LAWRENCEVILLE - Robert Whitmer watched as five United States Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raised a flag at the top of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, an event photographed by James Rosenthal that is one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war.
"Little did I know I was looking at history taking place right before me," said Whitmer, who was in the Navy at the time aboard the USS Nevada, serving as a sky lookout to distinguish enemy planes from American planes, giving him a view of the events taking place.
"If you've ever experienced joy, that's exactly the way I felt," Whitmer said.
The 82-year-old's eyes began to glisten with unshed tears as he remembered that event and his time spent serving his country. He was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy, and was just two months past his 18th birthday when he boarded the U.S.S. Nevada bound for the Pacific. Whitmer, who lives in Snellville, still has a photograph of himself as a young, newly enlisted seaman, and his dress uniform still bears three stars that signify his three battle engagements on Iwo Jima.
During one of those engagements, Whitmer was on the bridge of the Nevada when he looked into the sky and saw a Japanese suicide plane diving at the ship. He covered his eyes with his arms and when he looked up again, he saw that one of the plane's wings had been shot off. The plane went down and hit the left side of the ship's deck, killing some of the crew members on board. When the plane hit a catapult on the rear of the ship, a bomb attached to its fuselage exploded, killing two more men.
"That's something I'll never forget," Whitmer said. "I'm glad I'm still alive to tell about my experiences."
Whitmer and his wife, Dorothy, have five children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
On the homefront
Ellis Joel Daniel was drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1943, a little more than a year after the U.S. declared war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the age of 35. Daniel spent the next three-and-a-half years in active duty, followed by 20 years as a reservist.
"I felt like this was just as much my country as anyone else's, and it was my duty to go," said the Snellville resident, who celebrated his 101st birthday Nov. 4. "I knew the Lord had a job for me to do."
Before entering military service, Daniel had never even fired a gun, but while in basic training, he excelled at marksmanship. Following his initial training, Daniel was sent to Ft. Mead in Maryland, where he was charged with the task of preparing and equipping soldiers to be sent overseas within 24 hours as requested to replace troops that had been wounded or killed.
While stationed at Ft. Mead, Daniel said he could have been called at any time to lead a group of soldiers where they were needed, even if that meant leading them in or near combat areas.
"When I left home in the morning, I didn't know if I would come home at the end of the day," Daniel said. "I did not know from one day to the next whether I would be in combat. I knew the life expectancy of a lieutenant in combat was 30 minutes."
Daniel retired from the armed services in 1967 and now lives with his daughter, Diane Birt, in Snellville. Daniel and his late wife, Virginia Howard Daniel, had two children, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.