I work as an elected official in my township. Right now I am sitting in my office in the municipal building preparing to go home after a brief morning’s work.
This morning I met with an elderly man who grew up in Boston, moved to Brooklyn, where he spent most of his adult life, and then moved out here to rural Pennsylvania when he retired about twenty years ago.
Tony comes in to see me generally once a year, and we usually wind up talking for a half hour or so … and then he leaves my office until the next late winter/early spring rolls around.
I’ve always considered Tony to be an intelligent, pleasant older man, who is somewhat lonely after having lost his wife quite a few years ago. And I’ve always enjoyed our yearly conversations, focusing on somewhat superficial subjects, from the difference between city and country life to the general state of the world.
Today when Tony came into my office I couldn’t help but notice that his Parkinson’s disease has progressed significantly since his visit of last March, his gait is more deliberate and slow, the wrinkles on his face are much more pronounced, there’s a lot more gravel in his voice, and I have to speak much louder in order for him to hear me. Tony will be eighty-four next month.
As he sat down in the chair by my desk, he took the cap off his head and placed it on the nearby counter. When he did so, my eye caught the inscription on the face of it: ‘Battle of Iwo Jima, Feb-Mar 1945’. I asked, pointing to the cap, ‘Were you there?’
It turns out that Tony was indeed there. And, in the ten or twelve years that the two of us have been talking about the weather, he had never thought it appropriate to tell me that.
It seems that Tony’s nephew gave him the cap this past Christmas. At first he was hesitant to wear it, feeling that being a part of that invasion is something one doesn’t go around advertising. It was a duty thing, not a pat-on-the-back thing.
I asked him whether many people comment on the cap, and he said that just earlier this week he was in a local diner picking up pastries for his grandchildren, as he does every Sunday morning, when a man, who was standing at the counter to pay for his breakfast, saw the cap and asked whether Tony had actually been a part of the invasion. When Tony responded in the affirmative, the man insisted on paying for Tony’s pastries. (Tony told me, with a sheepish grin, that, had he known that, he would have bought a dozen more. :)
It seems that Tony’s Marine unit (the 5th Marine Division) left Hawaii in late November of ‘44, rendezvoused with two other Marine divisions (the 3rd and 4th) on Ulithi, and landed on Iwo Jima on February 19th. Tony’s division, and the other two, measured twenty thousand strong, and suffered fifty percent casualties in the invasion. He was there until March 16th, at which time the island was still not secure, but the Army came in and took over operations.
At that point, Tony’s division was sent on to Waikiki for a week’s leave. In August, he served six month’s occupation duty in Nagasaki after the dropping of the bomb and the Japanese surrender, and the following March he was discharged.
I asked him what memory is most striking of his Iwo Jima experience, and he said, humbly and apologetically, that he cannot bring himself to talk about many of the specifics, but, after appearing to attempt to extract something from the long-ignored corners of his mind so as to satisfy my curiosity, he said that he wanted me to know that the island had no real buildings on it, other than those that were part of the air strip. There were no surface installations, simply an elaborate labyrinth of miles and miles of underground caves and tunnels and enormous subterranean chambers, so ferreting out the enemy was much more difficult than it would have been if they had not been thus hidden and fortified.
As he was getting ready to leave, I stood and shook Tony’s hand and thanked him for what he did for me those sixty years ago. At which point, without apparent stimulus from any source other than the fact that we were saying good bye and that I was genuinely grateful for his courage and sense of duty, both of us simultaneously began to well up with tears. Tony sat back down, clearly embarrassed by his small display of emotion, and the two of us sat here in complete silence for a minute or two, with my hand on top of his. Words didn’t seem appropriate. Then, just as spontaneously as the tears came, we both knew that it was time to get on with our day. We shook hands again, promised to talk again next year, and he walked slowly out the door.