0600 hrs. Bob Hope USO Center, Los Angeles Airport.
Have you ever met someone great? I mean, a genuinely great person. The kind of person that makes you think you can’t even imagine yourself surviving a tenth of what they went through. Every moment you spend talking with them somehow makes you a better person. Tom McGraham wrote his life story in his book titled “The Road to Iwo Jima.” I had the honor of meeting Tom at the Los Angeles USO center at LAX. Jennifer invited me to join her early one Sunday morning as a volunteer. Jennifer is the ideal USO volunteer; she’s cheerful, with an infectious smile, and a natural ability to understand someone’s needs even before they do. The hundreds of young Marines’ faces light up when she talks to them.
Jennifer’s accustomed to helping the young Marines who pass through LAX after their basic training at Camp Pendleton. They all look so young, she says. But they all look the same – young, lost and appreciative. This Sunday, she was covering the 6 to 10 am shift. Usually, this is a slow time as most of the young military families use the USO as their crash pad during long layovers. This Sunday began as a typical day until Tom McGraham woke up and rolled his wheelchair out of the storage room where he was sleeping. Somehow Tom missed his ride after traveling back from a vacation trip to Spain. Not bad for a guy in a wheelchair who just happens to be 89 years old! As I finished making my 300th peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a young Coast Guard seaman was helping Tom get a cup of coffee when he came over and told me, “You’ve got to meet this guy. This guy fought on Iwo Jima.”
So, the conversation began, and over the next three and a half hours, I learned a great deal about the extraordinary life Tom had led. Here are just a few of his tales. Please note, I was the junior volunteer at the USO. While Jennifer greeted the young troops or answered the phone, I took out the trash, cleaned the bathrooms and made sandwiches. Payback, dad, payback.
Tom McGraham was born in New York City, and his story began when his grandmother abandoned him at a Manhattan police station. One of his parents was ill and the other unemployed, so Tom was raised by foster parents. Not knowing that abandoning your children was an option, I quickly relayed this tip to Jennifer and wondered if there was some statute of limitations. Apparently, abandoning your kids at the firehouse or police station is a thing, a sad thing.
Tom has a way of storytelling that combines rich detail with wry humor. He has a gentle manner, and even with a lifetime of hard times, his optimism shines through. In all those hours and all his stories, I didn’t hear an unkind word. I’ve yet to read his book, but I did see his silver medal from the Military History Writers Association. The best I can do is relay some anecdotes of the stories he told me. I’ll try to give you a sense of not only his stories but also the person to whom we all owe so very much.
A few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Tom and thousands of other young Americans enlisted. Tom chose the Marines. While he was stationed near West Point, he and other Marines were invited to scrimmage with the Army Academy’s football team. Among the players were Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, two All-American running backs. “When I tried to tackle Doc Blanchard,” Tom said, “it was like hitting a freight train. It took me several minutes to get up, and I was hurting all over.”
You can count on a Marine being proud of surviving life onboard a Navy ship. Tom told me of his braving Cape Hatteras off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This is referred to as the graveyard of the Atlantic because of all the shipwrecks caused by the continuous shifting sands and shallow inlets. Apparently, going around Cape Hatteras was a big deal, even in a destroyer. Tom’s first duty station was in the Caribbean, which was not exactly the site of the hottest action of WWII. That’s what I thought until he told me the story of how he and his buddies were riding horses and drinking rum on Antigua. Suddenly, they came across a German U-Boat crew. Apparently, the Germans were out of fuel and supplies. Long out of food and water, they were starving. So, while stationed in Margaritaville, Tom and his Marine buddies captured themselves some German prisoners. Everyone got a medal.
Back aboard a troop carrier and on his way to the Pacific Theater, Tom spent his downtime boxing. This was mostly harmless fun until Tom was paired with Tony Zale. Tony was a two-time world middleweight champion. Tony promised not to hurt Tom, who claimed he got in a few good punches. Tom crossed the Pacific in and out of the sickbay, nursing his bruises.
Tom was a corporal at the time he landed on Iwo Jima. All told, Tom spent twelve days on that island. In my view, it was eleven and a half really successful days capped by a horrible last half-day. Someplace in the middle of all that hell, Tom was awarded a battlefield commission. However, this could not be confirmed because the officer who promoted Tom was killed.
I always knew that the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima were a special breed. I just didn’t realize how special these heroes truly were. In Tom’s case, they still are. The Battle of Iwo Jima took place from 19 February until 26 March 1945. The capture of three airfields on this eight-mile-long volcanic rock was felt to be critical and would allow American forces to launch an invasion of the Japanese mainland.
It was simple, take Iwo Jima and win the war – or not. 7,000 Marines lost their lives on Iwo Jima. Over 19,000 young men were wounded. The number of Japanese killed was close to 21,000. Yet, they didn’t give up. They were defending their homeland. They fought to the death. Less than 1,000 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner. Tom told me stories of friends he was talking to one minute, completely disappearing the next. Shortly after his alleged battlefield commission, he said he lost six men when a mortar landed in their foxhole. I told him that supervision has its challenges. “Perhaps management was not for you?” I said. “Perhaps not.” Tom returned. On his twelfth day, his unlucky day on the island, a shell fragment tore his leg apart. He would spend a year and a half in and out of Navy hospitals. Jerry Yellin, a fellow Iwo Jima survivor and author, wrote on the back of Tom’s book: “Tom thought about home every day of the twelve days he was on Iwo before he was wounded, and he has thought about Iwo Jima nearly every day of his life since the war ended.”
Tom said he loved baseball and would have loved to pitch in the big leagues. Unfortunately, he now had a leg an inch shorter than the other. After his early retirement from the Marines, and while he was recovering, he developed a fastball few folks could catch, let alone hit. Then one day, a Navy recreation director suggested he meet Eddie Dyer, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Tom worked his way to their spring training camp in Florida, where he was hired on the spot. With the Yankees training nearby, Tom was called on to pitch to Joe DiMaggio. Tom says that Joe held up on the first few fastballs but then found one and sent it out of the park. Later Joe came over and, with a big grin, said, “Sorry, son.”
Tom went on to tell me some of his tales, such as meeting Ronald Reagan – the actor, not the president. He went on war bond tours like the three Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi did. For Tom’s actions on Iwo Jima, he was presented with a flag flown over that famous hill. At one of those celebrations, he says he met Betty Grable. “You’re kidding,” I said. “Kissed me too,” he said.
Tom married. Not once or twice but three times. His first wife was a Las Vegas Dancer. Tom explained, “Let’s just say she wasn’t the settling down type.” After discovering her with one of the bouncers in a downtown motel room, he let her go. Tom’s first marriage lasted three weeks. I can’t remember what he said about his second wife, but his third wife was for keeps. Tom and his bride shared 34 years together before she passed away. Tom has two children and a few grandchildren living in Southern California. He says he wrote “The Road to Iwo Jima” for them, but I think his life’s story is one for all of us.
14 August 2021. In 2013, shortly after I wrote this blog, Tom sent me a signed copy of his memoir. Tom passed away at his home in Murrieta, California, on 6 July 2014.
This Journal was written in Gratitude.