Carlos “Ben” Benjamin remembers seeing the American flag flying over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945 as he looked out a small porthole from the ship where he was being treated for battle wounds.
So it was a special moment last week when the 90-year-old Pasco resident saw the flag raising immortalized in bronze in a memorial outside Washington, D.C.
“It was fantastic,” said Benjamin, a machine gun squad leader in the Marine Corps during the war. “Way bigger than life.”
Benjamin and 95 other World War II veterans traveled to the nation’s capital May 16-19 courtesy of the Spokane-based Inland Northwest Honor Flight, which regularly takes veterans from the region to see the memorials dedicated to those who served.
Benjamin was particularly moved by the preferential treatment accorded to the veterans. They took a charter flight from Spokane, skipping security — “rigmarole” as Benjamin calls it. When they landed, they got a police escort around D.C. Six hundred people greeted them when they returned.
“I was really impressed with the people who coordinated this thing,” Benjamin said. “You would have thought we had seven stars on our shoulder. I was never treated this royally.”
Midge Jackson of Kennewick, the daughter of Benjamin’s companion Betty Jackson, who died in 2008, accompanied Benjamin on the all-expenses-paid trip. She recalls the visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where they watched a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“You cannot imagine, just from pictures. It’s a lot of graves, but when you’re driving there, it’s acre after acre after acre of white tombstones,” Jackson said.
Benjamin was hit in the upper right leg at Iwo Jima, shattering bone near his hip.
His memories of the incident are sketchy, thanks to the three shots of morphine he was given, but he was wrapped in a full-body cast and placed aboard a Coast Guard ship that floated around the island for several days.
“I got shot where no Marine wants to be shot,” he said.
He had no idea the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima would be remembered for so long, he said.
“I don’t think I even thought about it (at the time),” he said. “They even made a stamp of it.”
Benjamin left the Marines in early 1946 and moved from his native Idaho to Washington in 1954, during the Red Scare. He made a visit to Pasco, but didn’t want to stay for long. With Hanford and the Grand Coulee Dam nearby, he thought the area was a target for attack by the Soviets.
“I said, ‘Only an idiot would live here,’ ” Benjamin recalled. “And seven years later, a job offer brought this idiot to the Tri-Cities.”
Benjamin married his wife, Ardess, in 1961. She died in 2003, leaving behind two daughters they had together.
Benjamin returned to Iwo Jima in 2010 as part of a group of nearly two dozen survivors. But he was slowed recently by a battle with cancer. Doctors removed a tumor from his left foot and he went through 24 radiation treatments.
But he was able to make the cross-country trip just two weeks after his final radiation treatment.
“I was so pleased that he was able to make it,” Jackson said.
Since he returned from D.C., Benjamin is corresponding with school children from Washington and Idaho. They sent him letters, and he is writing back telling them a bit about his time in the service.
“If they answer back, I will try to tell them more,” he said.
Jackson expects kids to be excited about writing back, judging by the way students on a field trip reacted when they saw the veterans at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“They realized that the guys in the gray T-shirts are what the memorial is all about,” she said. “They’d come up to shake hands with the veterans and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It was the experience of a lifetime.”
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom