Legends Walk Among Us

by Arti Sharma, staff contributor, American Red Cross North Texas Region

As part of the American Red Cross commitment to the US Armed Forces, our volunteers work with military members, veterans and their families throughout the year. Part of these services include assisting military veterans at VA Hospitals around the country. No matter where Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteers operate, they are honored to meet our incredibly brave service men and women and hear their unique stories revealing the legend of how each is truly an American hero.

American heroes are not always in uniform when we see them. Rather, they are the patrons across from us at the local diner, classmate seated next to us at school, or even friends we ride with listening to music and enjoying the freedom of the day because of the sacrifices they’ve made. They remind us that this freedom to do and to be that rings loud and clear like a song on the radio, is as precious as each fleeting moment it exists. At any time, it can be threatened; it can be taken away.

One of these legends is of Corporal Don Graves, 93, a flame thrower who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Read his full story below.

“It was December 8, 1941…I was [16 and] in the car with my two friends; we were listening to [Big Band music] on the car radio. The announcer came on and said: ‘Ladies and gentleman, we interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin….’”

It was then when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s voice reverberated through the car speaker. Graves recites the lines exactly as he remembered hearing them on that fateful day.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned…The attack yesterday…caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost…As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense…No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through absolute victory…We will not only defend ourselves…but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us…’

As the speaker faded into a silence heavy with the remnants of a world that, in a matter of minutes, was no longer, a spark ignited within sixteen-year-old Graves. Huddled in the car with his two friends, he was fueled with an irrevocable purpose that would serve to alter the course of his trajectory and simultaneously have him fighting on the side of a historical event that would mean the difference between humanity and its loss.

“Tomorrow I am going to skip school, and I am going to join the marine corps,” he informed his friends. And he did. The next day he walked to the Detroit Federal Building to enlist.

Graves didn’t leave that building enlisted in the Marines. At sixteen, he could not join the military, by law. Determined, he went home with papers and a plan: on his 17th birthday, he would have his parents sign the waiver form and he would be in the Marines.

Despite constant resistance from his mother, reluctant to allow her son to face the same realities of war his father experienced in WWI, his persistence paid off and Graves’ parents signed the forms allowing him to enlist in the military.

It was the love of country that fueled Graves and many of his generation to fight for this nation in a war that jeopardized what they lived to protect—freedom. Together they went, some at different times, stationed in various places, coming back with many lost and to a home that had moved on from what it once was.

Today, Mr. Graves is a 93-year-old Iwo Jima Flame Thrower Marine Corps Veteran who now lives in Texas by way of many states including Michigan, California and Minnesota. He lost his wife not too long ago and shares his story with a spark and zeal that can only be told by someone who has, truly, lived.

Despite his indomitable spirit, Graves does not downplay the course of the events that took place during his time in active combat. It was in combat where Graves prayed for the first time in his life. He experienced shocking circumstances that stunned even the most courageous hearts. He witnessed many deaths of his comrades who had become part of a family that had their own crest—a crest that was sealed with a bond that no one else could carry or could ever unlock.

“Two [men from the opposition] ran out of a fox hole and came towards me. My buddy saw and ran up behind me, grabbed me by the waist, pulled me down to safety. He saved my life,” Graves says with heartfelt gratitude for his brother on the battlefield.

When he was 20, Graves would return home to find that the impacts of war would come with him. “The transition was rough, the first weeks back. I lived with my mother. She would wake me up and I was moaning and groaning and moving all over the place,” he recalls. “I dreamed that two [opposition] soldiers were going to throw me down on one of the wrecked planes,” he said with the fear still in his voice.

His words trace the beginning of a smile as he continued, “One of the strangest things is that when we got back home, we thought we were going to see our girlfriends. Well– they all got married,” he exclaims in laughter.

As legend would tell it, from that point on, Mr. Graves would continue to walk a life led by commitment and purpose. He would do this through his 60-year marriage, dedicated career in the armed forces, devotion to his faith, and steel-like respect for the family he created on the battlefield. It is his commitment and purpose that, despite the generations that have gone by, remains relevant to the freedoms and liberties we enjoy today. And that’s not a story of a legend, but it is that of a hero.

The American Red Cross is grateful for the sacrifices made by Graves and honored to serve military communities. To learn more about the Red Cross commitment to military members, veterans and their families visit http://www.redcross.org/military.

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