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For some, July 4th means more than fireworks

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image Ed Mahoney and his two sons, Pat and Mike, and Pat’s wife Lee, welcome their dad, Ed Mahoney, back from Washington DC June 4.

Have you ever been the only man who survived in your whole unit on an island occupied by the enemy?

Have you ever been the only man who survived in your whole unit on an island occupied by the enemy? Or been hungry enough to offer $200 cash for one pancake — and been turned down? Or been dragged, unconscious, from sure death underwater by someone you didn’t know and never could find?

Ed Mahoney has.

Mahoney’s dad owned a service station when World War II broke out and Ed was working in it. But Jan. 29, 1943, he left for the South Pacific with the 9th Marine regiment of the 3rd Marine Division.

As a journalist, you get to hear a lot of stories.

Since I started writing in South County in 1982 I’ve heard a lot of World War II tales. Twenty years or so ago, I even interviewed the few remaining veterans of WWI.

Once I met a man who had his hand on the gates of Auschwitz when the troops first went in. What he saw prompted him to give all his rations to the first people he met inside. Another was a medic on Normandy Beach, who had to decide who lived and who died because there wasn’t enough medicine ­— or time — to save them all.

Just a few months ago I wrote the Pearl Harbor story from both the view of military survivors and some who witnessed the event as children living on the Island. Peaceful, quiet Hawaii; kids going to college, simply waiting for an opposing team to come in so they could play football, and then suddenly their whole world blew up.

But last week’s interview with Ed Mahoney from Sun City Center was especially  spectacular. The interview was initiated by an email from his daughter-in-law Lee who also lives in that community. “I think you would find my father-in-law interesting,” Lee said. “He was one of 80 West Central Florida former military personnel who took the Honor Flight to Washington DC in June to see all the war memorials.”

I’d heard of the Honor Flight and thought that might make a nice story for Independence Day.

Yeah ­­— right. A nice little “feel good” story for our readers on July Fourth.

Well, I had no idea the kind of story Mr. Mahoney was about to tell.

As it turns out, Mahoney is one man we can thank for our ability to still say we’re Americans today. Even those of us who are tired of the way the two-party system seems to be stalemated and the 99-percent who say we need real change can thank Mr. Mahoney and others like him because if it wasn’t for their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have the right to even speak of those things.

Yes, Ed Mahoney had an amazing story to tell and no matter how I tell it, it won’t be as fascinating as it was hearing it from the lips of the man who lived it more than 60 years ago. The man who moved to Sun City Center with his second wife, Dessie, in 1999, and is now surrounded by a sister and son and daughter-in-law who live near him.

Mahoney grew up in Missouri and first moved to Florida in 1958. But that was long after his experience as a Corporal in the U.S Marines between 1943 and 1945.

Those are only two years out of a long life, you might say. But in those two years, Mahoney saw more action than most people see in a 100-year lifetime.

He has letters of “Thanks” from students all over the country and from Senators and even the Governor’s Office. They came in the form of “Mail Call” while on the Honor Flight to DC earlier this summer. Just looking at them brought tears to his eyes — and to the eyes of everyone in the room when he told his story. 

One thing I noticed right away about Mahoney: he remembers names and dates like they happened two hours ago. The war is embedded in his memory like fish caught in a net.

Perhaps it would be easier on him if it wasn’t — but it is, and so his story is filled with exact names and dates.

After spending three months in New Zealand and finally setting out for the South Pacific, on his 19th birthday, Aug. 14, 1943, he had his first experience with death.

“Our planes would come in and the enemy would slide in behind them under the radar. A shell hit the ship I was supposed to be on. But I hadn’t made it there yet.”

The reason was that he was on a tug-type boat that hauled supplies back-and-forth to larger boats.

Then in November he was on a ship that landed on several of the Solomon Islands, beginning in Bougainville, which was a large, high island held by the enemy at the time.

The Marines went into the mountain range held by the enemy perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 troops, he said.

“We went in about 12 miles, up in the mountains to set up a base. Then we were relieved by the Army and set out to Guadalcanal.

They did landing exercises and were supposed to hit Caveat New Orleans, another South Pacific Island — not found on the Internet now — but while they were waiting to go there they were called out of the southwest Pacific to the central Pacific to Guam and the surrounding islands.

“We were out at sea so long we ran out of rations and had to go back to Guam, where we made a sweep of the island, and then had to go back through it again because when we shelled the caves, there were enemy inside and we had to go back to be sure they weren’t still there,” he said.

They weren’t sure what all the new training was about, but after picking up some supplies — they found out when they got to Iwo Jima.

“That was Feb. 19, and the Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions made their landings and it was five days before we could go ashore,” he said. “They had to clear the beaches before we could get in.

“The 21st of the 5th Marines went left, the 4th went right, and we finally got to go in right through the center.” They stayed in Iwo Jima until April 7, 1945, he said, and from there went back to Guam and finally to the States.

“I was discharged in Melbourne, Florida,” he said. “At the Naval Air Station.”

During the war, he was a rifleman, gunner and drove tanks. But his life was miraculously saved several times.

“When we landed at Guam, I was in the third wave, and it was my job to lie down on the front of the boat and stare down into the water for mines. We were on a Jeep (not like we know a Jeep but an amphibious landing craft with tracks). We called it a duck. When a shell hit the craft, I was thrown off into the water because I was lying down. Everyone else was killed. Someone from one of the prior landings I guess, I’ll never know who, grabbed me by the collar and pulled me out. I was unconscious. I saw my buddy lying against a coconut palm. He was alone and he was covered with blood. I tended to him as well as I could when I became conscious. Then, about 10 feet away there was another buddy of mine who was full of shrapnel. I took out what I could with a stiletto I carried with me. I had to pick it out of his back.”

“No one from my unit was there. I was alone, trying to find someone. I knew there was a Navy base somewhere on the island, and I found a small road and started to follow it.”

Two people in military uniforms saw him and waved and were trying to get to him when he saw them shelled and killed. Then he saw some more Americans. They were headed into a hole.

“They were getting in. I was running toward them when a shell went inside the hole and every one of them was killed.”

By this point in the story Mahoney was crying.

I kept asking, “Would you like to stop?”

He said ‘No. People need to remember.”

At one point someone in charge said they needed three volunteers to go out and get three men who were trapped in a hole under enemy fire.

Mahoney volunteered.

“We got them out, and that night a Colonel came over to me and said ‘Good job.’ It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me since the whole thing started.”

Finally he was able to find a place near some other Americans where he could dig a hole to try and sleep through the shelling. As it turned out, it was right next to the Chaplain.

“I was sure glad of that!” he said, now smiling.

When he was thrown off the boat, he’d lost all his supplies, weapons, water, food, clothes. Everything but the stiletto knife and some wet cash he’d had in his pocket.

He had had nothing to eat now for days except what he could scrounge from the Earth and the packs of those — on both sides — who had not made it through the shelling alive.

“After five days I found a mess tent in the field where someone was cooking breakfast. The man handing out the food gave one pancake to each man. That and some water was all they could get because they were about out of food. He said I could eat if there was anything left after all his men ate. I got one pancake. I had two hundred dollars in cash in my pocket and I held it up. I’d have bought anybody’s pancake for $200.”

This memory seemed to hurt a lot to recall, yet he continued.

“Does anyone know what it’s like to be hungry enough to offer $200 for one pancake?”

It was all the money he had but there were no takers in the mess tent.

Everyone was out of food, and it was all they had.

“Then one man in line reached for somebody else’s pancake across Mahoney’s shoulder. “He was going to take it.”

But the pancake landed on the floor and Mahoney stepped on it with his muddy boot, by accident, of course, in the scuffle going on around him. “The man (who grabbed for it) picked it up, all dirty and broken and ran away eating it,” he said.

He continued to recall things he wanted people to know about the realities of war. 

“When I was finally back on a ship and reunited with some Marines, an enemy plane was getting ready to bomb it. The ship was full of men going back to the States.”

“There was an empty ship near us when the enemy planes were sighted overhead. They were going to bomb us,” Mahoney said. “Whoever was running that ship pulled up alongside, and took the hit. He sacrificed his life for us (on the full ship).”

And so the men on Mahoney’s ship made it home thanks to the unknown Captain and the few he had on board as crew.

That was obviously not all of Ed Mahoney’s story. His, and other’s like his, could fill whole books. I only hit the highlights of the two-and-a-half hour interview. But I’m sure you get the idea.

*Thank you for your service, Marine Cpl. Ed Mahoney. Thank you – and everyone else who has been in the military service of this country — for making Independence Day possible for all of us. May none of us ever forget what you have done.

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