Forty-seven years after serving in World War II, a US Navy veteran, a dentist, took on the task of building a national Iwo Jima memorial in the heart of Connecticut. But what some might consider a daunting undertaking was only a challenge for the survivors, family members and friends of the Marines who volunteered to help.
Dr. George Gentile founded the Iwo Jima Survivors Association of Connecticut in 1987 and raised more than $250,000 to erect a monument based on the famous combat photo of men hoisting up the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi on the atoll of Iwo Jima in the Pacific. It was the first American flag raised on Japanese soil.
Retired U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden, a survivor of the battle that helped end the war with Japan, said the foundation’s efforts showed that “dedicated men of good will can come together to achieve great things, by working hard and demonstrating to others that their vision was worth supporting.
Like many of his fellow veterans, Gentile rarely, if ever, spoke about the battle that lasted five weeks in 1945 and left 6,281 Americans dead. He returned home to his life as a dentist with a wife and children. The horrors of war remained locked away, unsaid but not forgotten.
But the past has a way of casting a long shadow. After attending a military meeting in Massachusetts, Gentile decided he wanted to honor his comrades in arms. The 60,000 US Marines and several thousand Seabees who fought for over a month saw some of the fiercest and bloodiest combat of the Pacific War. About 21,000 Japanese soldiers occupied heavily fortified bunkers and 11 miles of tunnels.
“Victory was never in doubt,” said U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine, who commanded the Third Marine Division during the battle. “What was uncertain in all our minds was whether there would be one of us left to dedicate our ceremony to the end or whether the last surviving Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese cannon and machine gunner.”
Along with a few other Iwo Jima survivors, Gentile started the foundation to honor all who served on the Japanese atoll. He later learned that 100 Connecticut residents had died there.
Raising funds to build a world-class monument was no easy undertaking. Still, the vets didn’t ask for help. They did not apply for federal, state or community funding. Instead, they contacted the families of the dead and those who survived the battle. They organized fundraisers. They applied for grants. They asked for donations.
They even lobbied for a section of Route 9 between Newington and New Britain to be designated the Iwo Jima Memorial Expressway. Then Central Connecticut State University donated land along Route 175 and the scene was set.
A group of around 15 enthusiastic vets in their 60s and 70s worked the site clearing trees and underbrush. An Eagle Scout volunteered to build wooden benches. Contractors donated time and equipment to prepare the site for the concrete base and bronze statue. Donors paid to have bricks for the walkways engraved with their names.
Sculptor Joseph Petrovics designed this monument to mirror the World War II memorial that stands outside Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. To ensure the authenticity of the Connecticut statues, men brought helmets, canteens, weapons and other equipment for the artist to copy exactly. When the 9-foot-tall bronze Marines looked too sharp, the vets asked the artist to add beard stubble to make them battle-weary.
Gentile and his supporters also wanted to make sure the memorial included sand and rocks from Iwo Jima. It took months of coordination and more than $2,000 to ship 750 pounds of sand and volcanic rock to New Britain. The sand is inside the concrete base and the rocks rest near the Marines’ feet.
“The most important mission of the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation is to educate people, especially our youth, about the significance of the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.” Raymond Carrier, president of the foundation
The nameplates of the 100 fallen Connecticut service members rest on the black picket fence defining the site. Flags are displayed above each name from spring to fall. A new walkway is planned along the fence for people to visit the names. An eternal flame burns in honor of all Americans who served in World War II. Two black granite monoliths honor the corpsman and the chaplains of the navy. Neighboring woods form a calm backdrop for the respectful setting.
On February 23, 1995, the National Iwo Jima Memorial Monument was dedicated on the New Britain-Newington Line adjacent to the Iwo Jima Memorial Expressway. It sits on land donated by Central Connecticut State University just off Route 175 in Newington.
“The most important mission of the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation is to educate people, especially our youth, about the significance of the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II,” said Raymond Carrier, president of the foundation. “Why was it important then, why 50 years later, and why in the future.
Carrier said the foundation aims to encourage people to “bring forward the end of war, remember the extreme cost, and never forget the high price of freedom. It was so important to the Iwo Jima Survivors Association, that they wrote it in the bylaws, as a goal for them and a legacy for us”
Dr. Richard L. Judd, retired president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University, was a strong supporter of the project and remains so today. At 83, he hopes to see the college library set up an Iwo Jima Special Collection where families can donate memorabilia and artifacts to display.
Judd said the foundation is preparing biographies of the 100 Connecticut residents who died during the Battle of Iwo Jima. “You have to humanize the battle to be able to bring this home a bit,” Judd said in a recent interview.
“Iwo Jima was 6,000 miles from here,” he said. “What does it mean to you that your uncle or your grandfather fought and died there and never came home again.”
Judd recalled that when he worked as a national historian-ranger at the Antietam battlefield in Virginia, people would ask him about a long-lost relative.
“People came and with a name,” he said. “I would take them to a site where 5,000 people died and tell them that’s where their relative died. That’s where it happened, I remember, I remember a family from Pennsylvania asked, “Is this where my great-grandfather died? I said yes and tears streamed down their faces.
Judd said he is a firm believer in the importance and relevance of historical monuments. “Veterans represent integrity,” he said. “They represent the spirit of America – what it means that we are a democracy. Even in this troubled time we are going through, we can still express these views. »
Prior to his death in 2003, Gentile established the National Iwo Jima Historical Foundation to replace the Survivors Association after members passed away. Its purpose is to ensure the perpetual care and maintenance of the monument.
Wed 23rd Feb 2022, the historic foundation is having a Remembrance Ceremony at 10.30am, rain or snow postponement date is Sat 26th Feb 2022, at the monument at 1 Iwo Jima Way, New Britain, Ella Grasso Blvd. and Barbour Road. The public is invited to attend the ceremony marking the 77th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.