For most people, history is something they read about in a book.
Douglas Faulconer was an eyewitness to history.
In the winter of 1945, Faulconer was a young Navy lieutenant serving as executive officer of LCI 631, a landing craft designed to deliver troops to a beachhead.
For the invasion of Iwo Jima, Faulconer’s ship was converted to a floating gun platform, equipped with mortars to provide fire support for the Marines attempting to wrest the heavily fortified island from the Japanese.
From there, he had a front-row seat for one of the most iconic moments of World War II: the raising of the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi by five Marines and one Navy corpsman on Feb. 23, 1945.
“The morning the flag was raised, the communication officer and I were on deck, and we saw it go up,” Faulconer recalled, sitting in the den of his Corvallis home. “We were probably 100 to 150 yards offshore, right at the foot of the mountain.”
Faulconer is an old man now, but even with the battle’s 66th anniversary fast approaching, his recollections of Iwo Jima are undimmed by the passage of years.
“The Marines thought they were going to capture that mountain the first day and that they would capture the whole island in a week,” he remembered. “The defenses were so tough it took five days before they could capture Suribachi.”
It would be another month before the rest of the island fell to the Americans.
Covering just 8 square miles, Iwo Jima is little more than a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. But the Japanese considered it part of their Home Islands, and they fought ferociously to defend it.
The battle raged from Feb. 19 to March 26, claiming 6,822 American lives and leaving another 19,000 wounded. The Japanese, holed up in bunkers, tunnels and caves, fought virtually to the last man. Some 18,000 Imperial soldiers died in battle or committed ritual suicide. Only 216 were taken prisoner.
“I developed a lot of respect for the Japanese gunners on the island,” Faulconer said. “They would drive us off the beach, we’d come back; they would drive us off the beach, we’d come back — they were very accurate with their guns.”
The U.S. fleet also came under fire from the island, including Faulconer’s ship, as the enemy gunners zeroed in on their muzzle flashes.
“They sank a couple of our ships offshore,” he said. “We took some near-misses, but we survived.”
After five days of fighting, the Marines managed to cut off Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island, and a detachment was sent to hoist the Stars and Stripes from its 545-foot summit. It was the first time in the war that the U.S. flag flew on Japanese soil.
That flag was claimed as a souvenir by Navy Secretary James Forrestal, who had just landed on the beach. But a second, larger flag was quickly run up in its place, and the moment was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.
Back home in the States, Rosenthal’s photo quickly became one of the war’s most enduring and compelling images, capturing the spirit of American heroism and lifting the hopes of a war-weary nation.
From the deck of his landing craft just off the beach, Faulconer saw that second flag go up. Somehow, he knew in that instant that he was seeing history in the making.
“It was a very emotional moment for me,” Faulconer said. “I had a sense that was probably going to be a momentous occasion in the history of the Marines, and it was.”
A few days later, Faulconer’s ship was pulled off fire support detail at Iwo Jima and sent to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa, the last major land battle of the Pacific campaign. Then came August, and the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and the emperor’s capitulation.
After the surrender of Japan, Faulconer spent another year on active duty in the Pacific, running up and down the Chinese coast, ferrying Chiang Kai-shek’s army to Formosa and training his navy to sail a U.S. troop ship — his LCI 631, which was decommissioned and turned over to the Nationalist Chinese.
Then it was back to the States and civilian life — marriage, family, a career in accounting.
But the memory of Iwo Jima stayed with him. Even now, he remembers every detail of that morning — the angle of the sun on his face, the feel of the breeze, the continuous roar of cannon fire echoing off the hills.
Most of all, he remembers the way he felt when he saw his country’s flag being raised in the midst of battle.
“Not a day goes by after all these years that I don’t think about that,” he said. “That picture flashes across my mind.”
Faulconer makes no special claim for his own role in the fight for Iwo Jima, despite its enduring hold on his soul. Like a lot of other men, he did his part in the war. And like a lot of other men, he has keepsakes that remind him of his service.
On a cabinet in his den stands a commemorative plate depicting the Iwo Jima flag raising, and on the wall above it hangs a framed sheet of 3-cent stamps bearing Rosenthal’s unforgettable image of that patriotic moment.
On the opposite wall, though, hangs another framed keepsake. This one holds photographs of Faulconer and his three brothers, all of them in uniform.
All four of them served their country in World War II.
All four of them made it back alive.
“Don’t embellish me as some kind of hero,” Faulconer said. “If there were any heroes there, they’re the poor fellas who never came home. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Got an idea for a “Story Next Door” profile? E-mail your suggestions to email@example.com, with “Story Next Door” in the subject line.