Bradenton Marines to honor Iwo Jima survivor on Sunday

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 3, 2012 

BRADENTON -- Keepsakes of Hurb Thompson's life as a U.S. Marine were spread across the empty bed in the sunlit room.

A Purple Heart, dog tags, a dress uniform and hat were among them.

So was a small glass jar containing black sand.

It came from a volcanic Pacific island whose name was scrawled across the jar's faded label and is memorialized in Marine Corps history:

Iwo Jima.

Then a 19-year-old grunt from South Bend, Ind., Mr. Thompson fought there and was wounded there. He was one of more than 26,000 casualties the Marines suffered in a monthlong battle in early 1945 that saw some of bloodiest fighting in World War II's Pacific theater.

That black sand was as much a part of him as were the pieces of mortar shrapnel that remained in his body until his recent death at 87.

"My husband kept the jar as a reminder of the terrible sacrifices made for future generations," said Joy Thompson, 86. "America was very important to him."

Mr. Thompson will be saluted Sunday at Whitfield Presbyterian Church, 7045 N. Tamiami Trail, Bradenton, in a memorial service with military honors rendered by the Marine Corps League DeSoto Detachment 588.

The battle for Iwo Jima has been dramatized over the years in movies with John Wayne and by Clint Eastwood.

It was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal's iconic photo of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi.

Yet it was seeing and touching the black sand in Mr. Thompson's jar that truly moved Jessica McVay, DeSoto Detachment 588's commandant.

"It gave me the chills," said the 34-year-old former Marine. "In boot camp, Marine Corps history is drilled into us. It's part of us. We grew up hearing the stories of these courageous men. Hurb was living proof."

A Bradenton resident since 1999, Mr. Thompson died Oct. 2 at their summer home in Elkhart, Ind., and was buried in nearby Osceola.

His death marked the loss of another WWII veteran, but the passing of a gentleman who was an advocate for the Marine Corps and keeping its proud history alive.

Especially Iwo Jima, where 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty, the most in our nation's history.

Looking sharp in a Marine dress uniform, Mr. Thompson spoke to Manatee County students for years, usually on Veterans Day.

"He lived and breathed the Marines," said his widow, a Mishawaka, Ind., native, who was married to him for 65 years.

Iwo Jima was a crucible for Mr. Thompson as it was for 70,000 Marines involved in the invasion that began Feb. 19, 1945 and concluded March 26, bringing the war one island closer to the Japanese homeland.

Iwo Jima was defended by 22,060 Japanese soldiers sworn to fight to the last man. They almost did. By the battle's conclusion, 21,844 Japanese were dead.

The price the Marines paid for victory was steep with 6,821 killed.

"My father saw some gruesome things, a lot of death," said Jana Pierce, 53. "It wasn't until my 40s when he started talking about it and it started to sink in what he went through."

Her mother understood it after they got married and Mr. Thompson would have frequent nightmares.

"I practically had to lie on top of him to keep him from thrashing around," Joy Thompson said. "I would talk to him softly, tell him he was OK, he was home now."

Last February, McVay held a commemoration night for the battle's 67th anniversary.

"There was not a sound in the place when he spoke, even in his soft voice," she said. "There were some big tough Marines there, too, and not a dry eye anywhere."

Chances are it will be like that Sunday. "He would be happy, honored," his widow said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: Hurb Thompson Memorial Service with Military Honors

When: 3 p.m. Nov. 4

Where: Whitfield Presbyterian Church, 7045 N. Tamiami Trail, Bradenton

Information: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Wounded Warrior Project

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