Vet’s dream trip comes true

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Jack Sherwood (left) greets a fellow Iwo Jima veteran at the Marine Corps Museum. Although they

Patriotism went hand in hand with friendship for five North Fork men who made an Iwo Jima Marine veteran’s dream come true — a visit the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va., and the Iwo Jima statue at Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking Washington, D.C.

As meaningful as the trip was for 90-year-old Jack Sherwood of Greenport, it was just as moving for his five compatriots: the Rev. Tom LaMothe of Greenport’s First Baptist Church and friends Wayne Baylis and Bill Van Eyck of Greenport and Tom Hashagen and Gene Shepherd of Shelter Island.

The men read a Suffolk Times story in March in which Mr. Sherwood expressed his regret at never having visited either site.

Each decided individually that they were going to take Mr. Sherwood to Washington and Virginia, then shared their plans at a church meeting and decided to arrange a group trip, leaving the North Fork June 29 and returning July 1. Greenport Fire Department’s Star Hose Company, which Mr. Sherwood served for 50 years, contributed a check to pay for the trip.

“My first thought was I don’t want to go because it was just too much,” Mr. Sherwood admitted. “It turned out twice as good as I thought it would be. I don’t know what I expected, but it was way more,” he said during an interview at his home last Friday.

“It reminded me that there weren’t many of us left,” Mr. Sherwood said, a touch of sadness in his voice. At the museum, he ran into another Iwo Jima veteran and the two learned that they had served in the same division, although they hadn’t known one another then.

“He was like a kid in a candy shop,” Mr. Van Eyck said of Mr. Sherwood.

Thanks to Mr. Hashagen’s prior arrangements with Marine Corps officials, it was first-class treatment all the way. Mr. Sherwood’s wife is at San Simeon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and was too weak to make the trip, but his son, two daughters, daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and two grandsons from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida were all on hand to share the experience.

The men packed Mr. Shepherd’s 2007 Chevrolet Suburban with Mr. Sherwood’s wheelchair and their gear and posted signs on the van: “Operation Bucket List — New York to Quantico.” The reference was to the 2007 Rob Reiner film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman about two sick men determined to realize as many of their dreams as possible in the time they had left.

“We all wanted to go and see it through Jack’s eyes,” Mr. Van Eyck said about making the trip.

Mr, Van Eyck, whose business is manufacturing signs for school buses, had come close to missing the experience because of a business trip to Washington State. But a “red eye” flight got him back just in time to meet the others.

The first night, the group had VIP seats at the Sunset Parade and ceremony, a regular Tuesday night event at the Iwo Jima statue. The one-hour program features the United State Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and precision drill by the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon. The tradition goes back to November 1954, the 179th birthday of the Marine Corps, when the statue was unveiled.

“It made me cry,” Mr. Sherwood said.

“I don’t know that we pay enough tribute to people who serve and so often they’re not recognized until they die,” Mr. Hashagen said. “We thought, give some honor while he’s alive. It turned out to be so much bigger and unique to look at everything through Jack’s eyes,” he said.

“I felt a familial kind of pride,” Mr. Hashagen said. At 52, he was eligible to be drafted when he was younger, but never got called, he said.

“This is service for my country,” he said of being part of the group that organized the trip for Mr. Sherwood.

“The Marines were so nice to us,” said Mr. Baylis, who served in the Navy. “These people are trained to protect our country, but they’re ladies and gentlemen as well.”

The night of the parade, the men had parked their van in the lot at Arlington Cemetery and were bused to the Iwo Jima statue, outside the park gates. But when the parade ended, the bus that was to have shuttled them back to the parking lot failed to show up, Mr. Shepherd said. By the time they got back to the van, it was after 11 p.m. and they had to ride over a curb to exit the lot because the officers on duty had no key to the gate locks, he said. If it was aggravating at the time, it became another colorful story of the trip that all will long remember, he said.

The museum at Quantico the following day was “a real lesson in history,” Mr. Baylis said, adding that every high school student should experience such a trip.

On the ride back, the men went through Manhattan after Mr. Sherwood told them he hadn’t seen the city since he had returned from the war in the 1940s.

“We did more than I ever expected,” Mr. Shepherd said about the three-day trip. And while the others admitted fatigue, Mr. Sherwood took in everything and appeared to have more energy than his younger traveling companions, Pastor LaMothe said.

Sadly, after his return, Mr. Sherwood discovered that a growth on his head was malignant and he will have to undergo radiation treatments and surgery, he said.

“It was just a blessing for every one of us to be part of the trip” and for the timing that enabled it to take place prior to the diagnosis, Pastor LaMothe said.

“Pretty much everybody was happy I was able to go,” Mr. Sherwood said.

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