On Monday afternoon, the Marines’ white-gloved hands firmly held the hem of our nation’s flag. The fabric made a canopy for Otto Wehmeyer, who was 95.
His father was a World War I vet who told Otto not to get his teen wife pregnant before he shipped out in 1942. Otto had a 50-50 chance. She would still have a life to live.
Twice he earned the Purple Heart, the last time on Iwo when mines crippled his tank and anti-tank fire and snipers killed those near him. His hands were shattered and burned by an explosion, sending him home to Ruthie.
They had 64 years together before Ruthie passed in 2006. They had two children, six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and another is on the way. He got to see an image of the ninth.
In 2008, he was among the World War II vets who told their stories as part of the “Our War” series. He said time faded the significance of surviving a Zero crashing into his ship, a Japanese machine gunner, a pole charge placed against his tank, the mines and anti-tank fire on Iwo. He saw his legacy as helping liberate the indigenous Chamorro people on Guam.
“Freeing the Chamorro people was the highlight of my life. The Japs were horrible to them, raping the young girls and women. Resistance was death. They’d cut off their heads.”
After Wehmeyer’s story ran, he found out there was a group of Chamorro families in the St. Louis area. His deeds 64 years earlier were honored by these children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those liberated by the Marines. They came to his house in Belleville and threw him a party.
“When you are as old as I am and have so much time, you ask yourself, ‘Have I made a difference? Have I helped the world to change and made it better?’ I can answer, ‘Yes, I have.’
“I helped free the Chamorro people. I helped get Guam back as a U.S. territory. I helped fight the Battle of Iwo Jima.”
Today marks 75 years since the date that will live in infamy, the date that set young Otto’s life on a very dangerous course.
On Monday Otto Wehmeyer’s service was again honored. Rifles cracked. “Taps” sounded.
The young Marine handed Otto’s son the tri-folded flag.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Marine Corps and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Lest we forget.