Remembering True American Heroes

Mention Hawaii to most people, and they think of sand and surf. But this sun-drenched vacation mecca is also home to one of the most infamous events in history: the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Early that morning, waves of fighter planes swept eastward and bombed the American installation, sinking four of the eight U.S. battleships docked there and badly damaging the rest. American casualties were heavy: 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded. Small wonder that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy.” The United States declared war on Japan the next day, pulling us into World War II.

Three of the sunk battleships were later raised, but the U.S.S. Arizona (where 1,177 servicemen alone perished) remains underwater. The memorial that marks the site was the scene this month of a very moving occasion: the final official reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors.

There are nine of them; seven made the trip, which has become understandably difficult for the men, all of whom are in their mid-90s. Yet some of the survivors plan to return to the ship one last time. All are entitled to a full military funeral at the memorial and interment at the final resting place of the Arizona.

Reading about the Pearl Harbor anniversary reminded me of another brave member of what has become known as the “Greatest Generation,” one I knew personally: a Marine named George Greeley Wells. Wells wasn’t at Pearl Harbor, but he was in the Pacific during the war, risking life and limb to help capture an island known as Iwo Jima.

We lost Greeley (as he was known to family and friends) in September, when he died at 94. Almost 70 years ago, however, he was on Iwo Jima with his fellow Marines, destined to play a small but important role in one of the war’s most iconic battles.

Even Americans who know little about military history are familiar with the image of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. But the famous photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal actually captured the second flag-raising. The first American flag that went up (a smaller one flown briefly before the larger flag that Rosenthal photographed was substituted) was supplied by Greeley, an adjutant of 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.

It was due to Greeley’s conscientiousness that he even had a flag at the time. According to the official Marine website:

“Unaware of an adjutant’s responsibilities, Greeley scoured the Marine Corps manual on his new job. Near its end, the document noted an adjutant was to carry a flag.

“Retired Col. Dave Severance, who served alongside Greeley on Iwo Jima recalled receiving the first briefing on the operation and being ‘amazed that we’d been given the mission of climbing the volcano.’

“Now 95 and settled in La Jolla, California, Col. Severance still clearly recalls the ‘young, very enthusiastic lieutenant’s‘ portion of the briefing.

“‘When Greeley said his piece, he mentioned the Marine Corps staff manual directed an adjutant to maintain a flag for every operation, so he took a flag from the USS Missoula and carried it in his map case,’ Col. Severance said.

“A senior officer inquired why Greeley kept a flag close and he replied, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll have it if you need it.’ While not apparent at the time, his steadfastness helped set into action a hallmark of American history.”

We are, alas, losing these American heroes to the march of time. But I pray that we never lose our understanding of what they fought and died for at places such as Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima. According to Oliver North:

“It’s important for Americans to remember and honor Marines like Greeley because a nation without heroes doesn’t have a future. These heroes inspire the next generation to know they can be better than they already are.”

May we always strive to be worthy of their sacrifice — and remember that freedom isn’t free.

 - Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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Originally appeared in The Washington Times