Michael E. Tank

HEROES

It has been said
That if the Army and the Navy are institutions
Then the Marine Corps is a religion
Its traditions, honor code and history worshiped by those who have served

So in that sense it must also be said
That as all religions have their shrines or temples,
Then to Marines and Corpsmen, the Iwo Jima Memorial is surely one of ours
A place to honor and pay tribute to the men who had served before us

With these solemn feelings in mind
It was at that sacred Memorial
Where I found myself, anxious, excited, reverent
On this gray, wet November morning

As the bus carrying our Vietnam Veteran’s group circled the huge bronze statue
Depicting the famous flag raising of World War Two
I was surprised by the sheer bulk of our shrine
With the American flag rising at an angle high into the drizzling sky

We had been told that there would be little time to spend here
So I hurried off the bus, camera in hand and ready
Walking up the steps leading to this glorious sculpture
I was already looking at the digital display, snapping pictures

As I walked around the shining black marble at the Memorial’s base
My mind raced with the memory of all the stories I have read and heard
Not only of Iwo Jima, but also of Guadalcanal, bloody Tarawa, Saipan,
Guam, Tinian, Peleliu and Okinawa, stories of my heroes

These famous battles and others had made up the Navy and Marine’s
“Hell in the Pacific” campaigns
Where each island battle had proved worse than the last
As we moved closer to the Japanese homeland

Iwo Jima had preceded only Okinawa in the war
It is infamous for its violence, fierceness, savagery and casualties
With 24,053 dead and wounded Americans, 2400 on just the first day
And of 22,000 dead Japanese, roughly 1000 were left to surrender

However it is not only that these men fought and died there
For which Iwo Jima is held in such high regard
But rather the manner in which they struggled through this hellish nightmare
In their determination, courage, bravery and selflessness

Admiral Nimitz forever honored these men when he stated,
“Uncommon Valor, Was A Common Virtue”
These words now etched in gold on the Memorial wall
Were emphasized by the 27 Medals of Honor awarded on that island

Now finally here, so intent was I to capture this moment
To save on film this visit to a place I have waited for so long to go
That I rushed around the walkway, snapping picture after picture
When I realized that I had not even looked with naked eye upon the statue itself

The camera dropped to my side
As I gazed upward at the towering bronze figures
Of the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman
Frozen forever in their eternal struggle to raise our flag

Like most of us Vietnam Vets, these men were my heroes
Not merely the six portrayed here in bronze
But all those who had served before
In all of our Nation’s battles

I had grown up among the men of WW II and Korea
My Father and Uncle had served in the Navy
Two other uncles had duty in the Army
These were the heroes of my youth, my dreams, my mythology

I started again to circle the Memorial
To take in every detail, burn it into my memory
Let others take the pictures, I wanted to remember
To absorb the feelings and images of this place of honor

In this mode I walked alone in my thoughts
Sensing the magnificence of their moment in history
Admiring the excellent details of the sculpture
Savoring the moment, when I saw the old man

He stood alone on the far corner of the concrete walkway
Small, thin and old, in tan trousers creased smartly in the front and back
A yellow shirt and a light blue jacket, a red baseball hat on his small gray head
A folder tucked snuggly up under his left arm

He stood and watched as the few who were there this rainy morning
Circled the Monument and studied the statue
He stood patiently as if waiting to be approached
As if he belonged here as much as these huge bronze figures

I started towards him
And at the same time he noticed my approach
As I grew closer he seemed to pull himself up
And straightened himself in anticipation of my arrival

The wrinkled red cap on his balding head showed our Marine emblem
With USMC above it and Iwo Jima below
I knew at once he had been there
I knew I was to be honored by his presence

“Excuse me Sir, were you at Iwo?” I asked timidly
For although I had read his cap,
I was awkwardly trying to start our conversation
“Yes I was.” He replied, and I saw the pride shinning through in his blue eyes

“It is an honor to meet you, Sir,
And thank you for your service to our Country.” I said.
By now others from our Veteran’s group had followed my lead
And men of all our services soon surrounded this Iwo Veteran

Shaking hands with all of us he started to tell his story
Just nineteen when he landed in the second wave
Wounded in the right leg after two weeks of death, misery and killing
Lost many of his young friends that he still thinks of and misses today

He lifted his right pant leg to show his wounds
Revealing the scars where the calf muscle had been twisted and torn away
“A mortar round did that, spent the rest of the war in a hospital.”
“I was one of the lucky ones.”

Numerous black dots showed under the skin,
Shrapnel too small to be removed
Carried with him for all these years, as with
His pain and a limp the constant reminders of that long ago battle

Then he brightened as he took the folder out from under his arm
Opened it to show us the black and white photos it held
A handsome, sturdy, muscular young man in Marine uniform
Black curly hair and a big, bright smile, “That’s me.” He said

Flipping to another showed a beautiful young girl
On a beach in a one piece swim suit
“That’s my Margaret,” He beamed. “Been married fifty-seven years.
She’s waiting for me at home right now.”

We all commented on what a lovely woman she is
The old man grinned with joy
And for a moment he was that young Marine in the photo
Someone in our group said, “Iwo must have been rough.”

His face turned grim and there was sadness in his voice as he spoke,
“Yes. Yes, it was. But I’ll tell you boys something.
Are you boys all Vietnam Vets?”
“Yes.” We replied almost in unison

“Well you boys had it rough.
When we went off we had a job to do and the whole country was with us.
You boys went to war and it seemed that most of the country was against it.
That was a hell of a way to have to fight a war.”

“But you boys did what had to be done.
You answered that call to duty, even when others would not.
It was a strange, dirty war you had to fight.
And you did this country proud.”

“I’m retired now, but I used to work for the Energy Department
Right here in Washington D. C.
Back in ‘71 there was a rally to show our support for you boys in the service.
It was on a Saturday and I was the only one in our department who went to it.”

“When I got back to work on Monday,
Some of those peace guys had papered the walls in my office
With peace slogans and peace signs.
I was one mad Marine!”

“I marched into the manager’s office and told him,
I am going to get a cup of coffee; I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.
When I come back, every damn slogan and sign better be off my walls
Or there is going to be hell to pay!”

“And when I came back it was all gone.
Yes, you boys did a hell of a job in a bad time.”
Trying to control his emotions and with his voice catching in his throat he said,
“You boys had it rough. You boys are my heroes.”

Our group had become silent
Intent on listening to him tell his story
And now we were somewhat in shock
One of our heroes had just said we were his heroes

As I looked around at the others
Most had heads bowed and were looking at the ground
I reached out to shake the man’s hand again
Filled with emotion myself, I needed to move away from the group

“Thank you again, Sir for your service.
I am honored to meet you.”
He smiled and shook my hand, “Thank you.” He said.
As I moved away he and the others started talking again

Our driver sounded the bus’s horn
It was our signal to get back onboard
I moved slowly, reluctantly away from the two shrines
And took a seat alone by a window

As the bus started to pull away
I looked out through the water-streaked glass
And saw the Iwo Marine again standing alone
Waiting patiently in the lightly falling rain

Passing by the rows of Arlington’s white headstones
I thanked God that my Country has such men and women
Those willing to step forward, to sacrifice all for our Country
Brave young heroes willing to fight and, if need be, to die for our way of life

Hoping to soon return, with the chance to meet this man again
Yet knowing how quickly these heroes are all passing
Like my Father, my boyhood heroes will soon all be gone
Yet it was my great fortune and privilege to talk to one today

Now after thirty years of silently, yet confidently knowing
Long ago I had made the right choice
Despite my country’s attitude and shame towards Vietnam
One of my heroes holds us, yes me, in high esteem

I am not a hero
I am just one of many who did what they thought was right
But today I learned that a hero, thinks we are all heroes
As the bus pulled onto the highway, silently I started to cry

The USMC Memorial - Washington DC
The USMC Memorial - Washington DC
Photo June 2004 by Anthony W. Pahl
IWVPA Bronze Helmet Top Poet Award of Excellence - January 2005