Two Iwo Jima veterans and I made our way to the elevator through a group of young students in the lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington, Va., a few years ago during the annual Iwo Jima Reunion and Symposium to commemorate the Feb. 19 anniversary of the invasion of the island during World War II.
When we got on the elevator, one of the veterans looked at the other one, chuckled and said, “Those kids are not much older than I was when I saw a bunch of Civil War veterans at a reunion of the battle at Gettysburg.”
“Yeah,” the other one said, “I remember seeing Civil War vets, too.”
I remember looking at them and being rather amazed. The Civil War was over in 1865, some 145 years before that night on the elevator. I’d never thought about these World War II veterans having ever seen Civil War veterans.
The Fifth Marine Division Association is bringing Iwo Jima veterans to Urbana-Champaign Oct.16-21 for its 69th annual reunion. This is the Marine division whose Easy Company, 28th Marine Regiment troops raised both flags on Mount Suribachi, the second one depicted in the iconic photo that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took that is one of the most recognized photos in history and was made into the statue that overlooks the nation’s capitol from Arlington Cemetery.
While there are Iwo Jima veterans around the area, people will have the opportunity to meet and greet several of these aging veterans from around the country at the free screening of Oscar-winning filmmaker Arnold Shapiro’s 1985 documentary, Return to Iwo Jima, on Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Virginia Theater. The theater will open at noon with historic displays, and the film will be shown at 1 p.m.
Shapiro is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and sit on a panel with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward to discuss the battle and the effect it has had on these men. There is no charge for admission, although the FMDA will accept donations to help maintain the association and to develop a digital library of books, interviews, photos, and artifacts for the FMDA museum on the Big Island of Hawai’i where the division trained for the battle of Iwo Jima.
Years from now, when the Iwo Jima veterans and all the World War II veterans are gone, there will be some aging citizens saying the same thing about seeing these Iwo Jima veterans like the two veterans said about seeing the Gettysburg and Civil War veterans on the elevator that night.
Looking back, I remember seeing World War I veterans when I was a kid. Some of them hung around the pool hall, playing pool and enjoying life. They were a lively group and had a lot of fun talking trash to each other as they played snooker. One of the group who had lost an arm in the war sat and watched. And I watched him, quite astonished, as he rolled his cigarettes with only one hand.
But most of the veterans I remember were from World War II and Korea. They had flown The Hump over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains in military transport aircraft from India to China to resupply the Chinese war effort of Chiang Kai-shek and the units of the United States Army Air Forces, they had flown missions over Europe and throughout the Pacific and to Japan, they had made landings on Pacific islands and on Omaha Beach during the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and fought throughout Europe and the Pacific. When I hosted television writer and producer Norman Lear at Ebertfest a couple of years ago, I’d read that he had flown 51 missions over Europe.
“Really that many?” I asked. “That was a lot of combat missions.”
“Only 37 of them were combat missions,” he said dryly.
The barber who cut my hair for years was a veteran of Iwo Jima. Somebody told me once that one day, they’d walked into his barbershop in the middle of the afternoon. Three or four other men sat around the shop talking. Besides Ben the barber, who had been wounded on Iwo Jima and was being hoisted up the side of the hospital ship and looked over his shoulder and saw the flag on Mount Suribachi just after it was raised, one of them had been relieving the guard a little before 8 a.m. on Ford Island on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, another had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, for the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The other two were Marines who served during the Korean War.
That’s one conversation I would have liked to have heard. And we’ll have the opportunity to hear some of these veterans talk about the experiences they had during the battle for Iwo Jima after the film at the Virginia on Oct. 20.
Hope to see many of you there because these are things to remember.