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'Temporary' mold of iconic statue to get yet another makeover in its 7th decade

The Iwo Jima monument is a popular place to take photographs after recruit graduation ceremonies at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Pfc.
Thomas Armstrong poses with his brother, Tyler Armstrong, left, and father Thomas E. Armstrong of Chesapeake, Va., after he graduated Aug. 7. Museum staff works hard to keep the mold presentable, but questions how much longer it can do so.
The Iwo Jima monument is a popular place to take photographs after recruit graduation ceremonies at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Pfc. Thomas Armstrong poses with his brother, Tyler Armstrong, left, and father Thomas E. Armstrong of Chesapeake, Va., after he graduated Aug. 7. Museum staff works hard to keep the mold presentable, but questions how much longer it can do so.

One and a half times larger than life, the Iwo Jima Memorial at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island has served as the backdrop for countless photos of smiling parents, friends and family members, their arms draped proudly across the shoulders of their new Marine.

Few of them seem to notice that the statue -- depicting Associated Press photographer Jim Rosenthal's famous 1945 image of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima -- is melting before their eyes.

"It's made of some type of moldable plaster with a steel framework underneath," said David Woodward, an architect in Parris Island's engineering department. "We're not even really sure what kind of steel work is under there. It was never meant to be a permanent statue."

The plaster mold -- nearly a quarter of the size of the 300-ton, 32-foot-tall bronze Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery -- was donated to Parris Island by Austrian-born sculptor Felix de Wheldon after World War II. One of two molds de Wheldon donated to the Corps, the statue arrived at Parris Island and was dedicated Sept. 5, 1952, on its current site near the depot's parade deck. The other mold was taken to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Both molds, which de Wheldon built before the war memorial was even conceived, toured the nation with patriotic speakers to encourage Americans to buy war bonds during World War II, according to the Parris Island Museum.

For more than 50 years, the statue has stood along Boulevard de France battling the stifling Lowcountry humidity and frequent summer rains, elements that are beginning to deteriorate the iconic mold, Woodward said.

"When the rainwater gets inside the statue, the plaster gets kind of gooey, like toothpaste, and oozes out of the bottom of the statue," Woodward said. "Ideally, we'd like to see it moved indoors where it ceases to get wet and replaced with a bronze casting of the statue. The statue we have now is living on borrowed time."

Leroy Washington, the depot's supervising engineer technician, and his staff have been helping those five famous Marines and one famous corpsman keep the flag atop Mount Suribachi aloft for much of the last decade.

"We need to go out there again before the end of the year and caulk the joints, reseal the statue and put a fresh coat of paint on it," Washington said. 'It's been painted over at least three or four times that I can remember."

Over the years, workers have applied various coats of paint and protective sealant to shore up the cracks that inevitably form each year. An epoxy and paint mixture gives the monument its bronze hue.

Woodward said installing a permanent statue might be a job for the private sector or a community fundraising effort.

"A bronze casting will cost close to $1 million," he said. "The Marine Corps and the Navy have bigger fish to fry. With all of the World War II veterans we have in our area, I wouldn't think it'd be very hard to get a drive going and raise enough money to commission a bronze mold."

In the meantime, Washington and his staff will continue to apply paint, epoxy, caulk, rubber cement and whatever else they can to keep an important piece of the depot's history from melting in the sweltering South Carolina sunshine.

"We just have to work with what we have right now," he said.

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