Saluting their service

MINGO JUNCTION – It was a one-of-a-kind trip that made 17-year-old Young Marine Sgt. Maj. Austin Loppe of Mingo Junction appreciate the service of veterans all the more and reaffirm his desire to become a Marine.

The junior at Indian Creek High School recently returned from Guam and Iwo Jima for the annual “Reunion of Honor,” where each year, American and Japanese veterans unite for remembrances of their fallen brothers and to recall the fierce battles that unfolded on the two islands during World War II.

Loppe, the son of Angela Loppe and Bill Goodrich, both of Mingo Junction, was one of 10 youth members of the Young Marines selected to attend what was an eight-day trip in mid-March. The group included six division winners named Young Marines of the Year with Loppe representing division 1; two winners of the Young Marines’ Jimmie Trimble Scholarship; the current national Young Marine of the Year; and the Young Marine designated “Director’s Choice” by Mike Kessler, national executive director and chief executive officer of the Young Marines, who also attended.

Loppe is a member of the Tri-State Young Marines based in Weirton under the command of Sgt. Raymond Barth III and executive officer Gabriel Arlia, master gunnery sergeant. He joined with the nine other peers from the select group hailing from, in addition to Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland, Georgia, Oregon and Florida.

“Each Young Marine was selected based on his or her dedication, loyalty, achievement and leadership and for having been chosen as their divisions’ Young Marine of the Year,” Kessler was quoted in a news release about the trip. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, and every Young Marine treasures the experience.”

And “treasure” is a fitting word, in Loppe’s estimation.

“When I went there, it didn’t really hit me until we landed on Iwo Jima how big of a purpose we had being there, and when I got back, I think it’s just cool to share the different stories (of veterans) that I heard. Not everyone gets to go to Iwo Jima,” he said.

It was there that the memorial service was held for veterans, families and the Young Marines near the landing beaches at the anniversary monument. Conducted by veterans from both the United States and Japan, the service remembered the young men on both sides who gave their lives during the brutal campaign for the island.

Iwo Jima, which is 750 miles south of Tokyo, is the middle island of the three tiny specks of the Volcano Islands. Five miles long, the island is honeycombed with volcanic vents. “In addition, there are hundreds of natural caves, deep sulphur-exuding tunnels and steep gulleys across the surface. Ragged sea cliffs surround the island. Only to the south is there level sand, but it is shifting black pumice dust, making the beaches like quicksand and making it impossible to dig a fox-hole,” a news release about the event notes. “The island was riddled with pillboxes, gun-pits, trenches and mortar sites. A three-day naval bombardment on Feb. 16, 1945, was intended to rid the island of much of its defense. Unfortunately, the bombardment had minimal effect.”

James F. Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, delivered a poignant eulogy for the fallen of both sides, recalling how a 36-day assault resulted in an American victory but at great cost. There were more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived. The Marines’ efforts, however, provided a vital link in the U.S. chain of bomber bases.

It was an emotional experience to be at the service, Loppe agreed.

“It was weird to stand in the place where so many had died,” he said of being on Iwo Jima. “You got an eerie feeling from it.”

Loppe explained that the purpose of the Young Marines’ presence was for them to spend the trip engaging the veterans, helping with luggage and getting on and off the bus or ensuring that they had plenty of water – simple yet appreciated demonstrations of respect. Each day of the trip, the Young Marines shared breakfast with the veterans, but it was sharing more than a morning meal.

It was a chance to hear history first hand in addition to forging a unique friendship combining respect, gratitude and affection, according to Loppe, who estimated that out of about 40 veterans on hand, approximately eight were Marines who had landed on Iwo Jima decades ago.

“They loved us being there,” Loppe said of the veterans’ response to the youth’s presence.

The Young Marines heard many “very moving” stories, according to Loppe.

Owen Agenbroad’s was one of them.

During WW II, Agenbroad served with the 5th Marine Division. While assaulting across the island, he came upon a recently abandoned Japanese position. There he found a straight edge razor and soap dish which he picked up as war treasures. Later in life and in looking more closely at the razor, Agenbroad said he saw that it had Japanese writing on it, and he set about finding a translator. After confirming that it was the name of the Japanese soldier who owned it, he tried to find out what had happened to him. On learning of the soldier’s death on the island, Agenbroad said he felt duty-bound to find out if there were family members still alive, an effort confirmed.

On March 19, at a very private but emotional setting on Iwo Jima, Agenbroad shared that he had returned the razor to the family of the Japanese soldier.

“The Young Marines were able to spend several hours listening to the experiences of the veterans,” Kessler said. “This is living history, not a third-party interpretation of what someone thinks might have happened, but the unvarnished reality of war through the eyes of those who were there. Whether they were a trigger puller or a logistician, a runner or a boat driver, their stories are all very real and captured a slice of history that Hollywood will never be able to put on the big screen and that our history books will sadly never reveal,” Kessler said.

Loppe joined the Tri-State Young Marines four years ago.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a Marine,” said Loppe, who noted military service is a tradition in his family with relatives serving in Korea, Vietnam and World War II.

“I was looking on line at boot camps and such because I wanted to go, and I found the Tri-State Young Marines and from there I begged my mom to let me join,” he said.

The Tri-State Young Marines has been serving West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania since 1997.

“With the Young Marines, I am in charge of my unit as sergeant major,” Loppe said. “I am the one who coordinates all the training we’re going to do, the stuff the guys are going to learn, if we do anything out in the community,” he said.

Loppe, who is pursuing post-secondary schooling at Eastern Gateway Community College while a student at ICHS and plans to enlist in the Marines, threw his hat in the ring last fall for consideration to be a part of the delegation going to the reunion.

It was a detailed process that involved, among other things, paperwork and an essay on why he felt he should be selected as a division Young Marine of the Year.

Several months passed before an early morning congratulatory phone call came from Kessler himself.

“I was pretty excited,” said Loppe, who spoke of two experiences from the trip that left a big impression. One of them involved going into the Japanese caves on Iwo Jima where its soldiers would have been during World War II.

“It was really cool to go inside the different Japanese caves and see it from their point of view, looking out from the holes and seeing what they would have seen when the Marines were coming to shore,” Loppe said.

What impressed him the most, the highlight of his time there, was making the 8-mile hike to the top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island of Iwo Jima and the site where Marines raised the American flag.

Loppe said he felt a sense of it being a place where something momentous in history had occurred.

One thing that set this reunion trip apart from the others, Kessler said, was the pride that he saw in the family members accompanying their fathers on this adventure. He also said none of the returning veterans seemed to lament the return or show any malice for the Japanese.

“They clearly understood that despite the fact that many of them lost close friends to the tenacity of the Japanese defenders, they understood that the enemy had a job to do, and they performed as best they could given the circumstances,” Kessler said.

The Young Marines impressed not only the veterans but the governor of Guam as well.

“Following his speech at the banquet on March 18, the governor commented to Gen. (Lawrence) Snowden that he was truly impressed with the Young Marines and wanted to start a unit on Guam,” Kessler said. “We are working on providing all of the information they need to make that a reality.”

The 70th anniversary “Reunion of Honor” ceremony will be held March 14, 2015.

With each year’s passing, though, comes fewer Iwo Jima veterans compared to last, cause for the Young Marines to make the most of their time with the veterans. Dakota Richter of Crestview Hills, Ky., the national Young Marine of the Year, noted, “It’s a somber reminder as to the rate at which these heroes are passing, and every memory we can gather from our veterans deserves to be cherished and documented for future generations.”

Loppe couldn’t agree more.

Asked what he would like to most get across to readers about his experience as part of the trip, Loppe was quick with a response.

“Honor your veterans, because there’s not a lot of them left from World War II,” he said. “If you get the chance to meet one, take the time to get to know them and learn their stories because eventually, those are going to be stories just in books. It’s not going to be from their mouths telling you – it’s all going to be in books,” Loppe said.

The Young Marines is a national nonprofit 501c(3) youth education and service program for boys and girls, age 8 through the completion of high school. The Young Marines promotes the mental, moral and physical development of its members. The program focuses on teaching the values of leadership, teamwork and self-discipline so its members can live and promote a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, according to promotional material.

Since the Young Marines’ humble beginnings in 1959 with one unit and a handful of boys, the organization has grown to more than 300 units with 10,000 youth and 3,000 adult volunteers in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Japan and affiliates in a host of other countries, according to promotional material.

For information, visit the official website at www.YoungMarines.com

Locally, the Tri-State Young Marines will be having a new recruit boot camp beginning June 9 with two informational meetings to be held from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 12 and May 19.

It is required that a parent or guardian attend at least one of the meetings to learn about the program and fill out required documentation.

The group meets in the basement of the Sacred Heart of Mary Church, 200 Preston Ave., Weirton.

Questions can be directed to tristateym@frontier.com or call (740) 381-0383 or (740) 632-0817 for information.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com)