Iwo Jima Survivor Considers it his Duty to Tell about Bloody Battle


It's hard to say which is more amazing: that Frank Matthews was the only Marine in his platoon to survive the battle of Iwo Jima--or that he's still going strong enough, 71 years later, to tell museum visitors what his experiences were like.

Either way, the Stafford County man considers it his responsibility to speak for those who can't.

"I'm not so much an individual person as I am a representative of a whole group of people who cannot be here because they are not alive," Matthews said.

The battle of "Iwo," as he calls it, started Feb. 1, 1945, and was the bloodiest conflict of the Pacific theater during World War II.

The iconic image of men raising the flag on Mount Suribachi has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the war--and of the Marine Corps itself.

And Frank Jackson Matthews, a skinny kid from South Carolina who was four months shy of his 19th birthday and worried he'd do something stupid to embarrass himself, was there to do his part.

"I just think it's remarkable," said Sean Miller, 15, from Maryland who recently toured the National Museum of the Marine Corps, where Matthews is a volunteer docent. "He's, like, living history."

Miller and his family listened somberly as Matthews talked about the 7,000 Marines who died on the island--more than the losses in all the Gulf Wars combined.

Moments later, the young visitor smiled, as many others have done before him, when Matthews declared there are two genuine artifacts from the battle in the museum.

"The flag and me," Matthews said.


Matthews is 89. He still drives, maneuvering back roads to get to the museum several times a week. He's logged more than 5,000 hours there and is among the most active of the 169 regular docents, said Gwenn Adams, public affairs chief.

Matthews had a pacemaker put in two years ago, and he senses that old age is catching up with him. Normal activities, like getting dressed, take more out of him than a year ago.

But his short- and long-term memories are keen. While some of his stories sound rehearsed--probably because he's repeated them so often--he can easily speak to other aspects of modern or ancient history.

"I warn you, he's sharp as a tack," said his daughter, Jan Gardner. "Don't ask a question you don't want an answer to."

Matthews lives with Gardner and her husband, Rich, but in their basement, where he can cook his own meals and keep his own schedule.

His daughter reminds him to take his medicine but doesn't dare dictate his level of activity.

"I don't tell him when he can go or when to stay home," she said.


Matthews was in the 4th Marine Division and still wears a red diamond-shaped pin denoting the division on his hat and shirt.

He spent 28 days on Iwo Jima as Allied forces sought to capture the island--which is in Japan's front yard--because it would provide them an airfield from which to launch attacks on the mainland.

The battle was the only time Matthews saw hand-to-hand combat, although he also served during the Korean War.

On Iwo, he had to carry an 80-pound flamethrower on his 150-pound frame and patrol underground caverns in search of the enemy.

It was nothing short of harrowing, and the scenes of bloodied bodies and smell of sulfur on the volcanic island were sickening.

But it wasn't the only challenge the son of a preacher man faced.

He turned to music after the war, to try to forget some of the awful things he'd done. Even though he couldn't see faces in the dark caves he patrolled, he knew there were human beings there--and he had to burn them to death or be killed himself.

"They wouldn't surrender," he told museum visitors about the ferocious fighting spirit of the Japanese.

He had dreamed of teaching music at the university level, but the timing never was right. Plus, he suffered three wounds at Iwo, including severe damage to his right wrist and arm.

He took it all in stride, as he's mentioned during many interviews and accolades. He's been featured on CBS News and in local newspapers and heralded by the Marine Corps commandant.

In a 2013 story on the Marine Corps' website, he spoke to the lingering scars of war.

"I still don't play [the piano] as well as I did when I was 17," he said. "So what? I don't do a lot of things as well as I did when I was 17."


After the Korean War, Matthews went to live in Louisiana with his family. He studied music history and composition at Louisiana State University and directed the choir at his father's church during the summer.

One night during practice, in walked the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her name was Margaret, and the two eventually married and shared what he called 42 short years together.

By the 1960s, the humidity of the deep South caused her health to deteriorate, and a doctor said she needed a drier climate.

The couple decided to move across country and leave behind everyone they loved, in the hopes her asthma-like conditions would improve.

They did, and the family came to love life in California. He took jobs in computer programming, administration or teaching youngsters how to play the piano. He often juggled three or four jobs at a time to keep food on the table.

After his wife died in 1999, he came back East to live with the Gardners.

When the Marine Corps museum opened near Quantico in 2006, Matthews started visiting--and quickly was recruited as a docent.

He says there's no place for ego among the displays of men dying for their country. He points out photos of himself on the wall, carrying a flame thrower, and stresses that his purpose is to educate others, to give a first-person account of the experience.

"You have to be willing to tell your story if you're going to be of any value," he said.


About five years ago, the family started talking about a book on Matthews' life. His daughter spoke with publishers of military books who seemed interested, but the process of getting approval was "excruciatingly slow."

The family decided to publish it themselves.

Matthews' niece, Alisa Murphy, always had a good rapport with the veteran, and she started compiling his Iwo Jima accounts. Then, she added his family history and musical background, and the result was a 137-page paperback titled, "You Don't Know Jack."

Matthews goes by one of two names, depending on where he is. Or, as he told a gracious and charming general's wife who had asked his real name: "I'm Frank on base and Jack off."

That's one of several stories in the book, which is available on Amazon and Kindle.

Matthews will sign copies from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday in the museum's store. The public affairs office isn't endorsing the book--it can't as a federal installation--and Matthews stresses that he would never let it interfere with his work.

His docent duty is too important.

"I don't know how much longer I'm going to be around," he said, "but I would like to be able to continue doing what I do at the museum. All I want to do is just say a little to get people to understand what it was like."

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