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Veteran of Easy Company recalls rigors of Iwo Jima

By William K. Alcorn

Saturday, November 14, 2009

By William K. Alcorn

Ralph Griffiths of Girard was scheduled to attend American Veterans Center events this weekend.

GIRARD — Forty Marines of Easy Company crawled on their hands and knees up Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, fully expecting to die when they got to the top.

Fortunately, there was no fighting when they arrived at the summit, and six of them raised the American flag on Iwo Jima for the first time, said Ralph K. Griffiths of Girard, a member of Easy Company, which had been fighting for four days.

It was Feb. 23, 1945.

But, it was six other members of Easy Company who raised the second flag on Iwo Jima, an event immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph.

The second group of six — five Marines and a Navy corpsman — whom Griffiths knew and fought beside and some of whom he pulled liberty with, is always singled out for attention for the flag raising, Griffiths added.

The flag raisers in Rosenthal’s photograph were John Bradley, the Navy corpsman whose son, James, along with Ron Powers, wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” a New York Times best- seller about the six men; Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Mike Strank, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley. The latter three men died later in the battle.

That is likely to be one of the stories that Griffiths, a member of the 2nd Platoon, Easy Company, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division, tells this weekend at the American Veterans Center’s 12th annual conference in Washington, D.C.

“Ira Hayes was portrayed as a loner, but he wasn’t. I played baseball and football with him. He just didn’t like to be in the public eye,” Griffiths said.

A Purple Heart recipient, Griffiths was scheduled to speak Friday morning as a representative of the men of Easy Company and other veterans of Iwo Jima, one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II’s Pacific Theater.

Griffiths, 83, who was still working on his speech Wednesday, said he probably would talk about boot camp, which for him was in San Diego; the men of Easy Company and the battle for Iwo Jima.

“The men fought out of fear and for each other,” he said.

The Marines landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. The flags were raised Feb. 23, and Griffiths’ last day on the island was March 1, when he was wounded.

He said he and some others were pinned down, and Sgt. Strank led them to an alcove out of harm’s way. “All we could see was the ocean,” Griffiths said.

A shell landed in front of them as they knelt down, killing Strank and Block and wounding Griffiths.

“I was hit by shrapnel in the shoulder, and sand and dirt was kicked up into my face. I was blind for three days. That was my last day on the island. I was lucky to get out of there alive,” he said.

After six weeks in the hospital, he was sent back to Easy Company to train for the invasion of Japan, but the war ended. He was promoted to corporal on Christmas Eve 1945 while serving in the American occupation force in Japan and was discharged in May 1946.

Griffiths and his wife, Florence, were to be seated with several veterans and family members, including Navy Cross recipient Col. Frank C. Caldwell, commanding officer of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, which on Iwo Jima suffered the highest killed-in-action rate of any unit in Marine Corps history; and Donald Mates and James White, veterans of the 3rd Marine Division, who were sent on a patrol to locate Japanese mortar positions before coming under heavy attack from the Japanese, according to the American Veterans Center.

Other speakers include Army Ranger Sgt. Matthew Eversmann, who participated in the Battle of Mogadishu; Maj. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, navigator of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima; and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command and former commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Griffiths was born in DuBois, Pa. His family moved to Youngstown when he was 6, and he grew up on Erie Street. He left South High School after his junior year to enlist in the Marines and finally received his high school diploma in 2003.

He worked at Republic Steel Corp. in Niles and then in sales for Patterson Buckeye, a food company in Youngstown, and Institutional Foods in Warren. Florence worked at Packard Electric in Warren and Austintown, retiring in 1991.

They have a son, Ralph Griffiths in San Diego, a retired Navy chief petty officer; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A son, Frank, is deceased.

“I’ve always felt bad for those guys who raised the first flag in Iwo Jima,” said Griffiths, because they never got the credit and fame.

Their names were Hank Hansen, Boots Thomas, John Bradley, Phil Ward, Jim Michaels and Chuck Lindberg, he said.

“They were heroes, too,” Griffiths added.

alcorn@vindy.com