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Veterans honor 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima battle

Marine Corps Lt. General Joseph Osterman, Commanding General of the the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, left, and Samuel Prestigiacomo, right, of Newport Beach, who was a Marine in the Battle of Iwo Jima, enjoy a laugh before the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima ceremony began at Camp Pendleton, February 15, 2020. (Howard Lipin/TNS)

Marines and sailors gathered at Camp Pendleton on Saturday to remember the historic Battle of Iwo Jima that took place on a rocky island in the Pacific Ocean almost 75 years ago.

“When we got off the ship they told us we’ve got to have it, whatever the cost. There was no way to back out,” said Carlo Romero, 95, a Fallbrook resident who later fought in Korea and Vietnam before he retired as a Marine lieutenant colonel.

The island invasion lasted 36 days, from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945. More than 100,000 U.S. troops, including 74,000 Marines, fought 21,000 Japanese soldiers deeply entrenched in bunkers and tunnels dug into the volcanic rock.

“I don’t really think about it a lot,” Romero said. “I try to forget it, but it is hard to forget.”

He remembers being glad when the battle was over, and he could finally get off the island.

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“I could get my ears cleaned out,” he said. “They were all full of mud and dust. I went to sickbay and they took a syringe and washed it all out.”

Several family members accompanied Romero to Saturday’s events, including his son-in-law Howard Warner, a former Navy submariner and the retired commander of Naval Base Point Loma. The two have shared a few military jokes over the years.

“I always tell him there’s only one kind of Marine, a submarine,” Warner said.

Romero earned a Bronze Star for valor on Iwo Jima, Warner said, and, “We’re all really proud of him. He’s the greatest guy.”

Numerous books have been written and movies made about the battle. Some 6,800 Americans were killed. Of the 82 Marines who earned the Medal of Honor during World War II, 22 were for actions on Iwo Jima.

When the Marines raised an American flag on the island’s Mount Suribachi, the event was recorded in a famous black-and-white news photograph seen around the world. Later the photo was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp and in a larger-than-life sculpture near the gate to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“Four of the men who put up that flag came off my ship,” said Mort Block, 93, a Carlsbad resident who was a Navy seaman on the USS Talladega.

Block grew up in New York and enlisted straight out of high school because he wanted to be in the Navy. He went from basic training straight to England, where his ship carried Marines to Normandy for the D-Day invasion.

After Normandy, Block went to the Pacific, first to Iwo Jima and then Okinawa. Each time his ship delivered the Marines to the beach, then waited offshore a few days to pick up the dead and wounded.

“I was still 18, but I knew it was important, a part of history,” he said.

The commemoration, an annual event for 30 years, is one of the largest Iwo Jima reunions in the United States. The number of Iwo Jima veterans has dwindled in recent years and most of the remaining survivors are in their mid-90s or older, but 28 attended Saturday’s events.

Korean War veteran Robert Larson rode down from Alta Loma near San Bernardino to attend the Camp Pendleton event along with about 16 other members of the Marine Corps League.

“It’s a chance to meet and talk to these people,” Larson said. “I was 14 years old when they were on Iwo Jima.”

Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commanding general of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, spoke briefly to the group.

“These Marines and sailors who fought on Iwo Jima are made of grit, determination and a fighting spirit to succeed,” Osterman said. “This same eternal spirit is embodied by our Marines and sailors serving today.”

Lance Cpl. Alec Thornton, 22, of Eagle Point, Ore., was among the younger Marines at the ceremonies. He said he’d read a little about the famous battle.

“We lost a lot of Marines there,” Thornton said. “I hope nothing ever comes like that again, but if it does we’re trained and ready for it.”

The evening’s activities began with an outdoor sunset ceremony, bell tolling, wreath-laying and a 21-gun artillery salute.

Afterward, everyone went indoors for a social hour, then dinner, more remarks by generals, awards, a traditional Marine cake-cutting ceremony, a re-enactment of the famous flag-raising, taps and the Marine’s Hymn.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune