Mar 06 2020
When they hit the Iwo Jima beach in 1945, the veterans gathered recently in Crystal City weren’t much older than 16.
That’s about the age of the five Wakefield High School students who volunteered for the 75th anniversary of the Battle for Iwo Jima Reunion and Symposium.
Chiara Luepke, Cameron Garama, Sofia Doherty, Declan Carlson and Joe Kelly spent Feb. 29 meeting, assisting and learning from these national treasures. The symposium, put on by the Iwo Jima Association of America, works to educate about the battle and perpetuate the spirit of the Marines and servicemen who fought to take the island.
The students met Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of Iwo Jima and the Pacific. Williams – the youngest of 11 children – stood just 5-feet 6-inches tall in 1942 when he tried to enlist in the Marines. He was told he was too short, but by 1943 the height regulations were eliminated. Less than two years, later he was on the beach with a flamethrowe, and set about to destroy enemy “pillboxes,” or concrete dug-in guard posts.
For his efforts, Williams earned a Purple Heart and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945 by President Truman, and this month, the USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams (T-ESB-4) is being commissioned in Norfolk.
Other veterans the students had the pleasure of meeting included Ronald “Rhondo” Scharfe. Using a stolen baptismal certificate to create a false identification, Scharfe joined the Navy at 16. Offshore, he had to abandon his landing boat when it rammed something underwater.
Weighed down by heavy equipment and weapons, many of his fellow boatmates drowned and Rhondo was one of only 15 of 37 men in his boat to survive the battle.
“It was inspiring and humbling to get to interact with these veterans who, when they were my/our age, made such sacrifices and exemplified great courage in the Battle of Iwo Jima,” said Luepke, who lost a grandfather in the Vietnam War. “It is so important to honor and remember our veterans, and being able to interact with them gives me a greater appreciation for their service and continued dedication to our country.”
Joe Kelly, whose step-grandfather is a Vietnam War veteran and whose great-grandfather fought in the World War II Pacific theater, said, “I realized it’s important to remember when you see an older person in a coffee shop, that maybe they were a war hero, and you never know when you’re in the presence of someone who did great things for their country.”
Perhaps the most poignant lesson of the event was the presence of the Japanese ambassador, Shinsuke Sugiyama, at the banquet Saturday evening – a reminder that even the most bitter enemies can become supportive friends.