Marines who were there cannot forget Iwo Jima.
Neither should we.
A ceremony at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Monday will help.
They unveiled the newly refurbished Iwo Jima Monument that was literally melting into the thick Lowcountry air.
We’ve been begging for help for years, at one time urging a national, private campaign to raise $1 million to get it bronzed.
The statue at Parris Island is likely the most photographed scene in Beaufort County. It has been the backdrop as hundreds of thousands of brand new Marines and their families have posed after graduation ceremonies. Hours earlier, the young recruits were at the statue for something else. That’s where they receive their globe and eagle in an emotional Emblem Ceremony that marks their successful completion of the Crucible and boot camp.
But the stirring statue of men straining to raise an American flag has never been as sturdy as it looks. It has been on borrowed time since it was dedicated by the parade field in 1952.
It wasn’t made to be a permanent, outdoor statue. It was donated to Parris Island by Austrian-born sculptor Felix de Wheldon after World War II. It was one of two molds he built depicting the famous photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi in the grueling Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Two of those Marines were recruits at Parris Island. The statues toured the nation in patriotic war-bond rallies and later formed the impetus for the much larger Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Our version is made of some type of moldable plaster over a steel framework. It has been caulked, sealed and painted time after time. Plaster sometimes oozed from it like toothpaste. It has been a constant test of the creativity and ingenuity of Marines charged with keeping it alive.
After months under wraps, the monument should now be good for another 20 years, the Marine Corps says. More than 250,000 man hours and $450,000 was poured into preserving America’s favorite symbol of uncommon valor.
Lloyd T. Harrell of Sun City Hilton Head knows why that is important.
He’s one of the few living souls who can say they were there on Feb. 19, 1945 — when 880 ships carrying 110,000 Marines began an assault on the black, volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. Before the American flag was raised atop the mountain, the lives of more than 6,000 Marines were lost in clawing the strategic air field from the Japanese.
Harrell is now approaching 90. He was 18 and manning a 40mm anti-aircraft gun aboard USS LST-588 on that cold, rainy, miserable day. At the time, he was wondering what the heck he was doing there. He’d lied to get into the service at 16, leaving behind his 10th-grade classmates.
In the decades since, he’s wondered if the battle was worth the cost. He studies it a lot, and now his great-grandson does, too.
Harrell still sees a young Marine floating dead in the water, his backpack and weapon still in place.
“It’s like it happened last month,” Harrell said when we chatted Tuesday morning. “You cannot stop it. You cannot forget what you went through. It was an event that you carry to your grave.”
Four springs ago, he joined other veterans on a Honor Flight of South Carolina trip to Washington, D.C. They all removed their baseball caps in reverence at the big Iwo Jima monument.
When he wears that World War II veterans’ cap, someone always thanks him. A woman in Walmart came up and hugged him, crying softly on his shoulder. Her father was killed in the war.
On Tuesday morning, high school ROTC cadets on their spring break stood at the newly-refurbished monument on Parris Island. Not many knew the specifics of Iwo Jima. Their leader urged them to see the movie “Flags of our Fathers.”
Harrell said somehow that dark gray statue in the searing heat of Parris Island makes the sacrifice it depicts worthwhile. It helps people to never forget.
David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale