By Martin | Tuesday, November 4, 2014 | 11:00 AM
From the air it looked like a blackened pork chop. In reality it was a small Pacific island, only 8 square miles, covered with volcanic ash and smelling of sulfur. The idea of a Pacific island conjures up images of palm trees, pristine beaches, or a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. This one had no palm trees, the beach was made up of volcanic sand and rock, and the only music was that of gunfire. There were no singing sailors.
The focal point of this desolate island about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo was a 550-foot high mountain. When I was a boy I liked to climb mountains. I climbed a few in Colorado and Utah. I would not have wanted to climb this one. But some boys did. Many of them died. The island was Iwo Jima. The mountain was Mount Suribachi. The boys were Marines.
Almost seventy years ago, on February 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines landed on Iwo Jima. More would follow. It was expected to be a 4-day battle. It lasted for 36 days. One Marine regiment was assigned the task of securing Mount Suribachi. After 4 days of fighting they finally reached the summit and planted an American flag. The small flag was replaced by another one and six young Marines were told to raise the second flag for a photo opportunity. It was that photo, of the second flag raising, that would become one of the most recognized photos in the free world. When the battle ended the Japanese had lost 20,000 men, and the Americans 26,000.
I have a book in my library about American heroes. It mentions the usual names from history that we would expect to see: George Washington, Paul Revere, and Davy Crockett. The book also includes sports figures, inventors, educators, explorers, businessmen, civil rights leaders, and names from the entertainment world. Each is deserving of the honor, depending on one's definition of a hero. What you will not find in the book are the names of Harlon Block, Franklin Sousey, Mike Strank, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley. Those were the five young Marines and one Navy Corpsman who raised the second flag on Iwo Jima.
It is Veterans Day once again. In our veterans we have much for which to be thankful. At Iwo Jima the flag raisers did not consider themselves to be heroes. They were just doing their jobs. Three of them died on the island. The surviving three were sent to the United States for a publicity tour to encourage people to buy war bonds. Two of the three surviving members suffered from depression and alcohol problems for the rest of their lives. Only one, John Bradley, returned to live a normal life. They had a real problem being treated as heroes. In their own words the real heroes were the ones who did not come back. (You can read their story in the book, "Flags of Our Fathers," by James Bradley. His father was the navy corpsman.)
In February of 1945 our flag flew over the island of Iwo Jima because some boys gave all they had and climbed a mountain. Today there are soldiers, men and women, all around the world who would not call themselves heroes. They are just doing their job. I think they are heroes. I thank God for them. I thank God for all of the man and women who have served in our armed forces and are serving now. When you see the flag waving on Veterans Day remember this . . . our flag continues to stand today because soldiers still serve and boys still climb mountains.