When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Don Graves was a 16-year-old living in Detroit.
He was so determined to sign up that he ran down to the local Marine recruiting office. But he had to wait six months until his 17th birthday and get both of his parents to sign the paperwork allowing him to enlist.
“Hollywood did a number on us with all of those movies about brave Marines,” Graves said. “I dropped out of school. I couldn’t wait to sign up.”
Seventy-five years later, Graves, 91, said he’s trying to ensure that Pearl Harbor, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called “a date which will live in infamy,” isn’t forgotten.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
Graves was the guest speaker Wednesday at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base during a 75th Commemoration Ceremony of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,403 U.S. personnel and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships.
It was one of many events in North Texas and beyond honoring those killed Dec. 7, 1941.
Graves has vivid memories of that day.
“We were riding around in a Model A when they broke in on the radio and told us Pearl Harbor had been attacked,” Graves said. “I rushed down to the induction center but they told me I couldn’t sign up without my parents’ signatures.”
Navy Capt. Mike Steffen, the commanding officer of the naval air station, said the attack brought the U.S. into the war and would lead to the country becoming a superpower.
“Pearl Harbor was the ‘Greatest Generation’s’ 9/11 moment,” Steffen said. “It was an unprovoked attack and it showed that we, as a nation, the United States, could come together against a tough enemy and defeat them and protect our country.”
Fighting at Iwo Jima
While Pearl Harbor was the impetus for him to join, Graves’ most vivid memories come from the Battle of Iwo Jima, where nearly 7,000 Marines were killed.
The day before they landed at Iwo Jima, Graves remembers his officers telling him “with good luck we’ll be off in three days. We were on that island for six weeks.”
The initial goal was to take Mount Suribachi, but that proved daunting.
“It was only 560 feet to the foot of Suribachi from where we hit the beach but it took three deadly days of fighting to get there,” Graves said. “It was hand-to-hand fighting, especially at nighttime. They came at us.”
He was also present atop Mount Suribachi when the Marines raised the U.S. flag five days into the battle, an iconic photograph that came to symbolize the war. The only problem was that the battle raged on for weeks.
“Any of us could have been in that photograph,” Graves said. “We didn’t realize the significance at the time but it also enraged the Japanese since a foreign flag had been placed on their soil.”
When the Iwo Jima was finally won, Graves was sent back to Hawaii to prepare for the invasion of Japan. He still remembers the disbelief when they learned the Japanese had surrendered.
‘Living, breathing history’
At a Pearl Harbor Day luncheon, 19-year-old Sam Schoolfield Jr. looked out of place at the event filled with veterans three to five times his age.
But Schoolfield, a member of the Marine Corps Reserve’s Flight Attack Squadron in Fort Worth, decided his salute to the survivors of the Dec. 7 attack would also be a learning opportunity.
“These men are living, breathing history,” said the Tarleton State University history major. “This is a time in history when so much happened, but not all of it got recorded. Some of these individual stories fall through the cracks.”
Schoolfield was among about 350 people who filled the Birchman Baptist Church gym in west Fort Worth for the luncheon. About 80 of the those in attendance were World War II veterans.
Some told their stories.
James Hardwick of Dallas turned 18 on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. The night before, he was on Nanakuli Beach enjoying a luau with many other sailors. But Sunday morning was a shocker.
“We heard bombs going off. We had to get back to our ship,” said Hardwick, who served on the USS Honolulu. “I had no idea what was happening. There were billowing clouds of smoke and fire all around me. But I was just intent on getting back to the ship.”
Lee Long’s story reminded that Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only target of Japan that day. American bases in the Philippines also were hit. He saw a squadron of 54 bombers, each carrying 300-pound bombs. He didn’t know for sure they were enemy aircraft at first.
“Then I could see the Rising Sun on the wings,” said Long, 96, of the Army Air Corps. His best friend, who was with him, was killed when he ran to a hangar just as it was hit by a bomb, he said.
Staff writer Robert Cadwallader contributed to this report.