September 12, 2018

Urbana (Ill.) Rotary talk Sept. 11, 2018, on Return to Iwo Jima documentary

I know I’m here to talk about Arnold Shapiro and his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima documentary to be shown at the Fifth Marine Division Association reunion in Champaign on Oct. 20, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a couple of words about the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Rotarian) Tom Conroy just did that, and it’s all over the news this morning, but I want to talk about heroes. People have different ideas about what constitutes a hero. To me, it goes along with the Rotary motto of “service above self,” and is not just an idle, catch-all motto.
             The passengers aboard United Flight 93 who took charge of the situation after they knew what was happening in New York and Washington—that the planes had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and believed their plane was headed for the Capitol Building or the White House and caused the plane to crash into a field near Shanksville, Penn., giving their own lives to save the Capitol or the White House—were heroes much like the Iwo Jima veterans who put their lives on the line to win the battle for island and help win the freedom we now enjoy.
            By bringing the reunion here to Urbana-Champaign for what very well may be the last for these men, now in their 90s, I’d hoped we would give them a reception as they received at last year’s reunion on the Big Island of Hawai’i where they had trained for Iwo Jima. Everywhere we went on the island, the group was greeted with appreciation. But the one occasion that sticks in my mind is the day we went to Parker School in Waimea, where the Marines used to go for concerts and social events when they had liberty.
            As we turned down the street toward the school, you could see the elementary school children lined along each side of the street, waving American flags. More than one of these old Marine veterans had tears rolling down his cheeks at the sight. And when we got off the bus to go inside for the program, most of the veterans spent several minutes talking to the kids about how much they appreciated what they were doing and asking the kids about their lives.
            We have a great program planned here for the 69th annual reunion of the Fifth Marine Division Association (see schedule in Spring/Summer 2018 Spearhead), and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Arnold Shapiro has helped make it better by giving us, gratis, the right to show at the Virginia Theatre his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima film, hosted by Marine veteran Ed McMahon, that helped set up the annual “Reunion of Honor” trip to Iwo Jima where the Americans and the Japanese, once mortal enemies, came together in peace.
            For the record, 6,821 American died in the 36-day battle, more than 17,000 were wounded, about 21,000 Japanese died, and a total of 2,251 damaged planes landed on Iwo Jima—the first one while the battle was still raging on March 4 on the way back to the Marianas from bombing raids on Japan, saving the lives of 24,761 crew members who would have otherwise gone down in the ocean and undoubtedly died.
            A sign on a sea ration carton at the entrance to the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery (where the division buried those killed in action) put the sacrifices of the Iwo Jima veterans in perspective for those airmen and for the people at home whose freedom was maintained: “When you go home, tell them, say, we gave all for their tomorrows for all of our todays.”
            Like the passengers on United Flight 93, these men were heroes.
            Arnold Shapiro is not a veteran, but he went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for an Iwo Jima memorial service in the early ’80s and met a number of Iwo Jima veterans. He raised the question to four of them about going back to Iwo Jima. There had been a veteran-organized trip to Iwo Jima for the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1970 just after the island had been returned to Japan to strengthen ties between the two countries, but nothing after that. A few weeks after meeting at Pendleton, a group of the veterans formed a committee to make the going back a reality and asked Arnold to write the initial letters to the State Department and others to get the ball rolling.
            For his part in that first official “Reunion of Honor,” Arnold produced the film that will be shown at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, during this year’s reunion—no charge for admission, although we will accept donations to pay the theater rental and insurance costs. He is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and participate in a panel discussion with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward.
            When Arnold said we could show the documentary at no cost, I asked him if he would come back to introduce it. He’d just retired and moved away from L.A. and a 52-year television career in which he had produced 29 series and nearly 100 documentaries for every broadcast network and 14 cable channels and said no. Then he called and asked how far Urbana-Champaign was from Springfield, where he’d like to visit the Abraham Lincoln sites. The proximity to Springfield made up his mind to attend the union.
             In addition to producing the 1985 documentary, he raised $30,000 from the John Wayne Foundation via his friend, Michael Wayne (John’s son), for the monument that sits on the invasion beach, and wrote the words that are in English facing the ocean where the annual “Reunion of Honor” is now held annually and written in Japanese facing the interior of the island. The words Arnold wrote and gave me the OK to use in my novella, Iwo Blasted Again, follow:
            “Reunion of Honor on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans meet again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never repeated. February 19, 1985, Third, Fourth, Fifth Division Associations: USMC and the Association of Iwo Jima.”
            He told me he’d written that in about 15 minutes and it was the best writing he’d ever done. Of all his work during his career, he says Iwo Jima is his favorite subject. He has traveled back to Iwo Jima several times for the “Reunion of Honor” and has often contributed funds for Iwo Jima veterans to make the trip back to the island. And in addition to the film we’ll be seeing at the Virginia, Arnold also wrote and produced the 2001 Heroes of Iwo Jima (a 96-minute documentary hosted by Danville native and Marine veteran Gene Hackman) and wrote and produced as his final project the 2015 Iwo Jima From Combat to Comrades (a 55–minute documentary hosted by Ryan Phillippe) shown on PBS on the Marine Corps birthday Nov. 10, 2015.
            For the last one, Arnold asked me to check the script for military accuracy, and because of his work in prisons with Scared Straight and other work about prison life, I asked him to read my prison novel, With the Silent Knowledge, and review it. The review is posted on Amazon where the book is available.
            Before I show the short trailer of Return to Iwo Jima, I want to read a piece I used in my novella from a Marine you will see in the documentary—you’ll also see the monument on Iwo Jima. But I got William Norman’s words from the letters of Dr. Luther Lowrance from Robinson, Ill., a graduate of the University of Illinois who was treating wounded Iwo Jima veterans in a hospital in Hawaii. I secured the letters from the doctor’s family for the University of Illinois Library’s Rare Book Room:
            “The sight that met my eyes as I set foot on the beach is one that I shall never forget,” Norman wrote in the hospital after he was wounded. “Dead Marines were so thick that we had to sidestep them in order to move forward. I have withstood heavy enemy bombardment that lasted all night on Saipan, but never have I seen men who died so violently. Men were blown to pieces, one leg here, an arm there, and strings of guts that were several feet long. These men had scarcely set foot on the beach. But to us, this was a reminder that we would have to fight, and pay in human lives and blood, for each foot of this barren island.”
            Men like William Norman and the Iwo veterans, like those on Flight 93 who gave their lives to save the seat of our government, are the real heroes in this world.
            While the veterans, families and friends are in Urbana-Champaign Oct. 16-21, they will also learn about the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois, the history of the university’s ROTC program and the current Naval ROTC program; visit the Vermilion County War Museum and the Fischer Theatre in Danville and the Ernie Pyle Museum in Dana, Ind.; and the Abraham Lincoln Home, the Tomb and the Presidential Museum in Springfield.
            Hope to see you at the Virginia next month. We also have tickets for the banquet that Rotary member Betsy Hendrick’s Hendrick House will be catering at the Hyatt Place Hotel—see registration for banquet in the Spearhead issue. Paul Lewis, Marine Embassy guard who spent 444 days in captivity during the 1979-81student revolution in Tehran, will be the keynote speaker, and Art Leenerman, one of 14 remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis, will be a special guest at both the film and banquet.