HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Retired Sgt. Maj. William M. Braddock paused to look at the Iwo Jima memorial on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
"I knew one of them, a paratrooper, but I can't think of his name," he said during a visit to the base where Marines are minted.
It was a small moment, but not a casual one.
After all, Braddock was there when they raised the flag on Mount Suribachi.
"That looks like a postage stamp. We can't see it up there," he remembered overhearing when the first flag was raised.
Braddock gestured to the memorial. "So they called to the ship and got a big huge flag," he said. "And that's the one they raised, the one they got a picture of."
Braddock lives in Pensacola, Fla., and visited Parris Island, where he once served as a drill instructor, during a recent trip to see family and attend the Beaufort Water Festival.
"I like dancing with the ladies," he said with a grin.
Braddock also attended a graduation ceremony on Parris Island, where he met and took photos with other Marines.
It was a rare opportunity, since Braddock is one of a diminishing group of men who was serving at Pearl Harbor during the bombing by the Japanese and was in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
"It makes me feel quite proud of my past, even though I don't think about it much until someone starts asking questions," the 27-year Marine veteran said. "And in the past couple of years, there's been a lot of questions."
It was the dress blues that swayed Braddock into the Marines as a 17-year-old country boy in 1940.
Two friends stopped by one day and said they intended to join the Air Force. Two trips to Monroe, La., later and with a permission slip in hand, Braddock couldn't find an Air Force recruiter because the office was closed.
"But coming down a passageway, there was a man in Marine dress blues, and I knew that's what I wanted to be," he said.
Training followed — machine guns, tanks, parachutes — and Dec. 7, 1941, found Braddock in Hawaii, which, he admitted, he'd never heard of before. He was a security guard at the Ford Island facility at Pearl Harbor and preparing to go on duty when the explosions started. He thought some foolish young pilot had accidentally dropped a bomb or crashed a plane.
"We were sitting in the mess hall, batting the breeze, when boom, boom, and our coffee cups started jumping around. ... We ran out the door to see what it was, and there was nothing but smoke. All the ships were burning."
He looked up.
"I can see him now," Braddock said. "Here comes this Jap, flying so close you can almost see the gold in his teeth ... and I saw a torpedo actually drop. I can't swear to it, but I think it hit the (USS) Oklahoma."
Braddock was sent to the seaplane ramp. He remembers having a pistol in his hand and about 10 rounds. He didn't fire his weapon, saying he wanted to save the ammunition in case the Japanese invaded by land.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," he said.
The next day, Braddock and a half-dozen others dug a hole and crawled in with a machine gun, which they manned around the clock for four or five days, in anticipation of another attack.
The war proceeded, and by February 1945, Braddock was on a ship halfway around the world, preparing to attack Iwo Jima. He was a machine gunner with 5th Marine Division, 28th Regiment, 1st Battalion B Company, and in the first wave of the invasion.
"The first wave, it seemed like if you threw a rock out there, you'd have to hit a ship," he said.
When he made it ashore, Braddock and his companions found themselves pinned down on the beach, with only radio contact with the outside. They acted on instincts drilled in by repetitive instruction — nothing was random, everything had been practiced, he said.
The men created a semicircle, with the machine gun in the center, and hunkered down.
In the middle of the night, Braddock heard something snap in the tall grass. He looked down and saw a silver bayonet between him and his gun. A fellow Marine pulled the trigger, shooting the Japanese soldier who had been hiding in the bush.
Details of the following days — many of which he'd forgotten or chose to forget — come back clearer with each telling of his story. Braddock recalled finding a Japanese soldier lying on the side of the road. They killed him. When they rolled him over, they discovered a grenade cradled to his chest.
"If we had walked up and left him and went up on the hill, all he'd had to do was raise up and throw the grenade and could have killed us," Braddock said.
He has other memories.
Sand was so hot it blistered.
Japanese soldiers popped out of "spider web holes" in the ground.
A gunnery sergeant entered a cave and was killed, leaving Braddock as the ranking Marine.
An entire squad of 15 or 16 men was "blown to scraps" by land mines.
"But the good Lord saved me," he said.