A firsthand history lesson

STANWOOD — In honor of Veterans Day today, one of the most-famous images in American war iconography was injected with a first-person narrative for a Stanwood Elementary School class Monday.

The photograph of several U.S. Marines hoisting a wind-whipped Stars and Stripes at the summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima is practically synonymous with the American victory over Japan in World War II.

Don Johnson fleshed out that picture for the Stanwood students. He was there. He saw the flag raised while hunkered down in a trench near the base of the 550-foot volcanic cone.

Johnson said that some historians seem to think the picture is too perfect. The fact that it was the second flag hoisted there implies to some that the photo was staged.

"That isn’t true," Johnson said. "The first flag was a small flag. All our naval officers didn’t like that. They wanted a flag that could be seen all over the island."

That flag eventually was seen all over the world.

But that moment of glory came at a high cost. Despite one of the longest preliminary bombardments of the war, more than 20,000 Japanese troops held their ground — entrenched in 16 miles of tunnels — for 36 days against a force of 110,000 U.S. Marines, including Johnson’s "Easy" E Company.

American forces suffered more than 25,000 casualties by one count, including 6,825 killed. Almost all of the Japanese forces were killed.

Johnson said his Easy Company started with at least 270 men. By the end of the battle, he was one of only seven Marines who made it through the battle without being seriously wounded or killed.

That doesn’t count Johnson’s amazing survival after a piece of shrapnel pierced his helmet when a mortar hit his foxhole.

As he has done for 10 years, the 80-year-old Mill Creek man brought in his collection of war memorabilia to the fourth- and fifth-grade class his daughter Cheryl Anderton teaches in Stanwood. He displayed two Japanese flags, a samurai sword, photographs, letters he wrote home on rice paper and vials of volcanic sand from Iwo Jima.

The students, in turn, peppered Johnson with questions. They had studied the battle in preparation for his visit.

They asked him: Did you take any Japanese prisoners? Was any of the time fun? Where did you sleep? Were you ever afraid?

Johnson gave short initial answers that usually spun into anecdotes. Yes, the marines took prisoners, mostly for information. No, none of the Iwo Jima time was fun, but his buddies in the Marines knew how to have fun away from battle. He slept in his foxhole, one hour at a time, alternating guard duty with the man next to him. And yes, sometimes he was afraid, but he dealt with it by just doing his job.

Alexa McNeal asked a personal question:

"What did your mom and dad think when you signed up (for the military) without telling them?"

"I kept quiet, ‘cause I knew Mom wouldn’t like it," Johnson said. "Dad? He was tickled to death, ‘cause he knew it was the right thing."

Alexa’s father, Pvt. 1st Class Carlos McNeal, took a break from his duties at Naval Station Everett to listen to Johnson. McNeal served on the USS Abraham Lincoln from March 2002 to January 2003, leaving the day before the aircraft carrier headed to Iraq.

McNeal said he was amazed at how men such as Johnson survived the everyday stress of living in combat.

"It’s just amazing that anybody from that time would even make it to live to tell their story," McNeal said.

Earlier, Alexa asked Johnson if he would fight in Iraq today if he were able. Johnson said he would, and he told the students to support the troops.

He added this advice:

"War isn’t good, I don’t care, it’s just not good. If you can settle it any other way, you should."

Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or smorris@heraldnet.com.

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