Sailor Scatters Grandfather's Ashes at Iwo Jima

Enemy fire riddled the Navy landing craft on Feb. 19, 1945, as Petty Officer 2nd Class Oscar Thomasson steered it toward an Iwo Jima beach during the initial wave of the invasion of the Japanese island.

The craft sunk, sending Thomasson and the Marines into the water to scramble for their lives. Thomasson managed to swim to shore, clawing his way through the beach's black volcanic sand.

He spent the next several days on the beachhead helping any way he could, including assisting the wounded. U.S. forces won the 36-day battle that saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II and claimed thousands of lives on both sides.

But the experience also took a toll on the survivors beyond physical wounds.

Thomasson carried his emotional scars from Iwo Jima and other battles for the rest of his life -- including nearly two decades in Wichita, where he raised his family -- until he died at age 80 in 2006.

Those years also included growing particularly close to Andrew Thomasson, the oldest of his 10 grandchildren. Oscar shared little about the war with his family, but he did open up to Andrew during his final years.

Andrew Thomasson, now a 34-year-old Chief Petty Officer stationed at the Naval Air Facility in Misawa, Japan, understood what Iwo Jima meant to him. Last week, he scattered the ashes of his grandfather on that same Iwo Jima beach.

"I wanted to honor him in that sacred place on hallowed ground in the presence of his shipmates," Andrew Thomasson told Stars and Stripes, an independent military newspaper.

It was an emotional moment.

Oscar Thomasson II, Andrew's father and a sergeant with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office, said he spoke with his son shortly afterward. Andrew told him of how he cried as the Navy hymn was sung as he sat on the beach holding the urn of ashes and his grandfather's picture.

"Then he got up, went into the surf and scattered the ashes," Thomasson II said.

Waves soaked Andrew Thomasson, but he made sure the ashes were scattered in the water before retreating.

After trying for several years to get permission to take the ashes to Iwo Jima, he got his chance last Tuesday when he was one of about 60 chief petty officers accompanying nearly 20 chief selectees from Misawa to the island.

The purpose of the trip was to help the new chiefs learn about their heritage, a point of emphasis for the Navy. Reading about it books or seeing it in films is one thing, but actually walking where the events took place leaves a deep impression that reminds them of why they do what they do.

The scattering of the ashes was incorporated into the experience.

Most of the group made the eight-mile hike to the top of Mount Suribachi, where more than 67 years ago the iconic picture was taken of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag. On this day, they opened a flag in to honor Andrew's grandfather.

The group returned to the beach to witness Andrew scattering his grandfather's ashes.

"Andrew told me it was very humbling," Oscar Thomasson II said.

That would be fitting because the man being honored very much lived his life in a humble manner.

Oscar Thomasson grew up in Binger, Okla., a farming community southwest of Oklahoma City. His father was the town's marshal. His mother signed the required papers so Oscar could join the Navy in 1942, shortly after his 17th birthday.

After the war, he went to Oklahoma State University and got a degree in animal husbandry. That led to working on a ranch, buying cattle for a meat company and finally coming to Wichita in 1970 as a news market reporter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the stockyards.

"My dad wasn't what anyone would consider a hero by action-movie standards," said Oscar Thomasson II, "but, by God, he did what he needed to do. He just didn't want to talk about it."

But he knew his dad had a lot on his mind from the war. Some of his earliest memories were of his dad waking up screaming.

"He was haunted by the war," Oscar Thomasson II said.

The elder Thomasson had a special bond with Andrew. After he and his wife, Betty, retired to live in Hatfield, Ark., Andrew would visit and go fishing with his grandpa or help in one of the three large gardens.

At home while growing up in Haysville, Andrew "used to give me fits," his dad said.

"It wasn't so much he was in trouble with the law," Oscar Thomasson II said, "but he was adrift."

Two years after graduating from Campus High School in 1995, Andrew joined the Navy.

"He grew up to be a good man," his dad said. "Andrew loved his grandpa to pieces. Part of the reason he enlisted in the Navy was because of his grandpa."

In 2003, Andrew had a quiet visit with his grandpa about the war. This time, the old sailor opened up ? at least for him. He told him about the horrors of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He him told of seeing Japanese soldiers marching women and children off the cliffs in Okinawa.

It would be one of the last clear conversations he would have with his grandpa. By 2005, Alzheimer's and diabetes took its toll on his mind and body. By the time he was moved to a nursing home in Fort Smith, Ark., both of his legs had been amputated.

During the summer of 2005, Andrew was aboard the USS Kitty Hawk as the carrier set anchor near Iwo Jima. He had his picture taken with Mount Suribachi in the background.

Later that year, Andrew and his dad visited Oscar Thomasson at the nursing home and showed him the picture.

"What's Andrew doing on Iwo Jima? I thought we whupped them," the elder Thomasson said.

"Yes, we did, Dad," Oscar Thomasson II said. "The war is over, and we won."

"Good," the old sailor replied.

Last week, Oscar Thomasson II said, "Dad couldn't remember what he had for breakfast, but he didn't forget Andrew or Iwo Jima. He was so very proud of his grandson."

Much has changed over the last 70 years for the U.S. and Japan. The Japanese now refer to Iwo Jima by its original name, Iwo To. Andrew is now married to a Japanese woman, Yumi.

"Dad would have loved Yumi to pieces. She's a sweet girl," said Oscar Thomasson II, who has visited his son in Japan. "The values of Japan today are the same ones we have here ? hard work, self sufficiency and just really a society that looks toward the whole of the individual."

When Oscar Thomasson died in December 2006, his wife was in a nursing home in Kansas. Andrew couldn't get leave to come home. A short memorial service was held instead of a funeral.

But Andrew will be coming home in October.

He will bring the flag that was folded last week at the Iwo Jima beach. He'll take that flag to Colby, where his grandma Betty, 83, lives with relatives, and present it to her.

You have to think the old sailor would be very proud.

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