SAGINAW, Texas — For most it’s an iconic moment captured in a timeless photo and placed in just about every U.S. history book in existence: that moment a group of United States Marines planted the American Flag on the peak of Iwo Jima during World War II.
It’s an image of patriotism for most, but for Don Graves it’s a memory that still lives as clearly in his mind as it did the day after he stood just feet away from that flag being planted in the rocks.
“That was my Colonel’s flag,” said Graves who was 19 when he and his unit fought in that infamous battle. “He gave it to Lt. Schrier and said, ‘put this up Harold. Get some boys together, and put it up for me.’”
Graves, who’s now in his 90’s, said gunfire was raining down on him and his fellow marines as they took in the sight of that flag being planted on the Japanese island; a battle that ended up being a major step in victory during the war.
Tuesday, February 23 marked the 76th anniversary of that flag being planted on Iwo Jima, and these days, Graves is one of few left who were actually there to witness the moment. He may be one of an even smaller number who still has such a vivid recollection of the battle, and he says some of those memories remain haunting to this day.
“Couldn’t get up, couldn’t move. I remember getting shot, wounded, crying,” he said.
Graves doesn’t shy away from those memories these days though. In fact, with the numbers of people who can give that firsthand account rapidly shrinking, he spends a lot of his time these days sharing those memories with others, especially with the future.
So on that anniversary, Graves stood in front of Wayside Middle School in Saginaw where a large group of students crowded in front of him, covered in red, white, and blue and holding signs of appreciation for the retired Marine. Graves spent the morning sharing that story of the flag raising at Iwo Jima with those middle schoolers and trying to help them better understand their history.
Graves, who wasn’t much older than many of those students when he enlisted in the military, said it’s especially important to him to share that story with children. He wants it to inspire patriotism in the next generation, grit, and appreciation for what they have.
“We didn’t know what that meant when people started calling us ‘the Greatest Generation,’ but then when you stop to think about it, we had nothing, but we were content, we were happy, we had fun,” said Graves.
It was clear their moment with the veteran did hit home for several students. One teen girl even shared her own great-grandfather’s story with Graves after the event; a connection between the two generations.
As Graves raised the school’s flag, 76 years to the day after he watched that flag raise at Iwo Jima, he hoped that moment captured in that infamous picture will continue to inspire, but also to remind of what so many went through on that island.
“We lost 7,000 of our buddies, 20,000 shot up and taken off on ships. We don’t know how many were buried at sea. That’s what I think of,” said Graves.