Iwo Jima flag honors Marines' sacrifice with signatures of survivors

  AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took the iconic 
  photo of Marines raising an American flag on Iwo Jima, 
  provided one of the signatures on John Beele's 
  commemorative flag.
(Photos by Eric Crump/
  H-F Chronicle)
 

John Beele's signed commemorative World War II flag is destined for a museum ― two have expressed interest in it ― but he's not ready to turn it over just yet.

It's not the flag itself the museums are interested in. It's the signatures.
 

  John Beele of Flossmoor shows 
  his Iwo Jima flag, signed by 
  dozens of Marines who fought 
  on the Pacific island late in 
  World War II.

 

Beele, a former Marine and current post commander of Homewood's Wally Burns VFW Post 8077, has had the flag since 1994. Over the years, he and a fellow Marine have collected dozens of signatures. He hasn't counted them lately, but they are spread across the 3-foot by 5-foot silk screened flag.

The signatures surround a depiction of the famous Joe Rosenthal photo taken on Feb. 23, 1945, of the second flag raising on the embattled South Pacific island. 

Among the prominent signatures is Rosenthal's, which Beele obtained at a 60th anniversary reunion. Rosenthal's inscription reads, "With respect and admiration for the Marines of Iwo Jima. Joe Rosenthal, AP photographer."

John Keith Wells also signed. He was in charge of the flag raising platoon. 

The only two signatures by people who didn't fight at Iwo Jima are Beele's and Edward Block's. Block's brother, Harlan, was one of the Marines helping raise the flag in Rosenthal's photo. He was killed during the battle.

Beele said collecting the signatures over the years has been a rewarding experience. Veterans sometimes see names of men they knew.

"It's a piece of history. For all of these men who served on the island to have touched this flag and have got their names on it, it's a living piece now," he said. "It's not just a memory."

Signing the flag brings back memories for the men who served, though.
 

  John Keith Wells, who led the 
  platoon that raised the 
  American flag on Iwo Jima 
  signed John Beele's flag. 

 

Beele tells a story of one veteran who was in a Crown Point nursing home. The veteran's daughter saw a newspaper story about the flag and asked if her father could sign it. Beele took the flag to the nursing home.

He said the veteran was frail and had been incommunicative for some time. When he saw the flag, he started crying.

"He looks up, he salutes me, and he starts to talk about Iwo Jima," Beele said. "He had the whole place in tears. A couple of months later, he died."

But the veteran's family was grateful that because of Beele's efforts their loved one had been able to express some of the memories he had. They thanked Beele for bringing the flag to him.

The story of how the flag project got started involves a veterans reunion, a favor called in and a token of gratitude.

Beele said there was a group of five Iwo Jima veterans from the South Suburbs who were active in events and programs for veterans. One of them, Sam Nuzzo, was involved in planning a reunion in 1994 and wanted to honor his unit's commander during the Iwo Jima campaign by getting him a place on a reviewing stand during the event.

He called Beele for help. Beele called a general he knew. The general put the wheels in motion and provided not just a place on the reviewing stand at the reunion presentation but made certain the royal treatment was for the whole unit and its guests. 

As a way of thanking Beele for his role in making the reunion a success, Nuzzo presented him with the flag. 

"I said, 'I want you to hold onto it. I want you to take it back to your group and have them sign it. Take this with you to reunions,'" he said.

The most recent signature was added just before Memorial Day 2016 by a South Holland veteran. 

Beele hopes to get a few more signatures before the flag heads for a museum, but his pool of candidates is small and getting smaller. 

According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, citing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, hundreds of World War II veterans die every day. Of the 16 million who served during the war, about 620,000 were alive in 2016. 

About 64,000 Marines survived the battle of Iwo Jima. There may be few a left.

"Somebody's still going to pop up," Beele said.

And if they do, he said he will be happy to bring the flag to them. Beele can be contaced at [email protected] or 708-957-0600.

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