I was a Marine once, for about 15 minutes. The closest I ever got to serving was on the day I was called to Whitehall Street in New York City to take my physical just as the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up. I had two children and was teaching math, so I knew there was little chance of my being inducted. I do remember that day standing alone in the middle of the floor in my birthday suit. The sergeant had just told all of us to pick a branch of the service and go to the various corners of the large hall, “Navy here,” “Army there,” “Air Force back here,” “Marines over there.” Everyone made a choice but me. “And where do you want to go?” he bellowed. “I want to go home,” I yelled back.
Everyone had a good laugh, even the gunny.
“So do we all,” he replied, adding “but what do you want to be today?” “I want to be a Marine,” I answered without hesitation.
Over the years, I have read many books about the battle of Iwo Jima, and felt as if I almost knew the men. So I was excited as our Continental Airlines Flight 993 took off from Guam to the island early on the morning of March 14, 2007. I was assigned to Group Yellow and, fortunately, was given a window seat. I think the collective thumping of hearts could be felt in the scrambling to get a look at the island as we approached it. Our pilot did two 360’s in opposite directions around the island so everyone could get a good spot to snap photos.
I have traveled to every continent, about 100 countries, and to many WW II Pacific battles, including Guadalcanal, Guam, Tarawa, Saipan, Tulagi, Gavutu, and the Philippines. And now Iwo Jima! Here was the place where my friend, George Gentile, whom I had interviewed on television, fought, and where new friends I met that day told me their stories of the battle.
There was Frank Rappl of the 4th Marine Division who dragged eleven wounded men from Motoyama No.1 through minefields to the beach. I learned later that he received the Bronze Star, as well as the Purple Heart. I saw, too, where “Bangs” Tosline was wounded near the Quarry. The next day, he gave me an Iwo Jima medallion, now one of my most valued souvenirs. “Bangs” passed on last year. Though he was no longer with us, I said “Hi” to George at Red Beach 2. I met the inimitable war correspondent Cy O’Brien, he of the raspy voice and funny style. All together, there were 13 veterans of the battle with us.
I walked the original beaches where nature has added 50 feet or so of sand over the years, and tried to find some time alone. George Gentile told me to make sure I did that, if I ever got to Iwo, to know what was going on in me. So I sat in the sand to express my gratitude where so many gave of themselves. And I went to the top of Mt. Suribachi. Where I was privileged to meet Sgt. Friswold, USMC, from Tacoma, Washington, who was stationed on the mountain top that day. “Any chance I could run up my family flag today?” I asked. “You’ve got it, Sir,” he answered. We ran up the flag at “The Spot” of the famous photos, and took our own photos of each other. They now hang in my home.
As we prepared to leave for the flight back to Guam, I was a scramble of thoughts and emotions about how the men who fought on Iwo Jima have affected the lives of so many over the years.
We are often asked by the media to honor as Hero those who throw a ball into a hoop, or those who run through others with a pigskin tucked under their arms, or rock stars whose artificial lamentations suggest an angst hardly earned. Even movie stars whose fragile glitz will surely fade against the glare of the morning sun.
Their accomplishments, though, do not spring from nobility, courage and bravery, as do those of the Iwo Jima veterans here in this place today, AND, I say, as those of all of our warriors, male and female in all branches of service, yesterday and today.
Indeed, and in your deeds, you are heroic. I know you do not like to be called heroes, as that word is reserved in your hearts for the 6821 men who died in the battle. The reality, though, is that you answered the call to duty, and in the response risked your lives. No greater love hath any man. From OUR hearts, we thank you.
By Gerard Brooker, Ed.D.