NEW BRITAIN, Ct. --
Forty-seven years after serving in World War II, a U.S. Marine veteran, a dentist, aimed his sights on the task of building a National Iwo Jima Memorial in the heart of Connecticut. But what some might consider a daunting undertaking, was just a challenge to the survivors, family members and friends of the Marines who volunteered to help.
Dr. George Gentile founded the Iwo Jima Survivors Association of Connecticut in 1987 and raised more than $250,000 to erect a monument based on the famous combat photo of men raising the Stars and Stripes on Mt. Suribachi on the Japanese held Pacific atoll of Iwo Jima. It was the first American flag raised on Japanese soil.
Retired U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden, a survivor of the battle that helped bring the war with Japan to an end, said the foundation’s effort showed that “dedicated men of good will can join together to accomplish great things, by working hard themselves and demonstrating to others, that their vision deserved support.”
Like many of his fellow veterans, Gentile rarely, if ever, spoke about the battle that lasted for five weeks in 1945 and left 6,281 American dead. He returned home to his life as a dentist with a wife and children. The horrors of war remained locked away, unspoken but not forgotten.
But the past has a way of casting a long shadow. After attending a military reunion in Massachusetts, Gentile decided he wanted to honor his comrades in arms. The 60,000 U.S. Marines and several thousand Seabees who fought for more than a month saw some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War. About 21,000 Japanese soldiers manned heavily fortified bunkers and 11 miles of tunnels.
“Victory was never in doubt,” said U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine, who commanded the Third Marine Division during the battle. “What was in doubt in all our minds was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate our ceremony at the end or whether the last surviving Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner.”
Along with a few fellow Iwo Jima survivors, Gentile set up the foundation to honor all who served on the Japanese atoll. He later learned that included 100 Connecticut residents who died there.
Raising the money to build a world class monument was no easy undertaking. Yet the vets did not ask for help. They did not seek federal, state or community funding. Instead, they contacted the families of the fallen and those who survived the battle. They held fundraisers. They sought grants. They asked for donations.
They even lobbied to have a section of Route 9 between Newington and New Britain designated the Iwo Jima Memorial Expressway. Then Central Connecticut State University donated a plot of land along Route 175 and the stage was set.
A group of about 15 eager 60- and 70-year-old vets labored at the site to clear trees and undergrowth. An Eagle Scout volunteered to build wood benches. Contractors donated time and equipment to prepare the site for the concrete base and bronze statue. Donors paid to have bricks for the walkways engraved with their names.
Sculptor Joseph Petrovics crafted this monument to the likeness of the World War II Memorial that stands outside Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. To ensure the Connecticut statues’ authenticity, the men brought in helmets, canteens, weapons and other gear for the artist to copy exactly. When the 9-feet tall bronze Marines seemed too clean cut, the vets had the artist add beard stubble to make them look battle weary.
Gentile and his supporters also wanted to ensure the memorial included sand and rocks of Iwo Jima. It took months of coordination and more than $2,000 to have 750 pounds of volcanic sand and rock shipped to New Britain. The sand is inside the concrete base and the rocks rest near the Marines’ feet.
"The most important mission of the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation is to educate people, especially our youth, about the importance of the battle of Iwo Jima in WWII.” Raymond Carrier, president of the foundation
Name plates of the 100 fallen Connecticut service members rest on the black fencing defining the site. Flags are posted above each name from spring through fall. A new walkway is planned along the fence for people to visit the names. An eternal flame burns in honor of all Americans who served in World War II. Two black granite monoliths honor Navy corpsman and Navy chaplains. The nearby woods form a quiet background for the reverent setting.
On Feb. 23, 1995, the National Iwo Jima Memorial Monument was dedicated on the New Britain- Newington line adjacent to the Iwo Jima Memorial Expressway. It sits on land donated by Central Connecticut State University just off Route 175 in Newington.
"The most important mission of the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation is to educate people, especially our youth, about the importance of the battle of Iwo Jima in WWII,” said Raymond Carrier, president of the foundation. “Why was it important then, why 50 years later, and why into the future.”
Carrier said the foundation aims to encourage people to “advance the end of the war, to remember the extreme cost and to never forget the high price of freedom. It was so important to the Iwo Jima Survivors Association, that they wrote it into the bylaws, as a purpose to them, and a legacy to us"
Dr. Richard L. Judd, retired president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University, was a strong supporter of the project and remains so today. At 83, he hopes to see the college library set up a special Iwo Jima collection where families can donate memorabilia and artifacts for display.
Judd said the foundation is in the process of preparing biographies of the 100 Connecticut residents who died during the battle on Iwo Jima. “You have to humanize the battle to be able to bring that home a little bit,” Judd said during a recent interview.
“Iwo Jima was 6,000 miles away from here,” he said. “What does it mean to you that your uncle or your grandfather fought and died there and never came back home again.”
Judd recalled that when he worked as a national ranger-historian at Antietam battlefield in Virginia, people would ask him about a long-lost relative.
“People would come and with a name,” he said. “I would take them a site where 5,000 people died and tell them this is where their relative died. This is where it happened, I remember I remember one family from Pennsylvania, asked, ‘This is where my great grandfather died?’ I said yes, and tears rolled down their faces.”
Judd said he firmly believes in the importance and relevance of historic monuments. “Veterans represent integrity,” he said. “They represent the spirit of America – what it means that we’re a democracy. Even in this troubled time that we’re now going through we can still express those views.”
Before his death in 2003, Gentile set up the National Iwo Jima Historical Foundation to replace the survivors association after the members have passed on. Its’ purpose is to ensure the perpetual care and maintenance of the monument.
Wed. Feb. 23, 2022, the historical foundation is hosting a remembrance ceremony at 10:30 a.m., rain or snow reschedule date is Sat. Feb. 26, 2022, at the monument at 1 Iwo Jima Way, New Britain, Ella Grasso Blvd. and Barbour Rd. The public is invited to attend the ceremony marking the 77th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima.