The man paused. He looked down at the floor as he tried to think of something to say. Nothing seemed adequate. He felt awkward.
Finally, the man raised his eyes to meet those of the speaker and, almost whimpering, said, “I’ve been to a lot of veterans’ programs, but this is the first time I’ve ever cried.”
The guest speaker, 87-year-old Claude Wallace, replied, “There’s some things you never forget.”
“Two things that happened I will never forget,” he told the small crowd of veterans and elected officials as he flashed back to Feb. 19, 1945, the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“The LCVPs [landing craft, vehicle and personnel boats] that hang on the side of the ship carried 50 men. We went in at 6 o’clock that morning and took 50 Marines in there” to the beach.
“I was the coxswain and the gunner. They let the bow ramp down and these Marines run off. Forty-three of them made it. Seven of them didn’t.”
The small landing craft returned to the ship for 50 more Marines to ferry to the beach.
“There was one who came up to me and asked, ‘Do you have a lighter, Mac?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I gave it to him and he lit his cigarette and I told him just to keep it and I’d get another one when I got back to the ship.
“He was the last one to go off,” Wallace continued, though it was getting harder to speak and his voice began to waiver. “Something hit right full in the face and blowed the whole back of his head off. He just fell off in the water.
“We went back to the ship and got 50 more Marines. We were bringing them into the beach and a little young boy, he didn’t look to be over 15 years old, it didn’t look like he had ever shaved. He turned to me and said, ‘Mac, would you do me a favor?’
Wallace, still a few months shy of his 19th birthday, already had two years at sea behind him and his ship had participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf only four months earlier.
The Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War was a farm boy in McMinn County when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A wave of Americanism engulfed the land much like the one after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“And when I was 16 years old, July 7, 1942, I asked my mother and daddy if they’d sign the papers for me to go into the Navy. I wanted to go into the Navy. Daddy asked me if I would help him finish gathering the crops in. I did. On the 11th of August, I joined the Navy,” he said.
Wallace himself was still pretty much a young boy fighting a man’s war. There couldn’t have been much of an age difference between himself and the young Marine in the small landing craft asking for a favor.
“I said yes in a heartbeat. He gave me a piece of paper and I still have it. He said this is my mother’s name, address and phone number in Chicago. ‘If I don’t make it, would you call them and tell them I love them?’
“I said, you’re going to make it buddy. Don’t you worry; you’re going to make it.
“He went off. We were backing off and swinging around and there he was, laying on his back, out there in the water. There were several, several men lying in that water on their backs and their stomachs … the water was blood red.
“Iwo Jima was rough.”
LST 600 stayed at Iwo Jima until March 28, 1945, to board more Marines and their equipment.
“And then the first of April, Easter Sunday, we went into to Okinawa,” he said. “We had lost over 6,000 men at Iwo Jima. We went into Okinawa the first of April and secured it the 23rd of June. We lost over 8,000 men there. We lost 3,000 men at Leyte Gulf, putting MacArthur back on the Philippines [islands].
“I still think about those boys today. I left a lot of good buddies laying on them beaches in the Pacific. I wish I could have brought them all home.”