NEW YORK -- Marines young and old remembered their predecessors who stormed Iwo Jima 65 years ago in local ceremonies and gatherings marking the anniversary of the climatic battle of the Pacific.
On Staten Island, Marine Corps League Detachment 246 members fired a rifle salute in honor of attending Iwo Jima Marines as part of their tribute ceremony. Paul Ryan, a sergeant with 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, celebrated his 90th birthday at the event. The pairing of the two celebrations was bittersweet for the Marine.
“You do a lot of thinking, thinking about things you forget the rest of the year,” he said.
For Ryan, who spent 34 months in the Pacific and fought in battles from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, there are plenty of things to think. As with most veterans, those stories are easier to tell among peers, and for years Marine Corps League Detachment 246 has brought in dozens of veterans from that historic Marine battle, but time is a battle no Marine can best.
“There are only three of us left, the rest are dead,” Ryan said of the Iwo Jima survivors he normally meets at these annual events.
There is a large plaque mounted in the detachment’s meeting hall with names of all the chapter’s Iwo Jima members. The majority of them are marked with an asterisk, indicating they’ve passed away.
“It’s not going to end with them. If you loose your traditions, you’re done,” said Anthony "Butch" Sarcone, Marine Corps League Detachment 246 commandant and Vietnam veteran. Events like this one, in honor of the Iwo Jima Marines, help pass traditions to the next generation of Marines, he said.
The reverence for the Iwo Jima veterans stems both from the dramatic images and the startling statistics of the battle. From Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, when the island was declared secure, 70,000 Marines fought approximately 20,000 fortified Japanese soldiers on the eight-square-mile.
On the fifth day, a contingent from the 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, climbed Mount Suribachi and raised an American Flag. The photo of five Marines and a Navy corpsman holding the flag became a symbol of the war in the Pacific and the Marine Corps. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to American service members for actions on Iwo Jima; a quarter of all World War II Marine Medal of Honor recipients were decorated for their efforts in this battle.
Across town Hope for the Warriors, a charity for wounded service members, teamed up with the Iwo Jima Survivors Association for a dinner honoring Iwo Jima veterans while raising money for service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Angelo Ciotta, president of the Iwo Jima Survivors of New York, has tried in his own way to keep the survivors connected. Forty years ago he founded the Iwo Jima Survivors of New York. At first it was just a meeting of a few old Marines for lunch, eventually more than a hundred Iwo Jima veterans filled banquet halls for their annual meetings. For the last three years, Ciotta’s association hasn’t held their meetings. A combination of age, logistics and a smaller group of survivors makes the arrangements harder.
“Some veterans are embarrassed because they are incapacitated, they can’t walk, they’re in wheel chairs, or they have catheters,” he said. That’s why he thinks these events are more important as time goes by, to show them that they aren’t alone.
As in the Staten Island Marine Corps League hall, younger Marines outnumbered their older counter-parts. In each case they offered praises to men whose accomplishments have become the personification of the Marine Corps spirit.
Cpl. Zach Briseno, a Marine veteran and an amputee from the current conflict in Iraq, spoke at the dinner.
“You came home to the country you protected and defended and you continued to contribute for the next 65 years,” said Briseno in his tribute to the Iwo Jima survivors.
“You are the rock stars of Marine Corps history. You inspire us not just with battlefield bravery but with the lives you’ve created since. From the latest generation to the greatest generation, I say thank you.”
The participation of so many young Marines along with the Iwo Jima veterans was a break from past years’ as the older Marines had a chance to tell their story to a new generation.
The pairing of younger with older Marines reminded Ciotta of the quote from Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, "The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years."
"We left the Marine Corps in good hands," said Ciotta.
Sergeant Major Gary Buck, 1st Marine Corps Recruiting District, whose unit also hosted Ciotta and a number of other veterans at an Iwo Jima celebration, said being able to talk to these veterans was an honor.
“The common bond we share is that we fought for our country. We embrace each other’s willingness to serve,” he said.
In Marine Corps League halls, banquet rooms and aboard Marine Corps installations here, Marines shared their history and respect for one another on the anniversary of the most iconic Marine Corps battle.