(CBS4) – The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is considered one of the most iconic images from World War II. A 96-year old former Marine in Westminster spent 36 days on the island and witnessed that historic moment.
Don “Whip” Whipple grew up on a farm in Kansas but knew he wanted to serve in the military. With his parents’ permission, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 just a month shy of his 17th birthday.
“I had eight brothers,” Whipple said. “And four of my brothers were in the Navy and I thought I could do a little better than that. I can be in the Marine Corps.”
He immediately started training in amphibious landing drills in San Diego.
“We knew we were training for something big,” he said. “They told us they were training us to land on an island of Iwo Jima. We didn’t know where it was at or hadn’t thought any more about it.”
His unit landed on the beach of Iwo Jima as the second wave in 1945.
“The Japanese had made a terrace all the way up that beach,” Whipple remembers. “So after we got up to the top of that terrace, I stood up to see what was on the side of it.”
That’s when a mortar landed right in front of him. He suffered a concussion and shrapnel in his leg.
“My captain saw me land there and he thought I was dead cause I looked dead as a mackerel.”
Amazingly, he survived.
Whipple was sent to a hospital ship but asked his captain if he could stay with his unit but was denied. After two days on the ship, Whipple and another injured Marine hobbled their way back to the beach, against orders, to be with their fellow Marines.
“There’s camaraderie in the Marine Corps like you’ve never known in any other organization,” Whipple said. “You just don’t want to lose the rest of your buddies.”
As a forward observer, Whipple was tasked with directing artillery fire and he was quickly told to head to Mt Suribachi to be a lookout.
“They were going up and I just got in behind them,” he said. “They were a rifle group,”
A rifle group that would make history, and Whipple was watching and listening nearby.
“He said ‘We’re getting pretty close to the top, they’re looking for something to put the flag on,'” Whipple said. “A moment or two later they said ‘Well they got the flag tied on and they’re getting ready to raise it in a minute. In fact there it goes.’ I just watched them raise it up and it was the thrill of my life.”
And like the iconic photo, Whipple hopes the price his friends and others paid for this country is never forgotten.
He served in the Marines for 4 years and was eventually awarded the Purple Heart.
Watch CBS4’s extended interview with Whipple below: