Several active-duty and retired Marines, and even Vietnam veterans were among the many service members who paid their respects to a Southwest Georgia World War II veteran, July 2. 95-year-old Sgt. John Eldridge Belk passed away on June 28, and was recently laid to rest at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church.
It was steamy, hot summer day in Albany, Georgia but it didn’t stop dozens of Marines, decked in their distinctive dress blue uniforms, from presenting military honors to a legendary WWII vet. From young to old, standing at attention during the funeral detail were Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany’s Commanding Officer Col. Alphonso Trimble, Marine Corps Logistics Command Commanding General Maj. Gen. Joseph Shrader, several active-duty Marines and veterans with the local Marine Corps League.
Belk’s Marine buddy and Senior Vice Commandant for Marine Corps League, Charles Nicholson, said the support from his fellow Marines was second to none.
“I was amazed … (it) just goes to show the thoughts that we have for these World War II veterans especially the guys that were in Saipan, Tinian … Guadalcanal and all the places that made the Marine Corps history,” Nicholson explained.
The two had a friendship that was built over many years. Nicholson said Belk was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.
“He was on Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, anybody that survived that deserves all the honors he can get, and he was (apart of) one of the greatest generations,” Nicholson added.
At the tender age of 17, Belk enlisted on July 3, 1942. After four years on active duty, Belk served in the reserves until 1950.
His granddaughter, Melissa Goodin, remembered stories Belk shared about fighting in some of the worst battles in the war. Part of the 4th Division’s 20th Marines during the Pacific campaign, Belk mobilized from island to island – Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands to Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands and on to Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands.
“The main thing he would say is that ‘there’s no atheist in war. Every man in a foxhole is praying to God.’ And he would tell us, ‘you don’t know a bad day until you walked on bodies of your friends to reach the shore,’” Goodin explained.
Over the years, Goodin watched her grandfather write down all of the gruesome details of some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific campaign in a journal.
Goodin said out of all the memories he held dear, he never forgot the iconic flag raising in Iwo Jima – a historic moment he witnessed with his own eyes.
“When they had secured the beaches of Iwo Jima, (he said) … we wish we had a flag and one of the guys behind him said he had a flag in his bag and pulled the flag out, and of course it’s a very small flag (that was used in the first flag raising) … and he stood there and watched the film crew as they re-staged the (second) raising of the flag,” Goodin explained.
To her surprise, 74 years later, Belk was still able to identify some of the Marines in the first flag raising.
In April 2010, Belk participated in the Honor Flight – where a non-profit group flies WWII vets to the nation’s capital to visit the memorial of the sculpted second flag raising of the six Marines atop Mount Suribachi.
“That was the one thing he was excited about the flight because he’s scared to fly, but being able to see that monument in person was a different story for him,” Goodin recalled.
Goodin said Belk looked at the statue that laid on his mantel daily.
Nicholson believes it’s difficult for this generation to understand the sacrifices made by vets like Belk.
“Combat is about 95 percent boredom and five percent just holy terror because 95 percent of the time, unless you’re in some place like Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, it’s routine until the bullets start flying” Nicholson said.
It’s a terror he’ll never forget during his tour in Vietnam.
“I had guys killed within 10 to 15 feet of me and never got a scratch on me. I lost my hearing, got sprayed with agent orange (a toxic herbicide used by U.S. military forces as part of its warfare program during Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops),” recounted Nicholson.
But he was still amazed that Belk, like himself, lived to tell such horror stories.
“I asked him one time if he got a purple heart and he said that ‘no but I cut my thumb … in Iwo Jima.’ But had guys killed within five feet of him on either of side and never got a scratch on him … that’s amazing,” Nicholson remarked.
Goodin believes Marine buddies like Nicholson nourished Belk’s fighting spirit.
In fact, he went with his buddies to breakfast twice a week up until he was hospitalized.
“The Marines stayed by his side all the way to the end, they surrounded him with so much love … they said, ‘leave no man behind’ and they definitely lived that motto,” Goodin added.
It was no surprise to the family, Marines from all over Southwest Georgia attended his funeral.
“He was a good Marine, a good family man, loved his country, (and) loved the Marine Corps,” Nicholson said.
“I thought Reverend Nick Roosevelt’s comments (during the funeral service) were spot on. His quote of Admiral (Chester) Nimitz – (who played a major role in the naval history of World War II as Commander in Chief) on the uncommon valor was a common virtue during WWII, and that’s the way Mr. Belk lived his life all the way to the end. Through community service and until his last breath, he was still a Marine fighting to the end. And that’s still inspiring today – not only to me – but to the young Marines who come after (us),” Trimble explained.
Goodin said the family was honored to have so many Marines present at his home going.
“We knew his retired friends were going to be there and we knew that we would have the few that would present the flag, but to have that many active-duty Marines come out was a very humbling experience,” Goodin remarked.