The last male member of the “greatest generation” in my wife’s family died this past week. A beloved uncle passed away after a lengthy illness.
Such deaths are a sad reminder of a rapidly fading era. Every year we have fewer and fewer among us who survived the Great Depression, and then went off to war.
Here’s a small world story about two such men.
I have an uncle who was killed in the waters off Iwo Jima on Feb. 17, 1945, two days before the invasion of that island by U.S. Marines. He was a Naval Academy graduate serving as the executive officer of the USS Pensacola, a cruiser that had survived horrific damage at Guadalcanal in 1942. He received the Silver Star for his heroism in that battle.
Nearly three years later, the war in the Pacific ground on. At Iwo Jima, the Pensacola was part of a group of ships that were shelling the island in an attempt to cut down Japanese defenses before the Marine landing. The ship also had a special assignment that required it to come close to the island so that a Navy underwater demolition crew (the precursors to SEALs) could disable mines that would imperil the landing craft used in the invasion.
The Japanese had heavily fortified the island, and their cannon quickly found the Pensacola within range. Several shells hit the ship, killing 17 men, including my uncle. All of those killed were buried at sea that day.
Several years ago, a cousin gave me a book that described in detail the invasion of Iwo Jima. As I was reading it, I told my wife about the author’s description of the Pensacola and the deaths of the 17 members of its crew, including the ship’s executive officer, my uncle.
My wife replied, “My uncle Bill was at Iwo Jima. Check the index to see if he is mentioned.”
Obedient husband that I am, I immediately did as she requested. And there it was! Right on page 91, a quote (“It’s gonna be a son-of-a-bitch!”) from wife’s uncle, a Marine rifleman, who had been asked by a war correspondent what he anticipated in the invasion.
My uncle was from Newport. When he died at Iwo Jima, he was survived by his mother, five brothers, one sister (my mother), his wife, and their two very young children.
My wife’s uncle was from Providence. He survived the island invasions, becoming a leader of men in the process. He came home, raised a fine family, and had a good life. His words, uttered by him to a reporter 67 years ago, truly capture his feisty spirit, a lifelong character trait.
Uncle Bill’s death last week is the end of an era for us.