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Iwo Jima survivor, 92, talks faith, war and love of country

Don Graves stands with some of the military

Don Graves stands with some of the military memorabiliia he has on display in his home. Credit: TNS / Lance Murray

In his 92 years, Don Graves has served his country as a combat Marine in World War II, as a minister to thousands during a career as a pastor, as a singer, and, now, as a motivational speaker talking about religion, war, and love of country.

Graves, who lives with his daughter in Keller, Texas, is a survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima, the bloody South Pacific battle that killed thousands of American and Japanese fighting men in World War II.

The battle began on Feb. 19, 1945, when Marines landed on the southeast beaches of the island. It ended March 26 with 6,821 Americans killed and nearly 20,000 wounded.

Graves, at 5 feet, 6 inches and 145 pounds, carried a 72-pound flamethrower on his back and a .45-caliber pistol on his hip during the battle as a member of the 5th Marine Division, one of three Marine divisions that assaulted Iwo Jima. Their orders: Secure the island and its three airfields.

Looming above them was Mount Suribachi, the 554-foot tall-mountain formed from volcanic activity, and soon to become part of an iconic photograph.

Graves’ path to the foot of Mount Suribachi began after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like most young men in America, Graves felt a duty to enlist.

A resident of Detroit, Michigan, he joined the military at age 17 along with his best friends John Loftus and Stanley Bacon. Graves became a Marine, Loftus joined the U.S. Navy, and Bacon enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

With their families and nation and risk, there was no time to finish school, Graves says.

“We wanted to save our families, our country. We all quit and joined up,” Graves says. “Number 1, we were patriots — it was drilled into us.”

They called themselves the “Three Musketeers.”

On board a transport ship, Graves and his fellow Marines didn’t know their destination was Iwo Jima until a day before the landing.

He and the other members of Platoon 675 stormed Green Beach, the closest to Mount Suribachi, and one of roughly 15 landing zones all designated by a color.

Graves said that, like many people who were young during the Depression, he was not a churchgoer, but he said he reached out to God for help on the sands of Iwo Jima as artillery shells pounded landing craft in the water behind him.

“I prayed for the first time,” Graves says. “He got me off that beach.”

Graves was nearby four days later when a group of Marines scaled Mount Suribachi to raise the American flag. The iconic photo taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal actually was of the second flag raised that day, and it became a symbol of patriotism, the grit of the U.S. Marines, and toll of victory for generations to come.

Some of the six Marines in that photograph were sent home to help promote war bonds, and Graves says he was a good friend of Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine among that group that was the subject of the 2006 Clint Eastwood film “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Graves witnessed savagery and death, including that of a young replacement in his foxhole who was fatally shot by a sniper at an observation spot where Graves had been just minutes before.

The Marine fell backward at Graves’ feet, causing Graves to hit the ground crying, and then laughing. He says he cursed God, the Marine Corps and the Japanese because of the replacement’s death until another Marine helped him compose himself.

Later, Graves says, he felt badly that he had cursed God, because he felt divine intervention helped him survive the battle.

When he and his unit assembled to leave the island, 18 of the 335 men in his unit who hit the beach with him were left. At their officer’s suggestion, they visited the island’s cemetery to pay their respects to their fallen comrades.

Both of his friends — Loftus and Bacon — also survived the war.

Graves’ call to the ministry came nine years after the war, when he attended a Billy Graham rally. Graves served the ministry for 32 years with his wife, Rebecca, by his side. He left his final of his five churches at age 82 in Arizona.

Rebecca died in May after a yearslong battle with dementia. They were married for 70 years.

Graves’ calling as a public speaker began in 2010 when he met Laura Leppert, wife of then Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.

Leppert had formed a new patriotic organization, the Daughters of World War II, and Graves responded to her request in the media for all Iwo Jima survivors to come to an event in Dallas commemorating the invasion. It inspired him to talk about the battle, which he really hadn’t spoken of since the war.

At one Daughters of World War II event later, Graves sang the national anthem — he’s always been known for his singing voice.

Graves accompanied Leppert and a group of fellow Iwo Jima survivors back to the island in 2013.

“We had a great time,” Graves says. “I was disappointed in the island . . . I have pictures of it. It’s covered with green, and you can’t see anything.”

Graves says that Leppert served as his “agent” for a time, arranging speaking engagements for him.

Then, about two years ago, he met Paul Swartz through a friend, and Graves and Swartz immediately teamed up. Swartz, a Vietnam-era veteran, says that Graves considers him his “booking agent,” and the pair has stayed busy.

“Over the last 16 months, we’ve gone to more than 150 events,” Swartz says. Graves said he expected to speak before hundreds of students in November at Liberty Christian School in Argyle, Texas, and has engagements scheduled into 2018.

“It’s been a pleasure every step of the way,” Swartz says of his work with Graves.

The Iwo Jima veteran has spoken about faith, fighting a war and loving your country to numerous civic organizations, history classes at schools and at veterans’ groups.

And, Graves has sung the national anthem at veterans’ events and twice at Texas Rangers baseball games.

He also is active in a veterans’ group called Roll Call, which hosts at monthly veterans’ luncheon at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Roll Call has more than 300 members — 75 from World War II — who served in the various military branches from the 1940s to recent military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Graves’ military past means a lot to him.

His bedroom and sitting room are decorated with plaques, certificates of appreciation, and photographs from his time in the military forward to his recent speaking engagements. A hall table is covered in military memorabilia.

Graves and his contemporaries formed what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” but their numbers are dwindling, with only a little more than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II still living in 2017.

Graves shows no signs of slowing down. There’s too many young people to educate, comrades to honor, and audiences to entertain before he stops.

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