By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
I’d seen Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of U.S. Marines raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima before. I’d learned about the Pacific Theater of World War II in school, along with the European Theater. I’d also seen the grainy black and white footage of the war, seemingly narrated by a single ubiquitous male voice that can only described as quintessentially mid-century American. The school lessons made the war a real, but not quite tangible, piece of history.
That changed, though, when I met Glen Cleckler a few years ago.
I never learned about Cleckler in school, though I should have. He’s one of the Valley’s native sons — a Weslaco native — who ultimately brought that distant history lesson home for me.
I first met him at the foot of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Harlingen — a sculpture that was based off Joe Rosenthal’s photo. I was there to take Cleckler’s photo for a story that was one in a series of Memorial Day stories. We introduced ourselves the way most Valley natives do, even strangers: with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and the easy small talk of familiar acquaintances.
He’s a kind man who makes you feel like family. Indeed, by the end of our meeting, he declared that I was his family. To this day, that’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received. See, Cleckler was at Iwo Jima — that nearly impossible to conquer pile of sand deep in the Pacific — and so was one of his best friends, Harlon Block.
Cleckler and Block were on the Panther football team together. They were seniors and kings of the world: popular, smart, athletic, young and immortal. The pair, and their friends, ditched school one afternoon to try to catch a movie. They ended up visiting a military recruiter in an attempt to escape consequences from the high school principal.
The group signed up to be marines and soon traded their purple letter jackets for battle dress uniforms. Cleckler and Block received different assignments and were separated, but ran into each other in Hawaii when their ships made brief stops at port before being deployed. In a moment of prescience, Block took off his Marine Corps ring — a gleaming chunk of gold larger than my knuckles — and gave it to Cleckler. Confused, Cleckler asked why. Both men were scheduled to set sail to Iwo Jima in the following days. Block told Cleckler he had a feeling he wasn’t “coming back from this one” and asked that Cleckler hang onto the ring and give it to his mother. Cleckler scoffed and pushed the ring towards Block, who refused to take it back.
Sometime later, that moment was forgotten as both men struggled in the fight on the pockmarked island. When U.S. forces finally took control, establishing command at the island’s highest point of elevation, Mount Suribachi, the marines were elated. In celebration, a small group gathered to raise an American flag. It was at that moment that Rosenthal snapped his infamous photo. And there, helping to raise the flag, was Harlon Block.
One week later, Block was killed by a mortar blast.
After the war, Cleckler visited Block’s mother in an attempt to fulfill his best friend’s request. Mrs. Block, who held a faith-based opposition to combat, refused to accept the ring. After meeting with Block’s mother Cleckler put the ring on his own finger and didn’t take it off until 66 years later, when he donated it to the MMA Museum in 2011.
It was at this point in the retelling when Cleckler’s expression grew shadowed, his words a little slower. I looked up and saw six decades of grief and guilt written across the lines of his face. He admitted the ring was a heavy burden.
It was several long moments afterwards before I could process the story, the history, Cleckler had shared with me. Suddenly, Memorial Day was weightier, graver, more real.
It was just a single conversation on a sunny spring afternoon, but it’s left a lasting impact. I never told Mr. Cleckler this, but I’m thankful to him for his service, and for the real history lesson.
Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in a May 2015 edition of the PRESS and PARADE. It has been updated for this reprinting.
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