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World War II Marine recalls Old Glory at Iwo Jima

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Marine Forrest Owens following his enlistment on his 18th birthday on April 26, 1943.
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Recipient oftwo Purple Hearts, World War II veteran Forrest Owens takes a turn two years ago behindhis nephew’steam of logging horses on the Kentucky farm where Forrest grew up.Owens will be 94 on April 26. He’s doing well, drives, and gardens. He worked at the New Castle Chrysler plant formore than 30 years.
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Forrest Owens recalls his service, including at Iwo Jima.

By DONNA CRONK - dcronk@thecouriertimes.com

As one of the 16 million American veterans who returned from World War II, ready to restart their lives with jobs, marriages, families, and find a post-war normalcy, Forrest Owens resumed his life after serving with the U.S. Marines. He became an electrician, married Mary, and started a family.

For 30-and-a-half years, he worked at Chrysler Corp. in New Castle, retiring in 1999. The Kentucky native returned to his home state in 2017, and today, he and daughter Beverly reside together in Grayson where they lead a quiet life.

Inside his storage bin are artifacts from a time that was anything but quiet. Among his honorable discharge and letters of commendation papers are two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Blue Enamel Star, Asiatic Pacific Combat Ribbon with two gold stars, and the American Defense Metal.

Owens’ service included first-wave invasion of the brutal island battle of Iwo Jima, located 660 miles south of Tokyo. He was a part of it for the first nine days, there when one of the most iconic moments in U.S. military history was recorded as the American flag was raised on the island’s highest point.

During this intense five-week battle, 7,000 Marines lost their lives and another 20,000 were wounded. One of the wounded was Owens, who was sent home to recover. 

When Owens, who will be 94 on April 26, was asked what it was like to be at Iwo Jima, the Marine says that he “never thought a lot about it until recently.” He adds that in the last few years he realizes “how happy I was (that) I was there and did this and saw this.”

Excitement over the flag

On day five of the battle, U.S. Marines took the highest point, Mount Suribachi, and raised the American flag. Owens recalls someone saying, “Look at Old Glory on Hot Rock.” He says everyone started yelling and carrying on with happiness over the sight. He didn’t see the Marines place the flag but he said the flag was “just starting to wave” when he spotted it.

The battle continued, and on the ninth day, the Marines were in the process of taking the second highest point. It was then that Owens was wounded when a grenade exploded and hit his mouth, injuring it and taking out two teeth. But instead of being treated and sent back into battle as Owens expected, he was shipped back to the U.S. to heal.

“I was wanting to stay,” Owens recalls. “I was hoping to get through that without (being) wounded.” He also wanted to remain with his buddies, and had been promised a promotion following his effort at Iwo Jima. Yet at the same time, he was happy to survive and go home. 

After all, this was his third war wound. Prior to Iwo Jima, he fought in Guam scouting out Japanese positions. He had been trained for the job by learning how to fight in thick jungles with mud, heavy rain and 100-degree heat. One sergeant told him that his background as a Kentucky country boy would serve him well, adding, “It’s like squirrel hunting, except the squirrels shoot back.”

In Guam, he was wounded in the right shoulder by shrapnel, then when leaving the hospital following treatment, wounded again, that time in the left hip. He recovered at Pearl Harbor, and months later, was sent in with the first wave to Imo Jima. 

Owens said landing on the island was rough because the amphibious tracked landing vehicles carrying soldiers came under immediate fire. The landing vehicle next to his own exploded and men inside it were killed and wounded. 

“Hell on earth, the first day,” Owens describes. That day alone, his outfit lost five of eight officers – including the captain. Of the 220 soldiers, 111 lost their lives.

On that day, he did a lot of praying and imagines that most of the soldiers did likewise. Owens describes his nine days on the island as a time of intense fighting and death.

“I was scared all the time I was there,” says Owens. “All day and all night you expected to get hit. People getting killed all the time. I was happy to make it through.”

But make it he did, and he remembers so much about the period that he could fill a book, not just a news article. 

Taking the island was significant, according to information from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, because securing it meant the island would provide emergency landing space for 2,200 B-29 bombers and save the lives of 24,000 U.S. airmen. It was important in the war effort to fight the largest Pacific battle of World War II – the invasion of Okinawa. 

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz is quoted as saying, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Wanted to be a Marine

Owens volunteered for service on his 18th birthday and joined the Marine Corps. He enlisted because the war was going on. “Everybody was patriotic and all the young men wanted to go.” He wanted to be a Marine due to the heroic strides they were making.  “They were heroes and I wanted to be part of it.”

Following his service, Owens married Mary, and the couple had five children: Allen Owens (wife Teresa) of New Castle; Terry (wife Beverly A.) Owens of Noblesville; Beverly S. Owens of Grayson, Kentucky; the late Darryel Owens, formerly of Houston, Texas; and the late Rickie Owens, previously of Shirley. Both Darryel and Rickie are buried in Knightstown. During Forrest Owens’ years at Chrysler, the family lived in Wilkinson. Mary passed in 1998.

Says Owens, the two-time World War II Purple Heart recipient, “I’m very proud of our veterans today, our service people. I have a great honor for them.”

His daughter Beverly, a former Wilkinson resident, says her dad still drives, needs no home assistance, gardens and until last year, kept bees. He still has three living brothers of five original, and two living sisters of three.

His involvements include membership in the Shirley Masonic Lodge No. 531; Shriner’s Club in Shirley; life member of the New Castle VFW; member of the Scottish Rite in Indianapolis, and member of the Willard, Kentucky American Legion Post 342.

His daughter said he often speaks of the boys from all over the country whom he served with in the service, including those who were lost in battle. She said he would enjoy hearing from old friends who probably have lost track of him. Cards may be sent to Owens at 204 W. 2nd St., Grayson, Kentucky 41143.

“I’m very proud of him and I’m honored that he’s my dad,” says Beverly.