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Pa. teen is 1 of 6 Young Marines to escort WWII vets to Iwo Jima

By STEPHEN HUBA | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 15, 2017

A Marine sighting at a funeral nine years ago put Jordan James on a path that will lead to one of the most hallowed battlefields of World War II.

James, 17, of Jeannette met the Marine at his maternal grandfather's funeral and was struck by the young man's impressive blue dress uniform.

“I was really intrigued,” said James, who was 8 at the time.

The Marine told him about the Young Marines, a national youth organization. James joined about a year later. Now a senior leader in the Westmoreland County Young Marines, he departs Sunday for the Pacific island of Guam after recently being named Young Marine of the Year, Division 1.

The Penn-Trafford High School junior will help escort a group of World War II veterans to the island of Iwo Jima, scene of one of the fiercest battles and most famous photos of the Pacific theater.

On March 25, as part of the annual Reunion of Honor, James will stand on the summit of Mount Suribachi, where Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of six Marines raising the American flag, and walk the beaches immortalized in the John Wayne movie “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

“I'm pretty into history, so it's kind of surreal that I'm going to that same island,” he said. “I've read all about it and the struggles involved in taking it.”

The seven-day trip to Guam and Iwo Jima is in recognition of James being named one of six division winners of the Young Marine of the Year award. He advanced through four levels to achieve the divisional honor and is now a candidate for National Young Marine of the Year. James hopes to enter the Marine Corps after graduating high school in 2018.

“This is the first time we've had somebody go beyond the unit level,” said 1st Sgt. Ron Maxson, unit commander of the Westmoreland County Young Marines and a retired Marine.

Maxson, 75, of Greensburg said he nominated James for the hard work he has done in the Young Marines since 2009.

“I look for somebody who's active in the unit,” he said. “I look for somebody who's motivated, dedicated, who puts their heart into it, who gives 110 percent.”

Maxson said he appreciated the leadership James has shown as he has gotten older.

“There's a lot of kids his age that don't want to be bothered with the younger kids,” he said. “Our senior Young Marines work very well with the younger kids.”

Similar in some respects to the Boy Scouts of America, the Young Marines program welcomes boys and girls ages 8 through the completion of high school and teaches qualities such as leadership, teamwork, self-discipline and self-reliance. Westmoreland County members meet Thursday evenings at the Army Reserve Center in Greensburg, where they perform drills, do group exercises and attend classes.

Members wear Marine-style fatigues and regularly go on weekend outings in the Laurel Highlands.

The Westmoreland County unit recently participated in a mock disaster drill at the Jennerstown Community Sportsmen Association, where they “rescued” four victims of a simulated helicopter crash. Participants received a series of grid coordinates that they had to decode and use to find the crash victims. They then traveled to the crash site, conducted triage and transported the victims to safety.

James said the drill was an opportunity to work on decoding, land navigation and first aid skills.

“I kind of teach them what to do or, after the fact, what they could have done better,” he said.

A veteran of such drills, James helped supervise and evaluate the March 4 exercise, including the performance of 1st Sgt. Adam Hoffman. “It was hard for me because I couldn't tell him what he was doing wrong. I was just overseeing him. The thing is, I could have made the same mistakes,” James said.

Although he praised the overall effort at the unit's March 9 meeting, James said there was room for improvement in triage, navigation and delegation of duties. Drill participants also should not have used main roads to get to the crash site because they were in “enemy” territory, he said.

James said being in the Young Marines has boosted his confidence and taught him leadership skills that he hopes to use on his trip. He and the five other division winners will join the Iwo Jima Association of America for the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, which lasted from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945.

The division winners are scheduled to leave Los Angeles on Monday and arrive in Guam on Tuesday — they lose a day after crossing the international date line — to participate in the Reunion of Honor. American and Japanese veterans make the trip annually to remember fallen comrades and recall the battles for both islands.

Japanese forces attacked the American territory of Guam the same day they attacked Pearl Harbor (Dec. 8, 1941, west of the international date line), taking control two days later. American forces recaptured the strategic island in August 1944.

Iwo Jima, a tiny island in the Volcano Islands archipelago, factored into the Americans' plans to invade the Japanese mainland later in 1945. Casualties were high on both sides, earning the island a place in history disproportionate to its size. The six Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi four days into the fierce battle.

“The flag-raising of Iwo Jima is a Marine icon. It's the second-most reproduced picture in the world,” said Maxson, who served in the Marines from 1958 to 1979. “It's a place where Marines want to go when they can, and it's very dear in our history.”

Iwo Jima was returned to Japan in 1968 and is uninhabited for most of the year, except when veterans return on battle anniversaries. James said he is most looking forward to meeting and talking with the older veterans.

“I like to hear their stories,” he said.

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©2017 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
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