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September 25, 2013

Mark Millican: The thrill of a lifetime

Though he was just over 100 yards away from the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima, Fred Harvey didn’t see it. He had his hands full with a Japanese machine gun nest on the flank of Mount Suribachi.

Harvey, 89, told his story standing in the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C., last Friday, during a trip sponsored by the Marine Corps League “Jake Puryear” Detachment No. 1020 out of Rome.

Someone asked Harvey if he remembered hearing the horns blowing on U.S. ships in the harbor after the flag was raised.

“I don’t remember that, because I’d just set off a TNT charge (against a Japanese position),” he said. “But I was close enough to hear the cheers go up (from fellow Marines). An A-4 machine gun was keeping the Japs occupied by firing into that (position), then the flamethrower guy was about six or seven yards behind me, and when I threw that (charge) in there he stepped up and bathed them with the flamethrower.

“Experience is what saved us, knowing to get off that beach because of the (Japanese) shelling.”

Harvey started out as a “Paramarine,” or Marine paratrooper, at Guadalcanal and Bougainville Island and other battles, then transferred to the Fifth Division which attacked Mount Suribachi and the lower end of the island at Iwo.

As Harvey related his story, Belgium and Italian tourists gathered around and began listening. A man with them translated into one of their languages, and the foreign visitors shook Harvey’s hand and thanked him.

Like many of the senior Marines on the trip last week — including fellow World War II vet Jim Burns who fought at Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific — Harvey came out of hardscrabble conditions in the post-Depression years. He said one of the main reasons he loved the Marine Corps was because he got three full meals a day. When he entered boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., out of west Texas, he weighed 118 pounds. Six months later he was at 145 pounds, he recalled.

Harvey lost a friend fighting next to him at Iwo to Jap machine gun fire, and his best friend, Lee “Cobber” Dortch, was stabbed with a bayonet six times in the chest and once in each arm — and survived. Harvey coached high school football for 45 years, using the leadership methods he said he learned from his sergeants and commanding officers.

Traveling to Washington last week with around two dozen Marines, a few of their wives and a couple of Navy corpsmen — many of them also battle-hardened by Korea and Vietnam — was the thrill of a lifetime for Teresa and me. Whether you’re with vets or not, getting to see the Iwo Jima Memorial, the veterans memorials at the World War II, Korea and Vietnam monuments, is moving enough in itself, especially during a nighttime tour. But getting to see the guys who fought there, and the looks on their faces when total strangers walked up to shake their hands and thank them for serving there, was overwhelming at times — even just as an observer.

And they continue to serve, but have more fun doing it now. They’re heavily involved in the Toys for Tots Christmas distribution effort like Marines around the country, and they also sponsor a Junior Marine program in the Rome area. Harvey visits his pal “Cobber” at a Prescott, Ariz., nursing home several times a year, and he has another Marine-related goal:

When he turns 90 in November, he wants to jump out of an airplane again.

Ooh-RAH!

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter, @ExtraByMark

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