Beaufort News

After bleak prognosis, World War II veteran watches grandson become a Marine

James G. Pike was there, and that was enough.

The 94-year-old rested in his wheelchair under a handmade Marine Corps blanket on the front row of the bleachers overlooking the parade deck as new Marines graduated Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Friday.

“This is what Dad’s been waiting for,” his daughter, April Martin said. “To see Skylar graduate.”

Pike traveled from Evansville, Ind., on Thursday. He came to see his grandson, Skylar Martin, graduate at the place where he became a Marine 75 years ago.

Pike is from Uniontown, Ky., a town of one square mile on the Ohio River. He dropped out of high school with some buddies and joined the Marines in 1941, serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Skylar Martin joined the Marines in part because of his grandfather. But for a time at boot camp, he thought he might not see Pike again.

During training, the American Red Cross notified Parris Island and Skylar Martin that Pike had two weeks to live. He had been hospitalized with circulation issues.

Skylar Martin wrote Pike a letter and was able to speak to him on the phone. Less than three weeks ago, doctors amputated Pike’s right leg.

But doctors cleared him to leave his Indiana nursing home and fly to Savannah. The trip was coordinated by Honor Flight of Southern Indiana and the chapter in Savannah. The organization is known for providing free flights for veterans to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C.

Members of a local motorcycle club met Pike, April Martin and Skylar’s girlfriend, Heather Passick, for an honor guard escort from Savannah to their Beaufort hotel Thursday evening. After the family checked in, the volunteers lined the sidewalk and raised American flags as Pike passed.

Pike was rolled into position to watch the flag-raising ceremony at Parris Island headquarters as the sun was coming up Friday morning. April Martin leaned over her father to tuck in the blanket she had made for him to protect against the cool fall breeze.

“It’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to see,” said Stan Martin, April’s ex-husband and Skylar’s father. “He remembers what he felt when he graduated, how proud he felt.”

April Martin wore a red-, white- and blue-striped T-shirt with butterflies. After a television news story back home about her father’s trip, she received text messages thanking Pike for his service.

In front of them, the Parris Island Marine Band formed a semi-circle and played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other selections as a large American flag went up.

“I can’t imagine what you have seen in your lifetime,” an energetic Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, commanding officer of Parris Island, told Pike during the ceremony. “I’m just honored to be in your presence, sir. ...

“He looks fired up,” Renforth added.

Pike, his family and Renforth later posed for a picture in front of Barrow Hall.

At graduation, Pike was front and center.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said.

April Martin, Stan Martin and Passick wielded cameras and searched for Skylar Martin among the 618 graduates as the ceremony began.

April Martin found him with her digital camera and pulled out her iPhone to take a photo of the camera’s display of her son’s face. She shook Pike gently by the shoulder to ensure he was alert when his grandson passed.

As Skyler Martin marched by where his family was seated, April Martin lifted Pike’s hand from beneath his blanket and waved.

After the drill instructors dismissed the Marines for the final time, Skylar Martin slipped up the stairs behind his grandfather’s wheelchair and rubbed his head, bending down to share a few words.

“I bet the chow is better now than it was when you were here,” the grandson later joked.

Skylar’s mother and girlfriend held back tears.

Sgt. Major Derrick Mays climbed into the bleachers to present Pike with a coin from the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion.

“Thank you for your service and allowing us the opportunity to train your son,” he told Pike. Lt. Col. Kristin McCann, commander of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion, also stopped to thank Pike.

After a short break, Skylar Martin will report to Camp Geiger in Jacksonville, N.C., for infantry training. He flies out later this month.

He said he became a Marine to honor those who died in service before him, but also because the Marines are the only branch of service not represented in his father’s side of the family.

Pike didn’t share his war stories from the Pacific with his family — “He’s seen a lot,” April Martin said.

But his service 75 years ago was also a factor in his grandson becoming a Marine on Friday.

“He’s one of the main reasons I wanted to join,” Skylar Martin said.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen