FRANKLIN, Ky. (WBKO) -- It's one of the most iconic images of World War II, Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. For most of us, it's just a picture in a history book. But it means much more to a 91-year-old veteran in Franklin, Kentucky. He remembers the fierce fighting, the loss of comrades in arms, and the feeling when that flag went up, because he was there!
Folks will tell you, Bob Byrum is a frequent church goer. "He's one of those people that when he comes in the door, everybody gravitates to him and to his wife," says Franklin Church of Christ Pulpit Minister Jim Brown. "They're just delightful, wonderful, good Godly people." With a sense of humor. "But we had hog brains and eggs ha, ha, ha, for breakfast," says Bob's longtime friend Frank Cardwell.
And most of the time Bob is wearing his marine corps jacket. "But he is very interesting, very well read," says Bob's neighbor, Nell McCarley Jordan, "and loves to talk about Iwo Jima."
Now 91, on February 19, 1945, Bob Byrum was a scared 18-year-old corporal crammed into one of the 500 landing craft assaulting the island of Iwo Jima. "And I remember," says Bob, "one guy saying 'Well boys, you get your hearts right with God, because this next one may be your last one."
And when they hit the beach, Bob understood. "Man when I got out there," he says, "and all I had to do was glance around, I never seen as many dead men in my life."
Bob caught his breath and his unit slowly advanced toward Mount Suribachi, from which they could see the entire island. But the enemy was underground. "That island was nothing but a honeycomb of caves," Bob says. "Absolutely. You could go from one end of that island to the other underground."
So what did the marines do? "What they would do," Bob explained, "they'd get demolition squads. Blow them out of the caves as best we could. And then turn flame throwers on there to cut the oxygen out of the air."
Ten thousand marines landed on Iwo Jima to fight 22,000 Japanese soldiers. It was only four days into the battle. There was a long way to go.
They were tired. And then it happened. "When somebody yelled 'There she goes!'" said Bob.
Six marines planted the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. "And when that went up...it sounded like a football game," said Bob. "People were cheering that that flag went up. It gave us a feeling, one guy says 'It feels like you're in love when you've never been in love before."
"What did it mean?" said Bob, repeating my question.
"Yes Sir," I said.
"It meant that we had that island." answered Bob. "It meant that we weren't gonna turn loose of that island. And we knew that flag had been secured there, that that island was ours. And I think the Japanese knew that too."
It would take 36 days for the United States to secure Iwo Jima, costing 7,000 American lives. Of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers who had dug in, only 220 were taken alive.
Bob got shot in the leg in the battle. After two weeks in the hospital, he finished out the war as an MP on Okinawa. And he downplays his part in the war. "We're not tough," he says. "We just got a lot of faith. We're not heroes. The boys that didn't come home are the heroes. They gave their all. So if we can help lead this nation to become a better nation, and look after one another, then I think the good Lord will look after us."
This February 23rd, will mark the 71st anniversary of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. It cost 7,000 American lives, but it gave crippled American aircraft a safe place to land, saving 20,000 American lives. And Bob Byrum is one reason why.