The monument stands 6 feet tall in Freedom Park. It’s solid granite, inscribed with the story of the U.S. Marine Corps and the names of overseas battlegrounds that resonate in American history.
Iconic names such as Tripoli, Belleau Wood, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
The last two are islands Charlotteans Hank Grathwohl, Coy Shue, Wally Duncan and Jim Hunter know well. All but Duncan are in their 90s; he’s 88. All are retired Marines, all grateful to have lived long lives when so many of their buddies never got that chance.
On Sunday, on the Corps’ 238th birthday and the eve of Veterans Day, the Marine Corps League Detachment 750 of Charlotte is set to dedicate the $5,500 monument it installed weeks ago. It is a proper setting: In 1949, four years after the war, the Charlotte Lion’s Club donated the 98-acre park to the city to honor those who served in war and on the homefront.
The men plan to be there, health willing, honoring their friends who didn’t walk off those islands – who in fading memories are forever young, forever missed.
“We will all think about our personal wars, and the guys we knew,” said Hunter, 92, a retired real estate executive who was wounded at Peleliu on the three-month-long battle’s third day. “I could name a dozen guys who didn’t make it home. These were the guys watching your back, guys you could depend on. My experiences and these guys became a part of me.
“They shaped who I became.”
As much as a monument, the war stories of Grathwohl, Shue, Duncan and Hunter tell the courage of Marines, and the sacrifices made in war.
From start to finish
Hank Grathwohl grew up in Hiawatha, Kan., and was 18 when he became the 270,212th (his serial number) Marine in 1939.
After training in California, he was assigned to a Marine guard detachment at Pearl Harbor. Dressing to go to church services on Dec. 7, 1941, he watched as planes suddenly dove on the base.
“They were dropping stuff and the sergeants sleeping in late were grousing about all the noise,” said Grathwohl, now 93. “There was nothing to do but get everyone up and out of the barracks.”
Suddenly the attack by Japanese planes had drawn America into the war. Grathwohl and others went to the harbor to help with the rescue.
His unit was assigned to a host of duties: securing Johnston Atoll, southwest of Hawaii, and guarding a new Naval Air Station back in Maui. At the end of 1943, Grathwohl became an “Alligator Marine” as part of the 5th Amphibious Tractor Batallion.
In mid-June, his battalion carried troops and supplies into the invasion of the Mariana islands of Saipan, then Tinian. They rode Amtracs, or LVTs (landing vehicle tracks), ship-to-shore metal raft-like vessels with tracks that carried troops and supplies on amphibious invasions.
The losses were huge. As Grathwohl prepared to go into Saipan on an Amtrac, a friend asked him for a $5 loan to pay a debt from a poker game.
“He put it in his billfold and got on an Amtrac to head into the invasion,” Grathwohl said. “A half-hour later, a boat brought back a dead Marine missing his head. I reached into his pockets to get some identification. It was Lt. Simmons.
“That still weighs pretty heavy on me.”
They buried the lieutenant at sea – then continued into the invasion.
‘Deliver us from evil’
After Saipan and Tinian were seized, losing thousands of Marines along the way, Grathwohl and his unit were sent back to Saipan to train with the 2nd Marine Division. On Feb. 10, 1945, they got orders for Iwo Jima.
Nine days later, Grathwohl was in the eighth wave to help set up a command post on shore. The volcanic island was a third the size of Manhattan, but vital to the Americans in their island-hopping campaign; it would provide an emergency landing strip for B-29s bombing Japan from the distant Marianas. But the Japanese were ready, having bored a maze of tunnels in the coral to conceal 800 guns.
“The Japanese let the first waves get on shore, then they let us have it,” he said.
His unit’s 125 Amtracs were “all shot up.” The battle was supposed to be won in five days. It took five weeks; 5,931 Marines were lost taking the island.
Also in the battle were Coy Shue and Wally Duncan.
Shue, 92, had already survived three amphibious invasions with the 4th Marine Division: Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands; Saipan, where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart; and Tinian.
Now on Iwo, he was certain he wouldn’t make it off. He wanted to pray, but didn’t know how. Suddenly he remembered the Lord’s Prayer he’d learned as a boy in Charlotte’s North Davidson Street mill village.
Shue said it before inching any further on the beach. Not a day has passed since then that he has not recited the prayer, asking God to: “Deliver us from evil.”
On Iwo, 760 miles south of Tokyo, he witnessed constant evil and said the prayer twice daily. “It was just hell,” he said. “Every day of it.”
It took hours that first day to move a few inches. By nightfall, 550 Marines were dead. Late afternoon, his platoon hollered to get off the beach, so they made a run for the edge of a runway. The next morning, Shue shot his first Japanese soldier.
Duncan, 88, couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and get in the fight. “I was afraid I was going to miss the war,” he said.
He did make it, joining the fight on Saipan, where he was wounded and sent to Maui to recuperate. The Marines sent him back to his unit, just as it prepared for Iwo.
On the fourth day, Duncan and Shue looked up and saw the American flag flying above Surabachi – its hoisting an iconic image of the war.
By the time the Japanese surrendered 31 days later, 5,931 Marines were dead and 17,000 wounded. Among them were several of Duncan’s and Shue’s buddies.
“The only way to understand what happened was to be there,” Shue said. “The smell and all the dead around you. I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to shut it out of my mind.”
Jim Hunter grew up in Charlotte and became a Marine while he was a student at UNC Chapel Hill. The day he graduated in June 1943, Hunter was active duty.
He was sent to Quantico for officer training and made second lieutenant by January 1944.
After a “quickie education in handling gas (chemical warfare),” he was assigned to the First Marine Division at an abandoned coconut plantation on the Russell Islands in the Pacific.
There Hunter, now 92, reported to legendary Marine Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
By the time he arrived, the division was headed for Peleliu, a volcanic island held by more than 10,000 Japanese troops. The island had an airfield that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was concerned would allow Japanese fliers to threaten the Allied retaking of the Philippines. He wanted it captured.
The division left on Sept. 5 and took 10 days to get to Peleliu. Hunter’s platoon loaded onto two Amtracs and headed for the beach. Days of bombing from Allied planes to soften defenses “hadn’t made a dent,” he said.
It took the entire first day to crawl off the beach onto the edge of the airfield they needed to capture. On the third day, running across the airfield, Hunter was badly wounded by shrapnel. “I thought that was it for me,” he said.
Instead, a corporal, William Salmond, gave him a shot of morphine, and his friend, Dom DiLuglio, forced an Amtrac driver to cart Hunter to safety.
He’d received a “million dollar wound” that sent him to a hospital stateside never to return to combat. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the military’s second-highest decoration.
“It takes a whole bunch of guys to do a job right,” Hunter said. “You can’t decorate 40 guys for one thing, so they gave it to me.”
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