BOSTON (State House News Service) - The Marines who fought at Iwo Jima used to form a contingent, 30 or 40 in number, and parade up the street to the State House for their annual ceremony each February in Memorial Hall.
That was back in 2000 when the tradition started, John MacGillivray of the Marine Corps League said after Tuesday's Iwo Jima Day ceremony, which marked the 78th anniversary of the pivotal World War II battle that paved the way for victory in the Pacific Theater.
Eight or nine years ago, ages had advanced and the veterans' mobility wasn't what it once was, and the lengthy parades stopped. But the Iwo Jima veterans keep showing up.
No longer 30 in number, there were just two men at the State House this year who fought on that Japanese island, but as their ranks dwindle, another group in the hall drew attention for its larger than usual presence.
"This is the first time ... for me to see that many active Marines that were here," said former Rep. Timothy Whelan of Brewster, a Marine veteran himself, estimating around 30 uniformed active-duty Marines in the crowd. "... And the majority of them were PFCs, which means they are fresh out of boot camp."
Cancelled for the last couple years because of the pandemic, the annual event was back in force, including a speech from 98-year-old Iwo Jima veteran Larry Kirby of Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Kirby, who laid on the ground in 1945 near the base of a hill on Iwo Jima while bullets zipped through the air, proclaimed a serene message of "love" to his brothers-in-arms Tuesday.
"Strange for a Marine, love. But we all realized that our most important possession was our life ... We fight to stay alive," Kirby said. "Without life, you have nothing. And nobody would ever trade his life for money, or positions, anything. But I saw young Marines risk their lives, and deliberately give their lives, for their friends. Because they loved them. So that was the lesson I learned: love is the most valuable thing in the world. Priceless."
Out of the service, Kirby said he "made a living and that was all I needed" -- because Iwo Jima had shown him the priorities of life.
"And I've never missed a birthday, graduation, school play, recital, a football game, because all those things were so much more important to me than money and fame or fortune," he said.
Whelan said it was "really special" that the newest generation of the Corps got to have a "first-hand experience with that history, and hear their stories directly rather than having to read them out of a book."
"The actions of the Marines on that small volcanic island defined the ethos of our Corps for generations and it continues to shape who we believe we are today," said Lt. Gen. David Furness, deputy commandant, who journeyed up from Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. to provide the keynote remarks.
Furness recounted the story of a battle that "was expected to be only a week-long mop-up operation" but "became a brutal, savage slug-fest that lasted for 36 days" at the cost of thousands of lives.
He pointed to an anecdote from the eve of the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, when a commanding general walked amongst his men and one young Marine sensed the officer's "unease."
"A young Marine's upbeat voice shouted out of the darkness, 'Don't worry, general. We took Iwo Jima. Fallujah ain't s--t,'" he recounted.
Furness told the audience that just as the United States did not seek war in 1941, the country does not seek it out today -- but it remains the Corps' "duty" to "be ready for war at all times."
A young Marine at the back of the hall quietly, steadily nodded his head up and down as the general said those words.
Acting Gov. William Galvin, in charge of the executive branch while the governor and lieutenant governor are on vacation, said the Marine Corps League event reminded people of the importance of "remembering" and "protecting."
"And I think we see the fight that's now going on in Ukraine -- people fighting for their freedom, fighting for their country. We begin to understand what these gentlemen here, and those who -- both men and women -- fought with them during World War II, fight for. The right to remain free. The right to be Americans. The right to be citizens of the world," Galvin said. He added, "That battle is over, but clearly the war continues. The war for people who cherish freedom throughout the world continues."
Earlier in the program, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg reminded the veterans in the room of her office's Veterans' Bonus program, a benefit that she said recognizes how servicemembers put their lives on the line "at financial risk to themselves and their families."
The treasurer seemed to catch the state's top military official off guard when she turned around and presented him with his own Veterans' Bonus check.
Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, the adjutant general, had apparently never collected the $1,100 he was entitled to from the Veterans' Bonus Division for his service in the Persian Gulf War, Operation Southern Watch, and the Global War on Terrorism.
Goldberg said he "looked shocked." The general signed the check and handed it right over to the Semper Fidelis Society as a charitable donation.
Besides Kirby and Walter "Miz" O'Malley of Clinton, who sat in the front row, a third veteran -- 100 years old -- had been set to join the crowd on Beacon Hill Tuesday. MacGillivray said he got a call from the man's family saying he would have to back out -- he just came down with COVID-19.
MacGillivray, who has emceed the event year after year, calls for a rendition of the Marines' Hymn to close out the program. This year, he called the newest generation of his Marine Corps comrades up to the front and ordered them to lead the singing.
"From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli ..."
The young Marines' voices were slightly out of sync as they began their surprise a cappella performance. Gradually, they came together and formed a resounding chorus.
"... We fight our country's battles, in the air, on land, and sea ..."
Pausing after the first verse, they were egged on to keep going.
Facing the impromptu choir, a Marine standing toward the back of the hall motioned upwards with his hand -- and the volume grew and grew until they were belting out one of the verses with verve and camaraderie.
Iwo Jima "was a terrible place," 98-year-old Kirby said. "It was bad. I still feel honored and gifted to have been there."
Written By Sam Doran/SHNS