing a few hours in the hotel lobby waiting for his car to be repaired or galavanting about the MCX at Camp Pendleton, these two qualities of his became apparent and touched our hearts tremendously.

Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.


Virginia Beach 5th Marine Division reunion in 2015. George and his war buddy, John Coltrane.

The girls and I fondly called him our "Prospector." He may have been born in the 1920s, but there was an almost intangible aura about him that seemed to come from another time. He saw hard things on Iwo Jima. His before and after portraits taken during his time in the Corps give that away. It was difficult for him to talk about Iwo, nevertheless he did because it was so important for his buddies to be remembered. He was absolutely devoted to their memory.

I know the last few months following his accident were really hard for him. Mom and I were able to visit him in late May, and it broke my heart to see a man who was everything the Marine Corps stood for, everything that is American, noble, brave, and true, suffer so. Just a few months ago it seemed he would go on forever. And now, to hold his beautiful hands, look into his eyes and only see confusion in them; to listen to him talk about the men he served with on Iwo Jima as if they were still there, and to give him answers to his questions that only made him more frustrated. It made me cry. I didn't want to say goodbye and have that be my last memory.

During our last visit, like a break in the clouds on a stormy day as if in answer to my prayer, for a few minutes that old familiar twinkle, (slightly ornery, slightly mischievous), came back into his eyes as he cracked a few jokes that only the George Cattelona I knew could make. He pretended to be annoyed that we were holding up his lunch, but the smile curling up from under his moustache gave him away.

There's so much more about him I've left out. Losing him is hard. Harder than I imagined. In his passing it feels like a world of knowledge, wisdom, love, kindness, and sincerity has passed with him. We'll always love you Mr. C.

Semper Fi: San Diego, Camp Pendleton, and the Iwo Jima Reunion

“The doctor gave me a mask and said, ‘Put this on.’ ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Is it so I don’t spread germs?’ ‘No,’ the doctor said, ‘So they don’t know how old you are.’ I was 19 years old.” 


19 and doing a man’s job. This is what Robert Bergen, Navy Corpsman on Iwo Jima, related to us last Friday as we chatted over a dinner honoring Iwo veterans. This is one of the many remarkable things we heard last weekend at the annual Iwo Jima Association Reunion in San Diego, California, commemorating and remembering the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history.  Last year I was able to go to the reunion in Washington, DC, but as the girls could not make it, we were all anxious to make this one together. Especially as this year was to be a joint reunion of the East and West Coast veterans. So after saving up our pennies for several months, we finally arrived in Carlsbad, California, the headquarters for the Iwo Jima reunion. 

George Vouros, USS IZARD, and Jubilee at the Iwo Jima Reunion

And what a week it was! Unforgettable. Amazing. Excellent company and conversation. There is too much to relate in one blogpost, so here are some highlights.

George Vouros, gunner on the destroyer USS Izard (DD-589), told me that shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed he went down to the Marine Corps recruitment office with his best friend to enlist. The recruitment officer took one look at him (height 5'3"), and then at his best friend (close to 6 feet), and said, “Sorry. You’re too short. You have to at least be 5' 4.” Disappointed, but nonetheless still determined to serve his country, Mr. Vouros joined the Navy. Fast forward a couple years and his ship was just off of Iwo Jima, parallel to Mt. Suribachi. There they put up a fierce defense for the Marines on the island, very narrowly missing a few shells fired from the Japanese on Iwo. 

Little did he know at the time that his best friend (the one he had tried to enlist in the Corps with), was fighting and would be eventually killed on the same piece of volcanic ash that the USS Izard was anchored off of. The tragic irony of life.

This picture couldn’t help but evoke the lines "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the [Camp Pendleton] saloon; The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune," from Robert Service’s poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” No doubt the jag-time tune was something on the theme of "from the halls of Montezuma..."

Ivan Hammond, 5th JASCO, shares a behind the scenes story of the flagraising on Iwo Jima. 

Mr. Robert Bergen, Navy Corpsman on Iwo Jima.

One of the really poignant moments during the event was a veterans’ panel one of the evenings. 10-12 Iwo vets recalled memories from the island, some hilarious, some serious. Mr. Bergen (mentioned above) related an incident with a patient that required immediate and intensive care. The man, a somewhat important figure, had been wearing a fur coat when he got all shot up. The fur from the coat became imbedded in his wounds, and when they opened him up, all they could see was fur and blood. It was impossible to distinguish anything. With little field experience, Bergen asked the head doctor, “What do I do?” “Irrigate!” The doctor said. Bergen had no idea how exactly to irrigate, so he took gallons and gallons of water and flushed it over the man’s body to clean the wounds. Then he patched him up and moved on. Years later he saw in the papers a notice about the ship the man with the fur coat had been on. Wondering if the man had survived, he wrote the paper to find out. Shortly after, he received a letter from the very man saying it was him, and thanking the “doctor” for saving his life. Bergen never had the heart to tell him he wasn’t a doctor, just a simple 19 year-old given a bunch of bandages, morphine, and told to “irrigate!"

During the symposium on Saturday, the sad news was announced the General Lawrence Snowden, highest ranking officer still alive who had served on Iwo, had just passed away. I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting General Snowden 2 years ago during the 70th Anniversary Reunion of Honor trip to Iwo Jima, and he left an indelible impression on not just me, but everyone who came in contact with him. Gen. Snowden throughout his entire life devoted his work to the reconciliation of Japanese and American relations, and you could hardly find a more gracious and noble man, committed to truth and honesty, who loved his country passionately. It was moving to see the response of the men who had served with him the past 30 years during these Iwo Jima Reunions. Stoic men, who hardly ever showed emotion, brought to tears at the passing of this great and revered man. America lost a great patriot, but the legacy General Snowden left will continue on forever, never to be forgotten. You can read more about his magnificent life here: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2017/02/18/lt-gen-lawrence-snowden-battle-iwo-jima-survivor-dies/98098072/


Not all of the weekend was so serious. There was quite a bit of hilarity that went around; and how can there not be when you have a gathering of nonagenarian Sailors and Marines from all walks of life and backgrounds -California surfer, Boston yankee, North Carolina southerner, Nebraska westerner, Greek, Indian, and all around American mutt, all who have had more life experience than pretty much anyone else. Throw in a few walkers, canes, portable oxygen tanks (“Anyone want a shot of oxygen?” - a comment we heard more than once), and it is a constant circus.

Faith and Iwo Jima Veteran Fred Harvey

We swapped old family recipes, discussed business, laughed at the disputes between Parris Island Marines vs the Camp Pendleton "Hollywood" Marines, and heard a few humorously odd stories from growing up in America during the great depression. 

It was a full weekend, both physically and emotionally, but ever so rewarding. Sometimes folks have asked why we don't do more film interviews. Honestly, because the relationships we are trying to cultivate with these dear men is more than just their oral history. No mistaking, we have done some film interviews, and we *always* write down their stories on paper. But in building a long-lasting friendship with them, we are laying in a store of memories for the future when there are no more WWII veterans.

It's hard to imagine a time when these reunions will no longer happen. When we can no longer sit in a room full of Iwo Jima Marines, or Salerno T-Patch soldiers, or hear about the cold of Bastogne from a former tank commander or paratrooper. Our children will probably never know what it was like to know one of the "Greatest Generation," just as we will never know what it was like to chat over coffee with a veteran of "The Great War." And though it seems like they will be here forever, they are gone before you know it. Life is truly but a vapour, here one day and gone the next. Take every opportunity, not just with WW2 veterans, but with your grandparents, elderly friends, and all those beautiful old people that are so often overlooked. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tribute to a Marine

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

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


A Weekend with the Marines: The Fifth Marine Division Reunion Recap


Just a few months late... but here is a recap from last October when San Antonio was honored to play host to the Fifth Marine Division's annual reunion. In 2015, Jubilee and I had attended the reunion held in Virginia Beach, and it was just one of our favorite experiences ever. So when they announced that 2016's reunion location was to be San Antonio, we couldn't have been more pleased. 

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Through different Iwo Jima reunions, we happily knew almost everyone in attendance, and those we didn't know we quickly became good friends with. That is the reality of going to these events: whatever expectations you arrive with, you leave with a brand new extended family. So when October finally came around, we were quite ecstatic. Marines of the 5th Marine Division came from all around the country - including Hawaii - and descended upon San Antonio, and for a whole weekend, it was just one grand party.

The first evening was what we would call "catch up time" as we reconnected with old friends. Faith had been invited to sing, so for quite a while she serenaded the folks with a variety of songs from Glenn Miller's Sentimental Journey to Andy Williams' Moon River and the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody. Every so often, a harmonica or two would chime in, adding wonderfully to the atmosphere of the singing. (Note about the harmonicas. There was a great surplus of these fabulous instruments all week. It seemed as if there was always at least one going, and almost as often a duet. Of course the theme song for the week was the Marine Corps Hymn, but it was closely followed by Swanee River and Oh Susanna!)

At the other side of the room, a couple of Marines and one Navy man were have a rousing debate that boiled down to two things: Who caused the most trouble to their superiors, and who had the best looking photo from their time in the service? Boy, it was hilarious. The discussion concluded with some more harmonica music. Naturally. 

Day 2 of the reunion was spent at one of my favorite museums in America: the National Museum of the Pacific, in Fredericksburg. If you ever get to Texas, no matter where you are, it is worth the drive to visit. A couple of years ago, they renovated the entire museum, and now it is so packed full of information, artifacts, history, military equipment, and everything WWII in the Pacific Theatre related that it will literally take you all day to go through (and that is if you start at opening hours and go to closing). But that is only one part. They have a fabulous Pacific Combat zone where they do remarkable demonstrations and have lots more military equipment, PT boats, and Living History demonstrations, so that will take you another day. Last year, I managed to talk the family into going to the museum about 5 times in 6 months. So we kinda like it (now I'll get off the soapbox and get back to the reunion).

It is pretty much the best experience in the world to walk through a museum on WWII with the veterans who were there.

A special memorial program had been planned for the Iwo Jima veterans in the courtyard of the Museum. When the bus of veterans arrived, they were greeted by an Honor Guard and various dignitaries from the Pacific War Museum. Despite a light rain, the ceremony was beautiful as they remembered the brave Marines who fought for the 5th Division. Instead of a great long description of everything, I'll let the next few pictures tell a little of the story. 

There are few things more stirring to the heart than to watch an old soldier stand at attention for the flag he fought hard to defend. Make that the last remaining veterans of a division who made a name for their entire Corps when the American flag was proudly raised on Iwo Jima, and it nearly brings on the waterworks. God bless these dear men.

Faith was asked to sing the National Anthem, and the all around favorite: I'll Be Seeing You. If the waterworks weren't on yet, the last song certainly brought them on for several of the vets. 

Two of our very hearty and happy Marines. Mr. Hammond (left) and Mr. Bell (right) are two of the driving forces in the Iwo Jima reunions. They also have million dollar smiles. 

I'm here with my good friend in front of a plaque for the ship the USS DeHaven. This ship was named after one of his relatives (and Arctic explorer) Edwin Jesse De Haven. Unfortunately the ship was sunk off of Guadalcanal only 133 days after it was commissioned. The second USS DeHaven did a little better for herself serving all the way through Vietnam. 

One of the most remarkable characters from the reunion, this guy personifies the Marine Corps: Tough, indefatigable, a bit curmudgeonly, but with a heart of gold.


Now I have to introduce you to one of my favorite ladies from the reunion. Her name is Jimmie. At 83 she is one of the most adventurous women I know. For years and years she has traveled all over the globe, and just a few months ago she was in India visiting friends. Whenever I see her, we have the most delightful chats, made even more so by her charming Louisiana accent. 

In the beginning of 1945, Ms. Jimmie was a 12 year old girl who was very proud of her big brother, Harrydale "Harry" Hyde, a United States Marine. He had lied about his age in 1943 and joined at the age of 16. Now, all she knew was that he was off fighting in some corner of the Pacific. That corner happened to be Iwo Jima, where the bitterest fighting in Marine Corps history was happening. 

Ms. Jimmie and the handsome Iwo Jima veteran Sam Prestigiacomo

One day in late April, Ms. Jimmie was alone at the house when the doorbell rang. She ran to the door and found a young Western Union boy waiting. He was there to deliver a telegram. At first he wouldn't give it to her on account of her age, but as there was no other adults and he had a pile of telegrams to deliver, he finally handed it over. When her mother arrived home, she refused to open it, knowing all to well what she would find. Harry was dead. On February 28, he had been killed on the infamous Hill 362, fighting gallantly and earning the Silver Star, the third highest decoration awarded by the United States. It was a bitter blow to the young girl. But that is not the end. Six years later, nearly to the day, on the evening of February 27, 1951, Jimmie Hyde (now Watson) gave birth to a darling little girl. Before the girl was born, Jimmie had already decided what the name was to be, regardless of the gender. The little girl was named Harry.


Faith and Mr. Coltrane

One of the highlights of the weekend was the closing banquet. The line running around was, "you sure clean up well." And they certainly did. It's a mighty fine sight to see an old Marine dressed up in the brilliant blues of the Corps. 

One of the "smashingest" looking of the group was our friend Mr. Coltrane (pictured left). We call him our "Marine Corps Teddy Bear" because he really is just one lovable teddy bear with the sweetest North Carolina accent. A few months ago when we called him on his birthday he said, "I'm 94 today, so it must mean I'm finally an old man!" Then he laughed real hard.  

Mr. Coltrane returned to Iwo Jima last year for the first time since WWII. It was a trip which he had put off for many years, but finally decided when the opportunity came that it was time. He had suffered from terrible nightmares from the battle, and he hoped this trip would bring closure. It was a great blessing to talk with him at each step of the return journey, learning about his war experiences. 

 

Another fabulous sight to see that evening was the Marines of 70 years ago talking to the Marines of today. Comparing notes and stories. It is a tradition that goes back as long as there have been fighters. In the grand old story of Beowulf, you see the battle scarred old men recount the tales of their warrior days to the youths that gathered around. 

And it wasn't just the younger Marines that wanted to hear their stories, but a whole basketball team who also happened to be stopping by the hotel for the weekend. I couldn't help smiling a mile wide to see these big, tough players listening eagerly to the P51 pilot, Jerry Yellin, as he told them his remarkable story of how he went from great bitterness and hatred of all Japanese to love and brotherhood. It is one of my favorite forgiveness stories, and I could hear him retell it over and over again. The long story short, after the war he was very angry at the Japanese. He had lost a great number of friends and didn't think he could ever get over it. Then one day his son came home and announced that he was marrying a Japanese woman. Jerry realized then and there that he had no alternative but to move on with his life and let go of his bitterness. He did and now his life is dedicated to being a goodwill ambassador of forgiveness. This last March he returned to Iwo Jima with his granddaughter who is half American and half Japanese. No doubt it was very touching for all to see. 

Jerry Yellin, P51 pilot, telling stories to a few fellows from the basketball team that was staying at our hotel. 

I could go on and on about the weekend. There are few things like military reunions. It's a gathering of men who all fought together. Maybe not in the exact same platoon or company, but they all fought together on the same small patch of land, experiencing the same things and creating a bond that you can't really find anywhere else. 

With our lovely Reunion Hosts from last year, Leilani and Monroe. They have to be one of the loveliest couples we know. They've been married for over 65 years, but they still go hand-in-hand everywhere. 

"The Bombs Bursting in Air"

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Probably one of the most remarkable stories I heard at the Marine reunion in San Antonio (more on that later) was from Lt. Col. Tom Kalus, a 27-year Marine Corps veteran who not only fought on Iwo Jima, but was also one of the "Chosin Few" from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. We just had the the 66th anniversary of this battle (Nov. 27 - Dec 13, 1950), so it seemed an appropriate time to share this story.

When I met Mr. Kalus, it was during the tour of the Nimitz Museum. I came up and introduced myself to him and we chatted for a few minutes. Then he gave me his card and on one side it stated his unit, 5th Division, 5th JASCO, etc... but on the flip side it also stated, 1st Marine Division... "One of the 'Chosin Few."' Now, there are three defining moments in the history of the Marine Corps: Belleau Wood (WWI), Iwo Jima (WWII), and the Chosin Reservoir (Korean War), and it is pretty rare to meet a Marine who took part in both the Battle of Iwo Jima and Chosin Reservoir. To date I have only met one other veteran like this, a 4th Marine Division guy with stories that are so unbelievable, it is truly a miracle he survived at all.

But getting back to the story... One of the last days of the reunion I was chatting with Mr. Kalus about his remarkable service in the Corps and naturally the subject turned to Iwo and Chosin. "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem," he asked, "About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air? When I was on Iwo, about the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song with the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. 

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

"I couldn't move forward, I couldn't move backwards"

The other week Jubilee and I popped up to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion, one of our favorite weekends ever! For three days we were surrounded by the manliest set of Marines with truly harrowing stories of combat on Iwo Jima to tell.

"See that Corsair (above), I was lying in the sand on red beach, D-Day [Iwo Jima]. I couldn't move forward, I couldn't move backwards. We were completely pinned down. I looked up, and there flying over me was a Corsair firing on the enemy. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life."

Two Marines discuss the differences in their bootcamp training.

Another Marine said, "I wrote the battlefield reports for my Company: every casualty we had on Iwo Jima. I was one of only three other men in my Company of 145 men to come off the island without a scratch."

"You don't lose many friends in the Motor Transport... but I lost a few." These words were said with great meaning. 

Two life-long friends and war buddies. 

"I was buried alive on the island, and this guy here (pointing to his friend standing by), dug me out and saved my life. That was right before he lost his leg."

Quotes like this and many more are what we heard. Hard gritty stuff, humorous anecdotes, and tearful remembrances of comrades lost. It was a very special experience for Jube and me to be surrounded by such grand men and soldiers. Every man there had a story that would make any loyal American's heart soar with pride and gratitude.