Standing side by side. One, a survivor of World War II. The other, of the Middle East theater.
They met unexpectedly at Portland International Airport. Neither knew the other until the elder man — wearing an Iwo Jima survivor hat — approached the younger gentleman dressed in fatigues.
They spoke of life in the military. But mostly they spoke about speaking. About the importance of those who have fought … to “get it out.” Not only for their sake, but for the sake of those who will follow.
I didn’t ask who they were, their ages or where they grew up. I only asked if it would be OK if I taped their conversation. I had no idea what they might say, but I felt compelled to record it.
“I lucked out on Iwo Jima,” the WWII vet said.
For those of you not familiar with history, Iwo Jima was a vicious battle in the Pacific theater.
Getting out of there in one piece was, indeed, good fortune.
The U.S. wanted to take Iwo Jima so our B-29 bombers could land after hitting the Japanese mainland. Problem was, the Japanese had 23,000 army and navy troops dug in to prevent that.
The U.S. dropped 6,800 tons of bombs on the island before three Marine divisions moved ashore.
The bombing helped, but boots on the beach were needed. It ended up being a battle of attrition. Japan lost almost all 23,000 troops. The U.S. lost 5,900.
Most of us remember the iconic photo of the Marines finally raising the U.S. flag there.
But the WWII vet wasn’t done serving his country.
“Then they called me for Korea. Hell, I thought in Korea I wasn’t going to make it. It was a hellhole. It was cold.”
There was some irony in my documenting their conversation, because both men ended up discussing the importance of soldiers in combat documenting their experiences.
“Getting the guys to talk has turned out to be one of the most wonderful things I have done,” the WWII vet said.
He told the story of one soldier who, at first, was very reluctant to speak about his experiences. The WWII vet turned to the soldier’s wife and asked her if she would help persuade him.
“He sent back eventually a 35-page essay of what he did. His wife, I saw her the next year and she said, ‘You did more for (my) husband than anyone has ever done for him.
He has been bitter and never talked for 40 years, and now we know what he did. And now he’s a completely different man.’
“And in there you can see why. He lost his buddy. In the essay he kept saying, ‘If I had done this.'”
The younger soldier agreed how important it was to record personal warrior history.
“Years from now, when soldiers are preparing for the next war, they can get that information.”
I left the two soldiers after a few minutes to let them finish their conversation. But one comment the younger soldier made struck me.
“No one else is going to understand it.”
In other words, unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve laced up those war boots, you simply don’t know.
But what we should know — what we all should know — is how vital the warriors are.
God bless the warriors.
(I hope you’ll watch this short video. It’s difficult to hear in some spots.)