Standing near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C., Richard Damron, 86, of York felt “overwhelmed.”
To Damron, the towering statue of the Marines driving an American flag into the ground was the most important stop on Wednesday’s Honor Flight, which carried 100 South Carolina World War II veterans to Washington. They visited the memorial in their honor, the city and finished the day watching the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Iwo Jima is where is Damron’s friend – “Al from Flagstaff, Arizona” – was shot in the back and died. He lost a friend from Oklahoma in the war, too.
But the men who planted the flag at Iwo Jima, an image that would later become an icon, weren’t aware of the significance of what they were doing, said Damron, who served as a U.S. Marine and radar operator on a B-29 bomber.
“That was the first Japanese territory that we had put an American flag on. We didn’t realize the importance at that time.”
“The people that raised the flag weren’t anything special,” Damron said before visiting the memorial. They were patriotic ... American citizens. They didn’t want to be heroes. I never got the opportunity, but they didn’t want to be heroes.”
Damron was one of 10 veterans from York County who made the trip. Another had signed up but dropped out, organizers said.
The veterans’ first stop was the World War II memorial, where they gathered for a group picture. Several veterans, who are all in their 80s and 90s, draped a South Carolina flag on their laps.
Bill Dukes, chairman of the Honor Flight organization of South Carolina, dedicated the flag to one South Carolina veteran named Ray Vost who died recently.
The Honor Flight organization and a sponsorship from Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina made it possible for the veterans to travel to the nation’s capital.
There was a moment of silence in Vost’s name at the WWII memorial, which opened in 2004 to honor the 16 million who served the armed forces in WWII and 400,000 who didn’t make it home.
“It’s a very moving experience for me to be with all these other vets. It’s overwhelming to see such a tremendous memorial built in honor of WWII vets who fought and died for our freedom. Because freedom is not free,” said Lee Smoak Jr. of Rock Hill.
Smoak went into the U.S. Cavalry but was told by commanders after basic training on horseback, “Fellas, you have to leave your horses here because you can’t use them in the jungle.”
He went from passing foot soldiers saying, “Get yourself a horse,” to fighting in the theater of snakes and snipers in the Burmese jungle, which was “just like Vietnam,” he said.
In one battle, half his company was lost, and his commander won the Congressional Medal of Honor after sacrificing himself for his men and “knocking out three Japanese pillboxes (dugouts for Japanese fighters) by himself” while charging to a hilltop.
By the third pillbox, the commander was dead, Smoak said.
“When you’re jungle fighting, you have the snipers who hide up in the trees, and you wonder where they are, how can you find them,” he said.
The best way to find them, unfortunately, is to get shot at, he said.
“Anyway, that’s war,” Smoak said. “I’m so glad I was young at the time and didn’t have sense enough to be scared, because today I’d be scared to death.”
Smoak said he’s proud to have served his country, but hopes younger generations don’t have to experience the same.
Bob Reynolds of Rock Hill worked on an aircraft carrier on the flight deck where he ran out after planes after they landed and released their tail hooks.
“You got 10 percent more pay – they said it was a hazardous duty to do that,” he said.
He also had a plane blow up in his face and experienced multiple attacks while on the USS Franklin, including a kamikaze plane and two armor-piercing bombs that took out many men.
“I think, all told, we lost over 1,000 just off that ship alone,” said Reynolds, who paused and reflected during his first visit to the memorial.
“I lost a lot of buddies,” he said.