Mitchell native who was at Iwo Jima returns home for Memorial Day
MITCHELL, S.D.—Red streaks and a floating canteen swirled near the center of an ocean whirlpool where an amtrac ferrying 20-25 Marines had exploded and sank moments earlier.
Blue was the dark hull of the Battleship Tennessee, sailing near an amtrac that carried then-19-year-old Jack Thurman, of Mitchell, toward battle on Iwo Jima.
White were the Pacific Ocean waves breaking upon the volcanic black sands of Iwo Jima's forbidding beaches on Feb. 19, 1945. Thurman threw one leg over the side of the floating steel target, so anxious was he to leave it.
The red, white and blue of the American flag means a lot to 93-year-old Thurman, who has returned to his native Mitchell from Colorado for Saturday's Memorial Day dedication of Veterans Park.
As the battle for Iwo Jima raged for weeks after the landings, Thurman and his fellow Marines would watch the flag wave atop Mount Suribachi even in the dead of night, illuminated by artillery and flares. It takes Thurman back when he sees the red, white and blue waving today.
"That flag to me was our buddy," he said. "It was up there day and night."
The Mitchell City Band will play at Veterans Park starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 26, and the park dedication ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. Thurman will sign his book, "We Were In The First Waves Of Steel Amtracs Who Landed on Iwo Jima," for an hour starting at 12:30 p.m. at the American Legion.
Thurman was among the 18 Marines depicted in the famous "Gung Ho" photo taken while his group stood before the American flag immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945. Thurman was the last Marine identified in the "Gung Ho" photo.
Last year, Thurman and his daughter Karen Thurman, a retired Navy commander, refused to appear at a Broncos football game on Veterans Day because of the recent player flag protests. If NFL players couldn't stand for the flag, Thurman argued, he couldn't stand for them. Karen, who takes care of her father, said they were pleased by Wednesday's decision by the NFL to penalize players who refuse to stand.
"We understand the issues," she said, "But they could have picked a better manner to protest."
The Battleship Tennessee was running parallel to the beach, and rockets from two destroyers were pounding the hills of Iwo Jima. Three Marine Corsairs with wing machine guns blazing roared overhead.
Thurman looked toward to his buddies in another amtrac just ahead as it was hit and blown from the water. Looking up, he saw a Navy dive bomber flying lower than a ship's mast, its canopy open and the pilot's head hanging from the window.
"I thought he would crash right into us," Thurman said.
The Navy bomber, still carrying a bomb beneath it, crashed into another amtrac in an explosion filled with black and yellow smoke.
"I was to land at Red Beach 1," Thurman said, and it was blood red by the time he got there.
"Imagine the number of bodies," Thurman said, that have been covered in the American flag during a final salute before burial. Imagine the millions.
After taking the island, the Marines marched past the cliffside caves carved by the Japanese to defend the island. Marching along, Thurman said, they could hear the muffled pops of Japanese soldiers committing suicide inside.
The black sand that the Marines trod, he said, was mixed with parts of American helmets and bloody fatigues.
His troop transport ship pulled away from Iwo Jima very slowly when the Marines were finally aboard.
Because of the way the globe curves, he said, the last thing the Marines gathered aft could see was the flag still waving atop Suribachi.
"I'm here, boys," it seemed to say, Thurman said. "Don't go too far."