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Once a Marine...
Iwo Jima vet feels blessed to be alive on Veterans Day
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Gerald "Bud" Hipps joined the Marines at age 17. The year was 1942.

"When they bombed Pearl Harbor, all my buddies was going into the war and I wanted to go too," Hipps said.

During training at Parris Island, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., Hipps learned to be a BAR-man, excelling in the intricacies of a Browning automatic rifle.

After Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Division shipped out from the California Coast, they made a stop at Pearl Harbor.

"We went to Hawaii, and I saw all them sunken ships at Pearl Harbor that the Japs had bombed," Hipps said. "They [the Marines] knew what they was doing sending us there first."

In Hawaii the division trained for the capture of a tiny, Japanese sulfur island called Iwo Jima. The mission was called Operation Detachment.

Riding on a small landing craft toward the beach of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, Hipps had no idea that he would endure 36 days of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater.

Immediately upon landing, Hipps noticed the beach was littered with his fallen comrades. The Japanese troops were well fortified and heavily armed.

Hipps sought cover in a shell crater and, terrified, he tried to dig deeper into the sand. When he finally looked up, Hipps saw Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, who told him not to be afraid.

"He gave me the courage to go on," Hipps said of Johnson, who was later killed in a shell explosion.

Hipps was hit by shrapnel in his right arm, shoulder and leg. A Navy corpsman stuffed his wounds with sulfur, the only antibiotic available, and bandaged him.

Company E slowly made their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, where Hipps cheered with his fellow soldiers as some raised an American flag. A second flag was raised as a member of the Associated Press photographed and the scene became an iconic image in American history.

"Everybody cheered when that flag went up because we thought that was the end of the war," Hipps said. "But, there was still more fighting to do."

For another 30 days, Hipps and his company engaged in fierce combat.

"There would always be two of us in a foxhole," Hipps said, "and when you slept your buddy would watch out for the enemy and if he came, your buddy would wake you up and you would fight them."

One day Hipps and a fellow Marine were patrolling on the beach and they passed what they thought was a dead Marine covered with a poncho. Hipps discovered that the body was instead a live Japanese sniper when his friend was shot and killed. He was a dozen feet away from another friend when he was shot and killed.

While trying to recover a wounded Marine, Hipps was pinned down by sniper machine gun fire. He had to wait until a Marine with a flame-thrower exterminated the enemy soldier.

Another day, about eight Marines were in a circle with Hipps receiving orders when a gas bomb landed in the middle of them. A few men were killed and Hipps inhaled the gas and his skin was slightly burned by it.

"Every day smoke was in the air and loud bombs were going off," Hipps said. "The noise was terrible."

Each day brought new atrocities for the young solider to behold. He saw a burning Marine pushed out of a cave where Japanese soldiers were hiding, a young Marine with his skull opened wide. He even stepped on a live mine - luckily it didn't detonate.

"One day I looked up after fighting all those days - I looked up to heaven and I said ‘please God let's secure this island and let me go home.'"

An hour later Hipps' company received word that the Army was coming to relieve the Marines.

Of the 240 men of Company E, only 27 returned home.

Hipps was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries at Iwo Jima and honorably discharged in January 1946. In April of that year he married his wife, June. They had three sons. Hipps became a successful carpenter in the Miami, Fla. area. He and June moved to Newton County in 1983.

For many years, Hipps' family knew very little of his experiences in World War II.

"I didn't want nothing from the government," he said. "I didn't want money, I didn't want to talk about the war or watch war movies or anything."

One day a few years ago he saw a truck with a sticker on the back that read, "Iwo Jima Survivor." Hipps decided he wanted one for the back of his vehicle. Since placing those words on his car, he said strangers will come up to him, shake his hand or salute and thank him for his service.

"I tell them all that if it wasn't for guys like me in WWII, the U.S. would still be under a dictatorship today," he said.

He also finds it easier to talk with his family about what happened on that tiny sulfur island. Two of Hipps' three sons are Vietnam veterans and can empathize with their father's continued nightmares and sometimes waking tears.

For his and June's 60th wedding anniversary, his oldest grandson paid for the couple to visit the WWII monument in Washington, D.C.

Hipps said he had no desire to return to Iwo Jima.

Today, he will give a speech to his youngest grandson's elementary school class about his time in the Marines.

"I'm just thankful to be here on Veteran's Day."