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Eyewitness to history: Fort Worth veteran recalls the Battle of Iwo Jima



Don Graves recalls with clarity the meeting that led to one of the most hotly contested battles and arguably the most iconic moment in U.S. military history.


A Detroit native who now resides in North Fort Worth, Graves, 98, is one of the few surviving Marines to have fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima.


“Roosevelt was our president, and we loved the guy,” Graves said. “He was the greatest we ever had as far as I’m concerned. Ronald Reagan was probably second, at least during our generation. Roosevelt called Admiral (Chester) Nimitz and General (Douglas) MacArthur, and he had some of his cabinet there. 


“He came into the room in his wheelchair and wheeled up to the wall where a map was, and he had a long stick and pointed just below Tokyo. It was a little speck of an island, and he said, ‘Gentlemen, do you know where I’m pointing?’”


Nobody said anything at first, but eventually, Nimitz stood up.


“He said, ‘Sir, if I’m not mistaken, you are somewhere near an island called Iwo Jima,’” Graves said. “Roosevelt said, ‘Exactly! I want that island. It’s hitting our planes when they come from Saipan to Tokyo.’ Admiral Nimitz said, ‘Sir, I want that island, too.’ And they took it.”


They took it after weeks of some of the fiercest and deadliest fighting WWII had seen.


“They got us on the beach, and the Japanese hammered away at us,” Graves said. “We lost 200 on the beach. So many of the pictures of us on the beach people see, some of those kids were not living. We had to crawl over them to get up to the top. It was very bad. To the left, 545 feet to the left, was Mount Suribachi. Can you imagine? At 545 feet, they were shooting down at us on the beach, but we had to take that mountain. 


“So we pushed forward, and we finally made it to the base on the third day. When we got to the base, they would fire down and go back into their caves. I carried a flame thrower, and I threw fire at any of the holes that I saw. They would come running out on fire, and our rifleman would pick them off.”


When the Marines finally reached the top of Suribachi, the moment came that most Americans remember about Iwo Jima when six Marines raised the American flag.


“There was nothing in the plans to put a flag up,” Graves said. “That was what our colonel did for the skipper. And it was a smaller flag. 


Graves said that about 15 or 20 minutes later, a second flag was raised and the original was taken down.


“My question is, where is our first flag?” Graves said. “Because the second is in the Smithsonian.”


Graves grew up during the Depression and said while it was a difficult time, he does have some fond memories from his childhood.


He cultivated a fondness for liver and onions during that time and became a self-proclaimed film buff.


“I lived in the theaters,” Graves said. “You could talk about a good actor, and I could tell you what picture he was in.”


Graves said he knew he wanted to be a Marine very early on because his father was a Marine and a few of his heroes were...sort of.


“I wanted to be a Marine because I remembered Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien and all of those guys that played Marines,” Graves said. “That was just exactly what I wanted. And I especially wanted that uniform.”


The Battle of Iwo Jima was often terrifying for Graves, who served for four years in the Marine Corps and exited as a corporal, but it was also a time when his spiritual life would change forever.


“It happened on the beach,” Graves said. “I laid there with my face in the sand, scared to death because we couldn’t get off the beach. I didn’t know what to do, but I tried one thing. I prayed. I put my face down in the and said, ‘Lord, I don’t know too much about you. I do believe you exist, but I don’t know about the Bible. If you can get me off of this island, I’ll serve you the rest of my life.’”


And that is what Graves did, serving 32 years in the ministry before retiring at the age of 82.

Graves’ wife passed away 11 years ago following 72 years of marriage.


These days, he will often speak to veteran organizations and at ceremonies, where he always sings Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”


Graves said he was inspired to do so because of a deep affection for Kate Smith’s version of the song that he recalls hearing almost constantly in his younger years.


He shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, and said he is often asked about the secret to his longevity, and said he attributes it to a couple of factors.


“We always ate good,” Graves said. “Even during the Depression, we ate good, healthy food, but it was dry. But it was good for people. My children will not eat that food. They would ask, ‘How can you live on that?’ Well, we did. We did live on it and stayed healthy. But more important than that, I think, is having the Lord. You know where you are going and you know where you should be going when you have the Lord in your life. And then you need to have friends. You have to know how to handle friends, and fortunately, I’ve got loads of friends.”



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