by Dave Friant
Sauna-like conditions around here have finally bitten the dust. Good riddance. Efforts are underway to reunite with long-sleeved favorite college sweatshirts for raking duties during this special Fall season. More importantly, time of the year to formally praise our military veterans who in a variety of ways have sacrificed physically and emotionally for the welfare of our country.
Meet Donald Graves. Born in Detroit, Michigan on May 3, 1925, he was one of four children within the household and a self-described “little tot” for the majority of the Great Depression. Times were tough during his youthful years when household incomes were minimal and family dynamics nothing close to Leave it to Beaver quality. Listening to Tigers baseball action and the dynamics of “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg tipped the scales as his primary sports interest.
Graves and his two best friends joined the Marine Corps in 1942. The basis for the decision was FDR’s December 8, 1941 speech regarding the Pearl Harbor attack the day before. He skipped school on the 9th and as a 16-year-old hightailed it to the recruiting office in anticipation of officially acting on his desire to serve. His father had been active as a Marine and Graves felt ready to further the familial commitment to his country. He was advised that entry into the military could not be undertaken prior to one’s 17th birthday. What a bummer! Graves advised his parents of his desire, dropped out of school, and waited the six months before the enlistment process could be completed.
After several weeks of training and an initial assignment to New Zealand, Graves was shipped as a member of the 5th Marine Division to Iwo Jima. It was a 2 miles wide and 4 miles long fortified Japanese island on the Western Pacific deemed to be vital for US bombers air support. He arrived at Green Beach on February 19, 1945 as part of D Company, 2nd Battalion. Unbeknownst to him, this 5’7” boulder of grit was about to engage in a full-scale bout with a reality never before imagined.
While unhindered with his approach to the mission, Graves recalls summoning the assistance of the Almighty within the first couple of hours while face first in the sand on the beach. “God, I don’t know much about you, but if you can do for me what people tell me you can, I will serve you for the rest of my life,” were his words.
It took the Division 3 days to move the distance of nearly 2 football fields to Mount Suribachi due to the intensity of the opposition. It took another full day to secure the 554 foot high mountain. “Kill or be killed” was the truism for the duration of the 36-day battle. The resulting bloodbath for the 3 Divisions that landed on Green Beach was monumental. Nearly 7,000 Marines died and another 20,000 were wounded. Of the 335 men in his unit, only 18 survived.
Graves was a Flamethrower operator. With two 2 & ½ pressure tanks strapped to his back, use of the 72-pound incendiary device resulted in Japanese casualties while doing major damage to carefully constructed pillboxes and other setups designed to defeat the American troops. He was just a few feet away when the iconic photo of the US flag being hoisted on Mount Suribachi was taken.
Of particular note during the height of the conflict was the killing by a Japanese sniper of a fellow Marine who was intended to be a temporary replacement for Graves. The relief Marine fell to the ground and his helmet rolled in front of Graves. Seen on the inner portions of the headgear was the photo of a young female with a baby on her lap, suspected to be his spouse. This was probably the lowest point of his 36 days on the island. “I was devastated. I cursed God, the Japanese sniper, and the Marines,” says Graves.
The entire island was secured by American forces on March 26, 1945. Prior to his departure from the battleground, Graves visited the graves of his fellow comrades and saw a hand-written note on a fence post. It read, “Fellas, tell the folks we did our best that you can have many tomorrows.” It too was a hard-hitting reminder of the sacrifices made for our country.
Graves discharged honorably as a Corporal from the Marines in November of 1946. No medals were awarded given the fact that his commanding officers who would initiate such efforts were killed in battle. He married his first and only spouse Rebecca just prior to the discharge. Their marriage lasted nearly 70 years until her passing in 2015. The two had 4 children and Graves currently resides with his daughter and her husband in Keller, Texas. Graves has 6 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Graves indicates that several years after his departure from the military, he was admittedly not being a good husband and was drinking too much. “I was confronted by my landlord at the time and told that I was a ‘mess’ who was losing my friends and losing my wife,” indicates Graves. It was 1954 and he was residing in Wisconsin. He and his wife went to a Billy Graham Christian revival one evening and both re-committed their lives to God. “I had not been living the life promised to Him on Green Beach that afternoon as a young Marine. I was using God as a rabbit’s foot,” says Graves. He shortly thereafter took the necessary training and became a pastor. Another call to service. No weapons drawn for this tangling with a new set of challenges. Implementation of approaches designed to change lives. Over a 32-year period that ended in 1982, Graves served congregations in five states. He confidently suggests that “God hears. God sees. God knows what is going on in our minds.”
Less than two years short of being a centenarian, Donald Graves continues to impress those with whom he has contact. An exactness with detail recollection is extraordinary. He visited his grandmother’s home country of Ireland for five days this past Spring in conjunction with his 98th birthday. Gathered through over 2 & ½ million views on social media was an unprecedented response to aid the efforts of making the trip possible. Highlights included his singing “Oh Danny Boy” and chugging down a pint of beer at an Irish pub.
Time is spent these days fishing at Lake Texoma, speaking at motivational gatherings, and exercising his still extraordinary talent of singing at functions. Graves considers the “secret sauce” of his longevity to be staying active. “I love people and so enjoy interacting with friends. Relationships are so very important and I always accent the blessings I have received from God,” indicates Graves. Credit is given wholeheartedly to his mom for teaching him the values of life. He is disheartened with the differences observed between members of the “greatest generation” and today’s youth. Frustration tends to dampen his spirits when he concludes with observable evidence that “we’ve lost patriotism, especially amongst the younger generation.” He maintains a sense of supreme allegiance to the USA by indicating, “I do all I can to promote our country and am proud to salute the flag and all that it stands for.” Take time to thank a veteran for his commitment to duty and mission. With all its’ imperfections, the USA still stands as the greatest country on earth.