Survivors of one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history are now dying at alarming rate.
Three Connecticut men who fought in the battle for Iwo Jima during World War II passed away this July alone. Most remaining battle survivors are well into their nineties.
“Not too many of us are left anymore,” said New Britain resident Joe Roman, one of the remaining few.
The Marine veteran participated in a memorial service for fellow Iwo Jima survivor Sam Girasuolo Aug. 1 at the Iwo Jima Memorial Monument on the Newington/New Britain line. That day would have been Girasuolo’s 95th birthday.
He passed away on July 26 at Apple Rehab in Meriden, leaving behind three children, three grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and one great-great granddaughter.
“Everyone who knew my grandfather absolutely loved him,” said Simone Sands, who came from Pensacola, Fla., to take part in the memorial service. “He was like a father to me in every sense of the word.”
Girasuolo served in the 5th Marine Division and 8th Field Depot in the Pacific. He went on to become president of the Iwo Jima Survivors Association of Connecticut, helping to build the monument and park where multiple generations of family members gathered in his honor.
“It was a beautiful, touching tribute to him,” Gail Buchanan, his daughter, said afterwards.
The Hardware City Marine Corps League performed taps and a rifle salute.
“He was very, very proud of that memorial,” said Iwo Jima Memorial Foundation President Gary Roy, who organized the event.
The monument bears the names of the 100 Connecticut men who perished on Iwo Jima, among 7,000 U.S. soldiers lost during the island’s capture. There has never been an official count of the state’s survivors, though Roy can name about a dozen still living who participate in events at the park.
“We’ve lost so many in the last six or seven years it is unbelievable,” he said. “The numbers are dwindling down.”
The foundation’s overarching mission is to make certain the battle’s importance and the veterans’ sacrifice are honored as far into the future as possible.
“We’ve learned from the survivors over the years, what to do to teach people about the battle, about the monument and about the guys who built it,” Roy explained. “Even after the last survivor passes away, we’re still going to have the foundation here to carry on their legacy and make sure people know why that park’s here.”
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, less than one-third of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2017. Of those, 8,879 were residing in Connecticut.
On July 20, Waterbury native Herbert “Herb” Schlander passed away at age 94. A Marine in WWII and an Iwo Jima survivor who was injured in combat, he left behind four children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Schlander was a popular resident of the Bradley Home in Meriden, according to his obituary.
“Anyone that was fortunate to have known Herb was impacted by this kind man who thoroughly loved his family, friends, and country,” it read.
It is unknown whether Schlander was a member of any Iwo Jima survivor groups. According to Roy, it is common for battle survivors to hide their scars.
“When they came back home there was no help for them,” he said. “They were told, ‘You’ll feel better over time. Go home, raise a family.’ But these guys didn’t feel better over time. For some of them, as soon as the fireworks go off on the Fourth of July they smell the gunpowder and hear the blasts and become a nervous wreck.”
Girasuolo found his first relief from painful memories when he found fellow survivors, according to his family.
“My dad never spoke about the war until he got involved with the monument,” Buchanan explained.
“The monument was a huge part of him,” Sands added. “It gave him a way to focus all of those feelings he had into something positive.”
The most recent Iwo Jima survivor from CT to pass away was Robert “Bob” Warner, of South Windsor. Also a Marine veteran, Warner left this world on July 29. His obituary described him as a “proud American patriot” who went on to coach youth athletics, lead a Boy Scout troop and volunteer with Meals on Wheels. Warner left behind two children and three granddaughters.
Other battle survivors who died within the last few years were Stanley Dabrowski, George Caron, Ray Greene and Tom McMellon, all frequent visitors to the park.
Those who are still living make their way to the monument as often as possible to pay their respect. Roman and fellow survivor Vincent Thomas read eulogies at Girasuolo’s service.
Thomas and Girasuolo were first acquainted in the trucking business in 1949. It would be decades before they discovered another commonality - that they were both Iwo Jima survivors.
Roman met Girasuolo when he joined the Iwo Jima Survivors Association.
“I knew Sam for years; he was a wonderful guy,” he remembered.
Roman served as a radio operator with the 3rd Joint Assault Signal Company, 3rd Marine Division. In this capacity he provided information to fellow troops at Iwo Jima until March 26, 1945, when the U.S. gained control of the island.
After joining the association, it gave him an opportunity to talk about the war with fellow comrades who served.
“It’s been wonderful to know other survivors when they’re accessible to us,” he said. “We miss the others tremendously. We carry on the torch the best way we can.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or email@example.com.