BOSTON (SHNS) – The feet that climbed Mount Suribachi move slower now.
But they marched proudly into Memorial Hall on Wednesday to observe the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, greeted by crisp salutes and words of praise from grateful elected officials, philanthropists, and fellow Marines who consider these men to be their “spiritual forefathers.”
There was a lot of small arms fire in the air while Larry Kirby of Manchester-by-the-Sea lay on his back 75 years ago, around 50 yards from the foot of a hill on Iwo Jima. Somebody yelled, “Look!”
“And I rolled over and looked back, and I saw them putting the flag up. All that meant to me was, we won’t be taking fire from that hill,” Kirby told the News Service after Wednesday’s ceremony. He ascribes the continued focus on the Battle of Iwo Jima, and its fallen and its veterans, to the iconic image of that flagraising by photographer Joe Rosenthal.
“I just showed up, did my job, and got lucky,” he said.
Watler “Miz” O’Malley of Clinton remembered the start of an unordinary day. “We had breakfast, five in the morning, steak and eggs,” he told the crowd.
“We were due in there at 9 o’clock, 9 a.m. The first wave. And the bombardment that was going on from the ships, planes dropping the bombs, planes dropping napalm, strafing with their fifty-caliber machine guns. You just figured that nothing could live through it,” O’Malley described.
O’Malley said the troops were informed that the battle should only last four or five days.
“The thing about Iwo Jima in particular,” Gov. Charlie Baker told attendees, “that battle lasted roughly thirty to thirty-five days.”
“Thirty days!” Baker exclaimed. “Thirty days. Think about it…Time and time and time again, when their nation called, when the world called, when democracy called, they stepped up. And they put everything on the line on behalf of this country and their fellow citizens. And honestly, the gratitude that I feel – the debt that can never be repaid – is extraordinary.”
There were 230 Marines in Kirby’s unit when he went ashore. After 36 days, there were seven of them.
O’Malley’s Third Platoon had 50 men in that first wave. By March 8, only four men were left.
O’Malley told the crowd about his platoon’s replacement lieutenant, Lt. Jack Lummus, an All-American college athlete who played football for the New York Giants before the war. He was killed on March 8, 1945.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who received a public service award from the Marine Corps League later in the ceremony, perked up his ears and leaned forward to listen at the mention of Lummus.
“(Lummus’s) last statement,” O’Malley said, “was ‘New York Giants have lost one good end.'”
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, a South Boston and Quincy native, was also honored Wednesday with the group’s Semper Fidelis award.
The Marine Corps League’s John MacGillivray has emceed the annual ceremony for 21 years, celebrating the men he calls “the spiritual forefathers of today’s Marine Corps.”
“The ranks of our Iwo Jima veterans have grown thinner, but these heroes still come each year,” he said. “Sometimes, I think it may have been easier for them to get up Mount Suribachi than it is for them to get up Beacon Hill today.”
Time marches on, and it’s been 75 years since the battle that involved more than 100,000 American personnel. After these veterans are gone, who will tell the stories?
“I’ll be 96 in June, so I’m at the end,” Kirby told the News Service, adding he has no aches or pains and takes no medications. “And when we’re all gone, I think it will just go into history.”
Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee, whose late father House Speaker Thomas McGee joined the Marines at age 17, told the News Service that his father never really talked about fighting on Iwo Jima, but talked about his general pride in being a Marine. “It’s really special for me to be here and carry that feeling inside of me, that I know how proud he was and how proud he’d be if he was here today.”
McGee said he thinks the legacy of Iwo Jima veterans, like his father and the four men who marched into Memorial Hall on Wednesday, will live on.
“It’s on all of us, who understand in a personal way, as well as maybe not in a personal way, what it meant to serve and continue to serve. I think that feeling is strong, and that memory continues, and will continue.”