Girard WWII vet fought at Iwo Jima

GIRARD – It was a case of mistaken identity that took more than 70 years to correct, but for Marine Corps veteran Ralph Griffiths, the individual soldiers pictured in the iconic World War II Iwo Jima flag-raising photo were less important than what the image symbolized.

“It was a victory for us during World War II, but it had a high cost,” he said.

Griffiths, 90, of Girard, said he and the other Marines in his unit trained at Camp Tarawa, Hawaii, for the invasion of a Japanese-owned island, but they were not told which one.

“We found out it was Iwo Jima. It was terrifying to think about. Everyone was scared,” he said. “We were given orders to take Mount Suribachi.”

It took them four days to take control of the mountain, and his unit – Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Division – suffered heavy losses. It was after they took control of Mount Suribachi that members of Griffiths’ unit were photographed raising the flag.

Griffiths was wounded by shrapnel March 1, 1945, in the same ambush that killed two of the Marines shown in the photo, which was taken just five days prior.

“Sgt. Michael Strank and Cpl. Harlon Block were on either side of me during that attack,” Griffiths said.

He spent six weeks in a body cast at a hospital at Camp Tarawa and then spent time training with his unit for the invasion of Japan. But that never happened because the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Instead, Griffiths spent about eight months as part of the occupational forces near Nagasaki.

“We rejoiced that the war was over because no one wanted to invade Japan, which we heard had 4 million troops,” he said.

He was discharged in April 1946 and received a Presidential Citation and Purple Heart. However, he downplayed the significance of the latter.

“Three of every four Marines on Iwo Jima got Purple Hearts. There was a lot of us killed and even more wounded,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths is leaving Thursday for the 67th reunion of the 5th Marine Division Association in San Antonio. He and his wife of 67 years, Florence, are getting an all-expenses-paid trip to the reunion courtesy of the 5th Marine Division Association. An official escort from American Airlines, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Mitch Bell, will pick them up, take them to the airport and accompany them on their trip.

American Airlines paid for the couple’s airfare, and the association is paying for the hotel, meals, registration, banquet tickets and tours using individual donations. As an added bonus, the couple’s son, Ralph, and his wife, Karen, are making the trip from San Diego to the reunion, as are the Griffiths’ two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, who are all from Keller, Texas.

“We have not seen them for several years,” Florence Griffiths said.

Ralph Griffiths said he has been to other 5th Division Marine Association reunions, which are held at various locations such as San Diego, New Orleans, St. Louis and Rapid City, N.D. He did not make it to last year’s reunion because he was battling colon cancer. He said he had surgery in November 2015 and thinks he is now in remission but is scheduled to see his oncologist when he returns from San Antonio.

He said he dropped out of South High School in Youngstown to enlist in the Marines in December 1943 at age 17 because he knew when he turned 18 in January, he would be drafted, anyway. He enlisted with three friends he attended school with since sixth grade, and he and two of those friends were wounded at Iwo Jima. The third, Don Marino, was killed. Griffiths said the three of them would get together over the years, but now he is the only one living.

A few months ago, Griffiths was featured in a documentary that explains how Pfc. Harold Schultz was misidentified for years in the famous Joe Rosenthal flag-raising photo. Griffiths just received a copy of the finished film last week.

That documentary will be shown during the association’s reunion Friday, according to Ray Elliott of Urbana, Ill., who publishes the association’s newsletter and is the organization’s secretary.

Elliott, 76, served in the Marine Corps from 1958 through the early 1960s. He said his neighbor fought at Iwo Jima, so he always had an interest in the battle. He said he went to Iwo Jima in 2005 for the 60th anniversary of the flag raising and when association members found out he was a former journalist, they asked him to work on their newsletter.

“I am the first non-Iwo Jima veteran to publish the newsletter,” Elliott said.

He has been to Iwo Jima four times and has been all over the South Pacific with the Iwo Jima Association of America.

Elliott said the numbers of association members are dwindling, with an 89-year-old being the youngest member. The association is trying to start a museum on the big island of Hawaii, where most of the division’s training took place. Iwo Jima was the 5th Division’s only combat mission, but it was one of the bloodiest of the war, Elliott said.

“It is important to keep their legacy alive. These men are treasures we need the world to be aware of before they all pass,” he said.

mkosinski@tribtoday.com