Marine Veteran Recounts Seeing Flag Raised at Iwo Jima

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (AP) — It is perhaps the most iconic image of World War II, the one that gave Americans hope that the most widespread war in world history would end soon.

And Robert Carter Barrett was there that day, Feb. 23, 1945, on that eight-square-mile piece of mostly black volcanic sand known as Iwo Jima.

"I watched the flag go up on the mountain," recalls Barrett, who has been better known as "Robin" since his Marine Corps buddies tabbed him that in boot camp in 1943.

"Then I had a little talk with the man upstairs and said, 'If you get me out of this damn foolishness, I'll be there when you call one day.' I just didn't know it would be 39 years" before he heard the calling, he says with a grin and childlike twinkle in his eyes.

Barrett, who nearly four decades after the war ended became a lay minister in an Episcopal church in Bonanza, about 20 miles east of Klamath Falls, turned 91 on Friday.

That birthday came 71 years after he spent his 20th storming the beach at Iwo Jima with his fellow Marines.

Feb. 19, 1945, is the day thousands of Marines began a five-week battle to claim the tiny island 750 miles south of the Japanese mainland.

The "flag" Barrett is talking about is the U.S. flag some of his fellow Marines placed atop the island's highest point, 554-foot Mount Suribachi, four days later.

Barrett and the others were there not for just one flag raising, but two.

Joe Rosenthal's image of five Marines and one Navy combat corpsman that earned the photographer a Pulitzer Prize, was actually the second flag raising.

James Forrestal, then secretary of the Navy, had landed on the beach that morning and wanted the initial flag placed atop Mount Suribachi as a souvenir. A second, larger U.S. flag replaced it later that day, and Rosenthal captured the moment.

But the flag raising that Barrett remembers best is the first one, which he and everyone else saw that morning, the one that had their fellow Marines down below cheering and ships honking.

"I just happened to be at the right place at the right time," recalls Barrett, sitting in his Gateway area apartment with his wife of 64 years, Marvel, who is also 91. It was mid-morning, and Barrett was in his foxhole, the one he'd slept in the night before, near the base of the small volcano.

The Fury of Pure Hell

As the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to America's entry into the war, approaches at the end of this year, World War II veterans continue to die at a rate of about 430 a day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

More than 16 million Americans fought in the war, but only about 697,000, including about 12,000 in Oregon, are still alive, according to the museum.

"I just look around and think: 'I'm just damn lucky to be here,'?" Barrett says. "I was one of the fortunate ones."

Designated Operation Detachment, the American invasion of Iwo Jima aimed to capture the island and its Japanese-controlled airfields to provide a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands.

It was one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles of the war in the Pacific.

More than 20,000 Japanese and about 6,800 American troops lost their lives. Another 18,000 U.S. Marines were wounded.

Many of the U.S. casualties — about 600 killed and 1,800 wounded — came on that first day.

"We hit the beach, the ramp dropped down, and all I could see was smoke and black volcanic sand. It was like entering The Fury of Pure Hell, nowhere to hide," Robin Barrett wrote four years ago, on his 87th birthday, in a history of his time on Iwo Jima.

So. Cal Born and Eaised

He and Marvel — who lost her father during the war when he was pinned between two one-ton bombs at an Army depot in Northern California in 1944 — raised four children and have seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

He was born in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 19, 1925, to Carter and Elizabeth Barrett, an avocado farmer and the daughter of a Chilean presbyterian minister.

Their son dropped out of high school about a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the Marines in Los Angeles at age 17. His mother had to give permission, Barrett says, since he was not yet 18.

He went to San Diego for boot camp and then found himself in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, fighting battles in 1943 and 1944 in places like Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella, Kolombangara and Choiseul.

Barrett spent a month on a ship, sailing from Hawaii to Asia and making preparations for Iwo Jima as part of the 5th Marine Division's 27th regiment.

"There was no beach there, it was all black, volcanic sand," Barrett recalls. "And it was very scary. That island was as bare as a church collection plate on a Saturday night. No place to go, no place to hide.

"It wasn't easy building a foxhole, because as soon as you dug it up, it caved in on you."

Iwo Jima, mostly flat and featureless except for Mount Suribachi, translates to "Sulphur Island" in English. The odor of sulphur triggers unpleasant memories to this day, Barrett says.

Then there was the smell of hundreds of dead Japanese troops, "just stacked on the ground, just like cord wood," he remembers. "Probably nothing worse than the smell of dead bodies."

Never Got a Scratch

When the war was over, and he had been part of the Allied occupation of Japan, stationed near Nagasaki after the dropping of two atomic bombs forced the Japanese surrender, Barrett went back to his life in Southern California.

He worked for years as a printer, something he'd begun doing as a kid at The Altadena Press, the newspaper where he grew up near Pasadena. He met Marvel at a VFW bar in South Gate, Calif., in 1952, and married her five months later.

They raised their children, and he worked as a scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts and coached Little League baseball for years.

They moved to Bonanza in the 1980s and to Springfield in 2002 to be closer to some of their grandchildren.

"Five beachheads and never got a scratch," Barrett recalls of his time in World War II. "The Almightly was watching out for me, because I was too dumb to watch out for myself. I've had a wonderful life. An absolutely wonderful life."

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