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Iwo Jima vets meet the new guys

Updated: 
October 21, 2017 - 8:45am

POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA — The veterans stepped slowly off the tour bus Friday to the harmonica tune of “The Marines’ Hymn” played by a service member.

But this group of nonagenarians didn’t hail from the shores of Montezuma. No, their most memorable posting was the island of Iwo Jima.

The Marines and survivors stopped at Pohakuloa Training Area as a homecoming of sorts.

“It’s good to be here,” said Preston Welch, 92.

Welch found the end of his Iwo Jima tour sidetracked to San Diego, rather than returning to the Big Island with his brothers in arms. He spent several months in the hospital, recovering from shrapnel to his legs and a bullet wound through his shoulder.

As members of the 5th Marine Division, the vets trained at the now-defunct Camp Tarawa in Waimea, before continuing on to the pivotal 1945 World War II battle where they captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army.

It was Ivan Hammond’s job to call in air strikes to the craters of Mount Suribachi, where more than 1,600 enemy troops were sheltering. The napalm bombs were not officially acknowledged for years after the war, Hammond said, but he believes they were instrumental in winning the battle.

“A couple days later , we went up to raise the flags,” Hammond said. “A 41-man patrol was sent up, thinking it was a sacrificial deal. … We watched as the first flag went up.”

Hammond, 92, who now lives in Santa Fe, Texas, said a lot more was said and done that perhaps shouldn’t be shared with the newspaper. He saw the second, much larger, flag go up as well, he said.

At Pohakuloa, the elder Marines were met by 130 eager young infantry from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines from Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay, who are training at Pohakuloa prior to deployment next summer.

Don Graves, 92, was a flamethrower — one of the most dangerous positions in a bloody battle, the only Marine battle where American casualties exceeded those of Japan. His job was to wear a backpack carrying about 80 pounds of highly combustible napalm mix and aim it into tunnels, foxholes and pillboxes.

Graves, a spry, wise-cracking speaker, soon found himself swallowed in a sea of camouflage as the young Marines stood riveted around him. Graves had plenty of war stories, and more than a little advice, for the young troops following his every word.

The chance to meet the older vets is important for his young charges, said Fox Company Cmdr. Shane Robinette.

“Marines are all about delving into history,” Robinette said. “Being able to tap directly into that history is greatly appreciated.”

The group had originally planned just a short stop and bus tour of the Pohakuloa Training Area, perhaps not even disembarking, on their way from Kailua-Kona to Hilo. But the combination of young and elder Marines weren’t having that.

The trainees wanted to put together a static display of weapons and vehicles that may have changed greatly over the decades.

“They did this all on their own,” said Eric Hamilton, public affairs officer for U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii for Pohakuloa Training Area. “They asked themselves, ‘What would I show these guys about us today?’”

The older Marines and survivors, meanwhile, had stories to tell.

And they had questions. Lots of questions, as Sgt. Tyler Zeller discovered, describing his full-automatic rifle to a small, but rapt, group of vets and survivors.

“Is that a real gun?” asked Jimmie Hyde Watson, pointing to the plastic body of the weapon. Her brother, PFC Harrydale Hyde, was killed in action at Iwo Jima.

The weight is a huge difference, they discovered. The F4 weighs just 2.5 lbs., compared to the 9.5 lb. M1 Garand carried in World War II.

There was still much to talk about Friday morning, but the group was expected in Hilo. Some vets in wheelchairs and some with canes, they reluctantly made their way back to the bus.

“Semper fi,” called one of the departing Marines. “And if that’s not good enough, oo-rah!”

The 68th annual reunion was organized by the Fifth Marine Division Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history and tradition of the Fifth Marine Division and honor its legacy. Vice President Kathy Painton’s father was stationed at Camp Tarawa. He died during World War II, while fighting in the Pacific.

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