Pete Mayfield, 98, sat in a wheelchair at the base of the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia, wearing his red U.S. Marine Corps jacket.
He had never before seen the iconic 78-foot-tall bronze statue depicting American GIs raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of World War II.
But it wasn’t an unfamiliar sight. In his twenties, he witnessed the original flag-raising on that key Pacific Island.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was so real,” Mayfield said of the statue Saturday as part of the Honor Flight San Diego delegation to D.C. “It looked like the guys were looking right at me.”
He said he couldn’t help but notice how some troops in the statue had carbines while others toted M1 rifles. (“I didn’t trust the little carbines,” he said.)
Looking at the statue — offically the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial — sent chills over his spine, said the World War II and Korean War veteran.
Nearly 80 years later, Mayfield said: “It’s hard to weep again, but I’m still going through it.”
Mayfield fought in some of the most horrific battles of those wars.
Mayfield, who lives in Escondido, was one of 85 veterans who made their Honor Flight journey this weekend to see the memorials that paid tribute to their service and to connect with other veterans of their generation.
Veterans aged 75 to 101 were treated to a charter flight to Baltimore, hotel accommodations and stops including Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Air Force Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the U.S. Navy Yard Museum.
Of Iwo Jima, Mayfield recalls a stiff wind that day in February 1945. It was difficult to put up the U.S. flag because the area was so rocky.
“It was hard to get the flag to stand up,” he said. “So they had to work at it.”
“The first flag that went up was on an old rusty pole. That was a short one,” Mayfield recalls. “The second one I saw go up was this shiny pole with a bigger flag on it.”
(Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press photographed the second flag-raising, which won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the Arlington monument.)
Mayfield’s son, Dave, says that as his father was in line to get off the landing craft, the Marine in front of him was shot by a sniper and fell into the water.
Mayfield spotted the sniper and shot him. The Marine ahead of him was immediately pulled back onto the craft and survived, the son said. The veteran has attended Iwo Jima reunions at Camp Pendleton.
Mayfield talked about shooting the enemy on that mission as a member of the 4th Marine Division.
“It’s either you or them. So that’s what we did.”
Dave Mayfield, 55, believes very few witnesses to the flag-raising are still alive.
Three of the six Marines who raised the flag that day didn’t survive the battle. They were among the 5,900 Marines killed on the island.
Asked about his visit at the memorial, the older Mayfield said: “My son says, ‘You’re going to the memorial.’ I said, ‘Well, I saw it on television.’ He says: ‘You’re going to see it.’”
And he did. As word trickled out into the crowd of visitors that Mayfield was a witness to the flag raising, a group of children became excited and intrigued and questioned the veteran at length.
His visit Saturday morning was a far cry from his humble beginnings in Lucedale, Mississippi, where he lived in poverty as a sharecropper with a grade-school education.
“Dad used to hunt to survive,” bagging squirrels, snakes, raccoons and possums, his son said. “So he was a marksman before he was at a boot camp.”
- Part 1: ‘A Spring in Their Step’: Final Honor Flight for WWII, Korean Vets Awaits
- Part 2: Aging Veterans Muster for D.C. Trip: Honor Flight Details Path to Success
- Part 3: ‘Closer Than My Brother’: Navy Pals, 88 and 89, Share Laughs, Goals for D.C.
- Part 4: D.C. Slide Show: Honor Flight’s Final Trip with WWII, Korean War Veterans
The veteran said he wore overalls as a youngster on the farm. His brother, a Marine, came home to visit in his dress blues uniform, which he describes as beautiful.
“I was barefoot… So I told my dad it’s time to change uniforms.”
That’s when he enlisted in the Marines.
After his service in World War II, he returned home and his son was born.
Then he faced tremendous hardship as he served in Korea in the early 1950s.
Mayfield became a commander of five amphibious tractors, which carried soldiers and tons of ammunition. The Marines were sent in to rescue Army soldiers surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers.
Matthew J. Seelinger, chief historian at the National Museum of the United States Army, said in an article that Gen. Douglas MacArthur and many on his staff made one of the worst military intelligence blunders in U.S. Army history.
“The experiences of the American soldiers who fought and died in the frigid cold of the Chosin area proved to be some of the most harrowing and tragic in the history of the U.S. Army,” Seelinger wrote.
Mayfield said he was commended for “helping shepherd the guys aboard ship that [were] wounded.”
Military members who survived that campaign were called the “Chosin Few.”
“Nearly 6,000 Americans were dead or missing; thousands more were wounded,” Seelinger wrote. “None of the men who survived the horrific battle would ever be the same.”
Indeed that was true for Pete Mayfield.
The younger Mayfield said his father suffered frostbite from his brainstem to his heel in temperatures at least 40 degrees below zero.
The older Mayfield offered a correction about the statues he saw at the Korean Wall Memorial.
“These statues over there (depicting troops) with their big overcoats and hats and things on. We just had something like this,” he said, pointing to the thin jacket he was wearing.
Dave Mayfield said his father shipped out of Camp Pendleton during the month of August and wasn’t supplied with winter wear.
While his service spanned two wars, the effects of those battles and his sacrifices have lasted a lifetime.
Listing the physical effects that the war had on his dad, Mayfield mentioned shrapnel injuries, diseases, and “tremendous” post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I mean, he slept with a weapon all the time,” the younger Mayfield said. “Even today, if there’s any kind of loud noise, even if he knows it’s gonna happen. It’s still this traumatic event.”
He added: “If we go to a parade or honor guard, and there’s a gun salute or something, it’s just devastating.”
So the veteran coped with his PTSD by becoming a workaholic – “sometimes so selflessly that [he was] just gone all the time, worked all day.”
But because of the PTSD, which the son said nobody knew about, he couldn’t sleep during the 1940s and 1950s.
“So he would literally get up at 2 in the morning, start his truck-driving job early, have a second job that will take him until late in the afternoon, come home, take a shower, eat dinner, and go out calling on the sick, visiting people and he’d be gone till midnight, get a couple hours sleep and be gone.”
He was a “truck driver salesman” for 30 years.
Mayfield said his father became a “really enormous caregiver.”
The younger Mayfield says he thought his father’s workaholic lifestyle was not uncommon among former soldiers.
“That’s how a lot of the greatest generation became engineers and doctors,” he said. “They just poured 1,000% into finding an avenue to cope through.”
Pete Mayfield married into a religious family. Without any formal training, and only a sixth-grade education, he started teaching Sunday school classes and did marriage counseling.
The older Mayfield was an evangelist and pastor at First Christian Church in Ramona and First Christian Church of Escondido.
He retired at age 80 when his wife developed a rare form of Parkinson’s, which left her paralyzed and mute within six weeks. She would remain in that condition for 11 years.
The younger Mayfield said he had hoped for a decade that his father would go on the Honor Flight San Diego trip, but Dad wouldn’t leave his wife’s side.
The veteran’s wife passed in November 2021, and he suffered a massive heart attack, “actually acute grief, cardiomyopathy,” his son said.
It is well-documented medical condition in that age group, especially people who have bottled up emotions for a lifetime, he said.
“And when something finally blows it up, it blows you up,” the said said.
It’s only been in the last five to 10 years that his father has talked about his war experiences.
His father has recovered since and is humbled that he was a war survivor, because he saw so many die. He is incredibly thankful to be alive, the son said.
While he is “enormously proud” of his father’s actions during the wars, he also admires his father for just doing “the right thing” throughout his life because “because those were powerful too.”
Sitting among his fellow veterans Saturday evening, Mayfield had high praise for his Honor Flight.
“It’s hard to describe how awesome this trip was,” he said. “All of the Americanism that showed up in people, their dedication, their love for this country, their faithfulness.
“And everyone is so friendly. It just made you want to cry because it’s so warming. So different from being in the war itself.”
He was grateful to be in the presence of those who have been in war “who are still able to smile and laugh and enjoy one another and all the goodness that America has shown to us for what we did for America.”
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