A trip to the Iwo Jima and the Wall
November 10 and 11, 2000
One of the few advantages of living in the Washington D.C. metro area is the proximity of national monuments. These last few years I try to make a point of visiting the Iwo Jima on November 10 and the Wall on November 11. I met Paul O'Connell (Quincy, MA) from Mike Company a couple of years ago at the Iwo
Jima Memorial. Bob Morris (Florida) from India at the same time. On Veteran's Day last year, I met Vic Vilionis from 7th Marines (Montreal) and a couple of his friends, Tom
Hannaman (West by God Virginia) from Bravo 1/7....you should see his web site, Hill 10 Remembered....and Terry Dixon (Tennessee) , India 3/7.
Friday, November 10, 2000
1. This year I went to the Iwo Jima last Friday (Nov 10). Vic had secured a ticket for me in the VIP seating area but I straggled in as it was beginning around 10 a.m. and stood on the hillside. A hand grabbed my arm. Turned around and saw Bob Morris from India, come up from Florida. Outstanding! As I said earlier I'd met him the first time a couple of years ago in almost the same spot, before we had a web site up. He was also at the reunion last May in LaGrange, Georgia. We talked for a bit and he moved on looking for some more 3/5ers.
The sun was out but it was cold and blustery. A good crowd though, when did bad weather ever stop Marines? As always, it was a short, exquisitely executed ceremony...the Marines do this better than anyone I've ever seen. First the Marine Band, the President's Own, performed three short marches, two by Sousa. Then a platoon from 8th and I in dress blues formed in front of the statue and performed the manual of arms, perfectly. The colors were presented, coming in to view from behind the statue. It is something to see the crowd freeze at attention, veterans with caps off, it warmed my heart. Can't explain it.
I've probably got the sequence off (I really should take notes!), but the distinguished guests were presented to hearty applause. Senator Chuck Robb, a company commander with 7th Marines in 'Nam, and the sculptor of the Iwo Jima (I can't spell his name but it starts with a W). Also a former Commandant was present, I think it was General Cushman. The Guest of Honor was the (27th?) Commandant, General Barrow, who served with 7th Marines in Korea (at the Chosin Reservoir among other places) and in Nam as a regimental commander. The current Commandant, General Jones, introduced him. General Barrow's speech was short but apparently very eloquent because he was often interrupted by loud applause. (My hearing has been bad ever since I spent a few months short yards away from 8 inchers with no ear protection, so I missed a lot of the spoken words...no doubt the wind and the airplanes from Reagan National didn't help).
The laying of the wreath at the base of the Iwo Jima was the next part of the ceremony. Ramrod straight, the two Commandants accompanied by the commander of the 8th and I Barracks marched to the statue where the wreath was waiting. The notes of a short dirge in a minor key washed over us quietly as the three Marines stood at attention at the statue. It gets to you, you know. Dead silence and all of a sudden there's a lump in your throat and your eyes are wet and you can't explain it to anyone. And I wasn't the only one.
The wreath was laid. The Marines stepped back at attention for silent minutes. Except for the wind, dead silence for minutes. Then the Chaplain gave a short invocation. One bugler played Taps. That always gets to me.
The ceremony ended with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner as the ceremonial platoon and the Marine Band marched off the field. And if you can't get stirred up by the Marine Hymn played by the best military marching band in the world then nothing can.
2. I met with Vic and Tom Hannaman after the ceremony. Hadn't seen Tom since last year but Vic had stopped by my house for a day or so earlier this year. 'Tis always good to see friends again. I had come down by metro so we crammed into Tom's Chevy pickup parked inside the gate at Ft. Myer (bright red with Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran stickers all over it...you coudn't miss us!) and drove over to Arlington Cemetery. Vic wanted to see the gravesites of Ira Hayes and Michael Strank, two of the guys who put the flag up on Iwo Jima. We had to go in to the visitor center to find where their gravesites were. Took a while and Tom and I wandered around and took in the exhibitions they had displayed there, such as JFKs funeral. Finally Vic got the info and we wandered over looking for the proper lots. We ended up in the grass by the
amphitheater puzzling over the map Vic had, it's a good thing we didn't have a fire mission to call in! A pretty lady came up to us and asked how she could help us. We explained we were looking for Ira Hayes and Michael Strank. Hop in, says she. Wow. She works there in the PI office and is the wife of an army Lt. Col but her first love was a Marine. She took us around. We got sidetracked because we were also looking for Lewis Puller, Jr.'s
(Chesty's son) gravesite and while tromping around the lot he's supposed to be in, coming over a rise we saw below us a simple ceremony with Marines in uniform and a bugler played taps. We stood at attention until it was over and then went down and realized it was the current Commandant, General Jones, who was honoring his father, buried in the cemetery just two years earlier.
We never did find Lewis Puller's grave but the lady pointed out to me three graves bunched together, I was standing next to them. Looked down and saw the names Virgil Grissom, Roger Chafee and (Howard?). The three Apollo astronauts who were killed in the fire on the launchpad. Paid tribute to them.
We found Ira Hayes' grave and took pictures and paid tribute. We had imposed on the kind lady enough and we piled into her car so she could take us to the lot where Michael Strank is buried. Coming around a corner we came upon the exact same ceremony we had seen earlier. Again, it was the Commandant. We waited until they were done and drove by slowly and saw another tombstone with the name Jones on it. Had to be another of the General's relatives.
We thanked the lady profusely when she dropped us at lot 12. We spent 10 minutes looking for Strank and of course I found his grave, a good twenty rows away from where the other guys were looking. Which just proves that a radio operator has better land navigation skills than an intel type and a machine gunner. We took pictures and paid tribute to Michael Strank. All the tombstones we were looking for were simple ones, just like what you and I will have when we go. I was somewhat struck by that. These guys are huge symbols of what's right about our way of life and it seemed to me that they ought to have a more prominent remembrance. Maybe the statue is enough. I'll think of it again.
3. We wandered back to the parking lot and drove over to the Wall, parked on Constitution avenue...Tom made a U turn on that street. Hungry, we stopped at one of the kiosks for hot dogs. Then, we wandered over to the Wall area, though we didn't go down the ramp itself. I don't like going down there with crowds of people. Prefer to visit just before dawn or late at night. Of course Vic, who must know half the Marines on the east coast, stopped and visited with friends he ran into, so Tom and I wandered over to the statue of the three grunts and then over by the Lincoln Memorial. The artist Frank Morgan had a table set up where he was selling laser prints of his original art. Very good work. I bought a print of the Iwo Jima and of the Wall in late fall.
We roamed down to the Korean War memorial and took another good look at the patrol formation of the statues there, identifying weapons and gear. M-1s and carbines, a Browning .30 Cal machine gun, numerous walkie-talkies...I don't remember the nomenclature....and a BAR. Tom told me he fired a BAR in bootcamp but by my time, in '69, they were gone. I've seen this memorial numerous times. It was most impressive to me in winter, in the snow, at night. Ghostly yet very real. You can get lost in there if there aren't too many other folks around. (I've had a similar experience at the Little Big Horn in late fall when I was the only one there, but that's another story).
Figuring by now that Vic was frantically looking for us we wandered back to the statue of the grunts, found an empty bench, waited, shot the shit, and watched the veterans walk by. It was heartening to be greeted by fellow Marines who'd murmur a Semper Fi or a Happy Birthday. I never get tired of it. Once, a 3 or 4 star Army General in uniform walked right by and greeted us with a smile. That was a surprise. Eventually Vic found us, grumbling that he'd been by twice looking for us. We just laughed at him and gave him a hard time. We stood around peeping and talking and a Marine wearing a 3/7 hat came by and Vic asked him what company? He said India and Vic immediately asks him if he know this guy or that guy and he knew all of 'em. So we started talking and he introduced himself as Richard Mikola of North Jersey, down here by himself because his wife had to stay at home with his ailing wolfhound, his son having taken off with his girlfriend for the weekend instead of staying and dog sitting as he had promised. I commiserated since my wife and I don't go anywhere unless our dog is baby sat. Turned out also that he'd been to the San Diego reunion this year and was in the 3/5 area where the USMC had all of its current organic weapons layed out. He told me that only two of the weapons we used in the '60s and '70s were still in use, the 60mm mortar and the .50 Caliber machine gun. I complained, how about 81s? (I was a radio operator with an 81mm mortar section). Different weapon. Somehow I was saddened by that.
We talked and joked and walked and looked around some more, covering the same ground two or three times. Ran across a phalanx of 2/5 Marines, Fox Company, complete with banner. Yelled out, 5th Marines! Happy Birthday!. Got a chorus of Semper Fi's in return. Ah, what joy those simple words can bring. My cousin Bo was with Fox 2/5 at the same time I was with H&S 3/5. But where the hell is 3/5 around here?
Our fifty year old feet and legs were getting a little tired by then and we decided to go over to where Vic and Tom are staying, some apartment Hotel in Arlington. We took leave of our new friend Richard and drove over to the hotel. Got lost of course. I live here but am not that familiar with Arlington. Somehow we ended by the Pentagon, then the Navy Annex, had to stop at a gas station there to get directions. Tom and Vic argued about who was going to get out and ask. Tom won.
At the Hotel, we found Jimmy LaChappelle, India 3/7 (from the Quantico area) and wife Freidall waiting for us. We spent 3, 4 hours swapping war stories, opinions and insults until Cook Barella showed up (also 7th Marines, a retired LAPD cop) and it was time for dinner. Tom drove me over to metro and I left them there and went home. A most satisfying day.
Saturday, November 11
4. Got up at 0630. The ceremony at the Wall this Veteran's Day is at 0900, differing from the usual 1100 hours because the groundbreaking ceremony for the World War II memorial on the other side of the reflecting pool is to take place then. Vic told me last night that they weren't going to be there for the ceremony but would be down by about 1030. So I was going solo but I wanted to go. Left about 0815 to get a parking space. Drove round and round and the closest I could find was 10 blocks away. Unsat. So for the third time went through the State Department parking lot and out to 23rd street, made a right and all of a sudden realized that the other side of the street was full of parking meters and no one was parked there. Aha! Made a Uee but someone beat me to the first spot in line. Another Marine. Takes one to lead the way. Before I got out of my car there were 10 cars parked behind me, I have no idea where they came from. Introduced myself to the guy in front. He was with 3rd Tracks in '66-67 around Chu Lai and lives down in Norfolk. I walked down to the Wall with him and his wife, trading stories. It's always better, with crowds around, to not go down there alone. I can't tell you why. We split up by the statue of the three grunts and I wandered out into the grass, halfway to the grandstands in front of the Wall. A good crowd, lots of Marines. I see jackets with 3/1 and some guys from yesterday with green hats who were with Mike 3/7. Standing in a little spot by my lonesome, the ceremonies have just begun and someone steps up beside me. Hey, it's Richard Mikola! Outstanding! You know how it is when you meet somebody and you take an instant liking to him. That was Richard yesterday. Was really glad to see him. Good guy. He ended up going to an Irish bar last night and was invited over by a group of six former Marines in their late twenties who were now working security for the State Department. They'd just come back from a year tour at Algiers. They introduced Richard to Guiness. He was some kind of hung over this morning but still made it down.
The National Anthem was sung by SSgt Holly Bingham. A sweet voice, clear and strong. As Richard commented, none of the staff sergeants I knew could sing like that. The speeches were pretty good, what I could hear of them (see top). I was pleased and surprised to see General Moore on the podium. He was the Lt. Col commanding a battalion of the 1st Cav at the Ia Drang fight in '65. I'm the proud owner of an autographed copy of We Were Soldiers Once...And Young authored by the General and Joe Galloway.
The Keynote Address was given by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D and President of Celera Genomics Corporation, instrumental in the breaking of the human Genome code. He's a Viet Vet, a corpsman in Da Nang.
I forgot to say that John McDermott sang before the keynote address was given. A song he composed named The Wall. Most excellent and Richard told me his wife was going to be really pissed that she missed this because John's one of their favorite singers.
Wreaths were lain by various organizations and then Taps was played. 'Nuff said.
The ceremony was over after about an hour plus and I took leave of Richard, who was gonna take a leak and then try and find some of his guys. It was good to have his company there. You should have seen the line at the restrooms.
5. I wandered around looking for Vic and company or any 3/5 guys that I could find. Up by the Lincoln Memorial, down to the Korean War memorial I went. Walked over by the rainbow pool to go over to the WWII memorial site but as I almost reached it, crowds were coming back and told me that the way was blocked. Damn. Retraced my steps and went over to Constitution Avenue and walked down to the site along with the rest of folks. There was just a humongous line to enter there and some serious crowd control tactics in effect, seeing that the President was going to be there. I wanted no part of that and wandered back towards the Vietnam Memorial. Sat down on an isolated bench for a while. Though chilly, the sun was out and I was dressed in layers and was quite comfortable. I sat for a good fifteen minutes, calm and serene believe it or not. Maybe contemplative and reflective is a better choice of words. Shut the human presence out and looked at the pool and the trees and the ducks and was at peace, just existing for a while. It is a good feeling.
Rested, went looking for folks. Down by the statue of the grunts I hung around watching the crowd, happily exchanging a few Semper Fi's with passing Marines. I probably stood in one place for half an hour not seeing one person I knew. Finally, I walked down by the Woman's Memorial where readings were taking place. My hearing being what it was I didn't linger and wandered back out to the Lincoln Memorial. Decided then, it being about 1130, that it had been a good day and a half and I wasn't going to find anyone I knew and would just go home.
6. Turned to leave and caught sight of Richard Mikola wandering alone. A friend. Hey Richard! He was glad to see me and we meandered through the increasing crowd back to the statue. As usual, half the people hadn't gotten the word. These folks had been showing up expecting the ceremony at its usual 1100 time. Obviously, a lot of folks were disappointed.
Right by the statue we ran into Vic and Tom and Jimmy and Cook. More friends. More joking and trading stories. Guys stopping by, 7th Marines mostly, but a few First Marines too. One guy from 1/1, Beale his name was, asked where he knew me from and was I into black powder. He's from Franklin, Virginia. I told him he asked me the same exact questions last year at this time. Got a good laugh at that one and he promised me he'd ask me again next year. I'm looking forward to it. Somebody touched my arm and I turned around. Hey, it's Bob Morris and wife Julie again. We stop and shoot the shit for a good while and my 7th Marine friends wander off towards the Wall. Bob was on Hill 37 at the same time I was, though we didn't know each other then, in the spring of '70 and we compare landmarks and events. Since was with Battalion Recon after he left India 3/5 I tell him that a friend of mine was a radio operator on a recon outpost across from Hill 52 and did he know him. Turns out no, but he knew the outpost. He told me that he ran into some Kilo 3/5 guys at the Iwo Jima yesterday but hadn't found any 3/5 guys today. A shame you know, we've got to get some of you guys down here.
Bob tells me he's going to keep looking and we say our goodbys. I circle the Wall heading for the other side. See I know these guys well enough now to know that Tom has to keep his gut filled, a lot. More hot dogs. So I reach Constitution Avenue and look across the street at the various kiosks. Sure enough, I'm right. Rejoining my friends I get myself a hot dog too and we sit around and joke some more. Cook has bargained his buck fifty coke to a dollar. Jimmy comes back and says hey, they wanted a dollar fifty for the coke but I got 'em down to a dollar and a quarter. Richard and I are just sitting waiting for Cook. He doesn't disappoint, I got mine for a dollar he says. The look on Jimmy's face was priceless. We broke up, howling. It ain't over yet. Tom comes back with a Coke. Damn, I paid a buck and a half for this Coke he says. Jimmy says I paid a dollar and a quarter for mine. Cook jumps in with a dollar for me. Same look on Tom's face. We're rolling on the floor by now...you had to be there. I turn to Richard and said 03s. More laughing.
Guts filled we go back. Vic has found a friend of his, a guy he helped set up his first web site. Ed from Pennsylvania, I can't remember his last name but I'll hunt him down. He was with 26th Marines and was wounded pretty seriously. So, Cook and Richard wander down the ramp to the Wall. Vic and Ed circle it, with Tom and Jimmy trailing. I decide to go down to the Wall. There are just too many people. For those of you who've been there you know. Family members, friends of people whose names are inscribed there. You wouldn't think that a couple of hundred of people in that small of a space could be quiet, but outside of the shuffling of feet and the wind rustling the few remaining leaves on the trees you don't hear much talking. Thankfully the true tourists are missing today, you know them, the chatty kathies and the foreign disrespectful element. I'm trailing Cook and Richard and they stop and I pass them. I'm not looking for names, I've been here before, many times. I'm just looking for panel numbers of guys from my battalion that I know are there. There are some panels there that are full of 3/5 guys. Hastings, Union I, Union II, Swift, Taylor Common, Pipestone Canyon, Allenbrook...those are just a few, but the names are grouped together from those ops. I didn't know these Marines but it doesn't matter. A silent prayer for friends of mine that aren't here today to pay their own respects, you know who you are.
I get out of there, rushing past the slowpokes...oh, I don't mind them, I just have to leave. Don't ask me why, I don't know.
We're all back behind the statue of the grunts again. It's a common meeting place for everyone that goes down there. Stick around down there, just stay in place and if you know anyone there you'll eventually see them. We hang around, doing what we've been doing, talking and looking. A guy from 2/3 stops by and introduces himself. He finds out that I'm 3/5 and he wants to know when I was there. When I say '70 he says that his company was attached to 3/5 on Operation Auburn in December '67. We talk a bit. He came down last night from Philly. Yesterday he was giving a talk at a high school about Vietnam in Philadelphia. I like to hear that.
7. I spoke too soon. Guys are still hungry. Cook says he knows a good Italian restaurant around here but he can't tell us the name or what street it's on. We decide rather than taking three cars we'd pile into Cook's rental and go to lunch. We say our goodbyes to Ed from Pennsylvania and to Jimmy and his wife who are driving back to Quantico. Jimmy's got diabetes and his feet are killing him.
Cook's car is small! I'm skinniest and am in the middle of the back seat. If I was covered in oil I would have been a true sardine. Cook travels around in circles looking for his Italian restaurant, in LAPD cop fashion. Us four passengers get to look at the same buildings many times. Somewhere around Union Station we decide that any restaurant will do so we end up in something I think was called the Red Eye Bar and Grill, a far cry from Italian. Good nonetheless, I had a great steak burrito and a glass of draft ale. We took our time, relaxed, and it was great fun.
We drive back down and reach Constitution. It's packed worse than rush hour, the WWII groundbreaking ceremony must be over and everyone's leaving. It must take us half an hour to travel the twenty blocks to the other end. Halfway down, across from the WWII site, a group of protestors are chanting and waving banners. By the signs we figure they're not real happy with our President or his Vice President. Being in agreement, stopped at a stop light, we honk our horn in support and wave and yell with the best of 'em. Hey hey, Marines on Liberty, that's what it felt like.
8. Well, we've reached 20th street and Vic and Tom and I jump out and say our goodbyes to Cook and Richard. Good guys, really good guys, the best. Tom and Vic drive me to my car and I lead them to the Teddy Roosevelt bridge and to their hotel. Stopped for a while and watched Oklahoma beat the Aggies, a disappointment (Tom is from Nebraska originally). I'm going to see them tomorrow cuz Tom doesn't know how to get on I 66 and I'm going to take Vic to the airport later tomorrow so I'll just show up and lead him out of town. I go home.
Part of the reason for writing this is to forestall the blues I usually get after Memorial Day or Veteran's Day, especially if I've spent the time with friends and they are now gone. It works. I've relived every joyful and tearful moment I had. And I just have to reread to remember. Also, to give you guys who haven't been down here for one of these a taste of what it can be like, especially if you have friends with you or are meeting them here. I hope I have. You owe it to yourself to do this, either here, or at one of the
Traveling Wall sites, or at any suitable memorial. Just make sure you have friends with you. And I want to see some 3/5 guys down here.