An icon of American military history lives south of Mansfield in Jasper County. His name is Gerald Hipps. Born into poverty near Miami Beach, Hipps and his family lived without electricity or indoor plumbing. Food was scarce; his mother worked in a laundry; a grandmother raised the siblings, strawberries were a special treat, as was his first pair of shoes at age 10.
"I was at the movies with a friend when we heard about Pearl Harbor, so I joined the Marines," Hipps said.
He was only 16 and had to get his mother's written permission.
Though physically tough, Marine discipline at Parris Island didn't suit the cocky young boy from Miami.
"My drill instructor ordered me to pick up cigarette butts then tie them to a string around my waist. Shoot, I told the man he was crazy," he said.
Not only did Hipps pick up cigarette butts, he did so while doing a hula dance.
He volunteered to be a cook because he was always hungry.
"The mess sergeant caught me practicing my curve ball with peeled potatoes. Well, that ended that job," he said.
Qualified with the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), Hipps' brash behavior was still a problem. His D.I. found a cure: he ordered Hipps to perch atop the exposed rafters in the barracks, nude, weapon in hand, singing 'I'm a gooney bird from Buford.'
"I sort of caught on to the discipline thing after that," he confessed.
With Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, Hipps boarded a ship in San Diego for places unknown. Once at sea, the men of Easy Company were ordered below deck to learn their destination.
"We gathered around a big long table with a mock-up of an ugly little island and uglier large hill we'd been ordered to secure," he recalled.
The ugly little island was Iwo Jima; the uglier large hill, Mount Suribachi."
D-Day: 0400 a breakfast of steak and eggs: "Eat up," the Marines were told, "It may be your last meal."
After scaling down rope ladders to the LSTs, Hipps and the men of Easy Company made the deadly gauntlet to the black sands of Iwo.
"Shrapnel got me as soon as I hit the beach," Hipps said, adding the shrapnel had ripped flesh from his shoulder, neck, arms and legs. "I was a mess."
A corpsman appeared almost immediately. The corpsman was John Bradley, one of the famous flag-raisers on Iwo Jima and father of James Bradley, author of the best-selling book and movie directed by Clint Eastwood, "Flags of our Fathers."
Treated and rested, Hipps refused evacuation and fought foxhole to foxhole for two days until reunited with Easy Company assaulting Mount Suribachi.
"I saw big ol' Ira." Hipps said, "I knew I was home." Ira was American Pima Indian Ira Hayes who was also one of the flag-raisers on Iwo.
Hipps and the remnants of Easy Company took the summit. After a small flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi, the ships off-shore sounded bells and horns in celebration as battle hardened Marines cheered Old Glory, but the second, larger and most famous flag-raising was almost a non-episode on Iwo Jima. Combat photographer Joseph Rosenthal nearly missed the shot, swinging his camera around at the last second to click off a frame, not even taking the time to glimpse the image in the viewfinder. That 00th of a second camera speed snapped the most famous photo in the world: United States Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.
And Gerald Hipps? "I was in the background guarding the flag-raisers with my BAR."
Ordered off Mount Suribachi, Easy Company and Hipps figured their war in hell was over. It was not to be. Easy Company received orders to attack the northern end of the island. They were engaged in continuous combat for a month with horrific casualties.
"I had buddies standing right next to me that got blown away or cut to pieces. I've always wondered, 'Why them and not me', but I guess that was God's decision," Hipps said.
Progress was measured by 100 or 200 yards a day, some days even less. When 20 Marines hastily gathered for a briefing, a hand grenade landed in the middle of the group. Hipps was one of the few not killed.
"I didn't get a scratch," he said softly. "We slept in foxholes," Hipps continued. "But it wasn't good sleep, you were too scared."
Sniper fire killed many Marines peeping up from their foxhole, others were slaughtered in their sleep by suicidal Japanese soldiers slipping into their foxhole during the night to slit any throat they found available.
The Marines kept going, kept dying, kept fighting, kept their 'esprit de corps' and kept winning.
Hipps stepped on a landmine.
"I knew I was a goner," he said. "It clicked and I waited to meet my maker."
The landmine was a dud and Hipps made it to the northern end of Iwo Jima.
"I knew the fighting was almost over, but I had this horrible feeling my luck was running out," Hipps recalled. "I prayed to God, 'God, please let me go home,' and I still pray to him every day."
One hour after his fleeting prayer, Easy Company was relieved by the U.S. Army.Hipps said of the six flag-raisers, "Only three got off the island alive. That's how bad it was."
Nearly 6,000 Marines were killed on Iwo Jima. About 17,000 were wounded, but over 25,000 American aircrews were saved by making emergency landings on a "secured" Iwo Jima. Gerald Hipps landed on the black sands with 240 of his buddies; he was one of 27 that made it off the island. He was 19 years old, and would not discuss Iwo Jima until two years ago.
Retired for many years from carpentry and construction, Hipps enjoys friends and family.
"Two of my sons fought in Vietnam," he said. "They weren't treated very well by folks when they retuned from their war, so it's time for them to speak up, too. We all have a story to tell."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at email@example.com.