Through the muggy summer and damp winter of 1943, Marine Drill Instructor Edmond G. Farah guided recruit class after recruit class through Parris Island's training. By the time Farah finished with his men, they could bench-press their M-1 rifles 400 times and remain rigid at attention, even as the island's voracious gnats and sand fleas feasted on their sweaty faces.
The sergeant's own eight weeks at boot camp - which ended in February of '43 - had hammered a 125-pound kid into a 158-pound Marine. His recruits were no different. By the time they earned their rifle badges and globe-and-anchor emblems, the freshly minted Marines could walk past their own parents without being recognized.
For Farah, the graduation ceremonies all seemed the same, which meant he was doing his job. Parris Island was, and is, an assembly line for amphibious infantry; any two men should be as indistinguishable as the rifles in their hands. If Farah ever choked up during his Marines' last night at camp, it wasn't because they'd worn a soft spot in the drill instructor's heart or earned his grudging respect - it was because he was envious.
"Every time I graduated a platoon as a drill instructor, I went to the classification officer," Farah says. "I told him: 'I want to get out - I wanna go overseas.'"
In July of 1944, the 20-year-old DI finally got his wish. An officer needed eight volunteers to undergo intelligence training for a replacement battalion - an assignment that came with a ticket to the Pacific front lines.
By the end of the year, Farah was on a ship bound for the Solomon Islands, celebrating Christmas twice as he crossed the international date line. Four months after that, he was with the First Marine Division, part of a massive naval armada amassed off the coast of the Ryukyu island chain, on the doorstep of Japan itself. From there, Farah would join the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific campaign, an invasion force of 180,000 men tasked with taking the island of Okinawa.
More than six decades later, in a packed terminal at New York City's LaGuardia Airport, an 86-year-old Farah - white hair, a little over 5'8'' - wears a black leather jacket with "Marines" emblazoned across his shoulder blades. In the crowd around him, dozens of World War II veterans from Long Island jumble together with Port Authority police officers and active military personnel. Also in the crowd is a team of volunteers from the Honor Flight Network, the non-profit group that has arranged to fly him, and 250 other veterans, to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The vets, in their mid-eighties and early nineties, mill about the terminal, some with help from portable oxygen tanks or wheelchairs. Farah on the other hand, won't let the volunteers help with his luggage. (He attributes his good health to fitness training that dates to his Marine days. "Everybody smoked back then," he says. "I'd trade the little 4-pack of cigarettes that came in my K-rations for Coca-Cola.")
At the airport, he wanders the crowd smiling, eventually settling in with a pair of cops to tell stories. He stayed in the Corps as a reservist until 1983, rising to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 (an enlisted man can reach one step higher today, but Farah points out that the CWO5 rank didn't exist when he retired at age 60). In a second, civilian, career, he sold insurance for Met Life.
On this flight, everyone has seen tragedy - overseas and, now at home as well, as the Greatest Generation loses more than 800 World War II veterans every day - but you'd never know it from the octogenarians cracking wise at each other in the cabin. Beneath the vintage pin-up girls taped to the overhead compartments, a shout of "Italians in the back!" becomes the trip's go-to jibe.
And during the many roll calls (Honor Flight also has a vigilant "no man left behind" policy), veterans sound off with the voices of young men, shouting, "Hey!" "Yo!" or "Hoo-rah!"
When the plane lands in Washington, D.C., the men are greeted with flags, balloons, a band and hundreds of well-wishers. It takes 20 minutes to shake all the hands and acknowledge all the soldiers, police, parents and children saying, "Thank you for your service."
Farah, invariably, thanks them for thanking him. "It just always worked really well for me, being a Marine," he says. "In business it did, and in social life it did. In my TV room, I've got one wall for my wife and family and one that's all Marine Corps. But all in one room."
Farah can easily conjure memories of the moments before he landed in his first combat theater.
"They had maps everywhere showing Okinawa and where everyone was going to land," Farah says. "The guys who had been in combat were giving advice to the troops who hadn't. There was anticipation, but no fear. Maybe the guys who had been in combat on Peleliu - which was one of the worst battles First Division had been in - maybe they might have had fear. But for all the guys who'd not been in combat, it was just: 'We're finally going in.'"
The landing itself turned out to be relatively bloodless, as the Japanese had ceded much of the island's territory prior to the arrival of Army and Marine troops. And in the following days, as a scout for battalion intelligence, Farah's small reconnaissance patrols were tasked with avoiding the enemy, rather than engaging.
Still, the carnage that was Okinawa was unavoidable. "The first time I saw the corpses with maggots on them, I threw up," he says. "Eventually, I'd sit right next to them, eating my K-rations. You didn't even think about it. A war was going on. They were shooting at us, we were shooting at them."
Though more than 12,000 Americans were killed fighting for the island, Farah's close-knit squad made it through the entire campaign without losing a man.
Then, after the fighting on Okinawa had "officially" ended, Farah's recon patrol was sent to clear out a cane field for the 5th Marines' command post. Amid the tall grasses, the men couldn't see the two Japanese grenades thrown their way.
A young Pfc, who'd only recently been added to the group, was killed, and two other Marines were badly wounded.
"We'd gone through 90 days of patrolling and observation-post work, and none of us got hit," Farah says. "Then this happens. There were three Japs ready to
throw more grenades. We had Tommy guns, with 50-round magazines, and we emptied them out. We called in a flamethrower tank, burned the whole area down and shot anything that moved."
Two months later, as Farah and the men on Okinawa prepared to invade Japan, the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Okinawa would be Farah's only battle.
A lot of stories are being told on this gray day in Washington, D.C., as reporters and camera crews interview the 250 veterans that Honor Flight has delivered from around the country. It's the largest public recognition of their service that most of these men have ever received. And as much as it is meant to honor them, the ceremony is also for the spectators - a fleeting chance to place these men into memory while they're still able to shake our hands.
As bagpipes start to drone 'America the Beautiful,' the procession of old men inches down the ramp into the WWII Memorial itself. The national anthem is played, and then, Steven Spielberg is at the podium.
"With each passing generation, more and more people are forgetting about World War II," he says. "This is why Tom Hanks and I made 'Band of Brothers' and 'The Pacific,' because all of you are the greatest stories ever told, and we are honored to be able to tell these stories to our kids, to your grandkids, your great-grandkids and the world at large. We celebrate, we commemorate, we memorialize your stories so the world you saved will never, never forget you."
The veterans, a sea of red and blue hats stamped with various services and units, listen to Spielberg, Tom Hanks, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole and others.
Afterward, they're clearly touched, but there aren't many tears. It's strange, they say, to see people trying to put their entire lives in perspective; mostly, it's just nice to be acknowledged.
"I think the recognition factor is there, and that was a long time in coming," says Farah, "But I'm not even looking for that. We came out of it and went into civilian life. We started working and raised families.
"We were ordinary guys except that we had the experience of war - of killing people and getting killed. Your mind being what it is, it suppresses that bad part into the past, and you don't think about it anymore. You think of the good times you had and the camaraderie."
The next morning at Reagan National Airport, veterans from Boston and Long Island prepare for their return trip. Everyone's pretty tired out (even the younger volunteers), and the constant stream of one-liners has thinned a bit.
When Farah gets home, he'll relieve the aides who've been caring for his wife Josie, who was diagnosed with dementia four years ago. He won't be able to tell her about his experience over past the couple days. He couldn't even say goodbye before leaving for fear of confusing and upsetting her, and it can't be easy to hold a story like this back from the woman who accompanied him to countless Marine functions and balls.
Once he's had a chance to relax, he'll set about his last piece of business for this trip, an old habit he's carried from his Marine intelligence days. He'll write up an after-action report detailing his excursion from start to finish. But instead of flowing up the chain of command, this account is for just him and his children.
"I got used to doing that," he says, "because you forget things, in time."
(Photo by Stephen R. Brown)