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Book connects Marine with Corps’ history

By Nathan L. Hanks Jr. | | May 26, 2011

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After traveling thousands of miles from the soil of the United States to the blackened sands of Iwo Jima, Japan, and surviving some of the fiercest fighting of World War II’s Pacific Campaign, one book found its way to an antique book sale in Gainesville, Ga., nearly 45 years later.

The book, “Snow Goose” by Paul Gallico, can trace its history back to the most significant battle in the Marine Corps, the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Becky Conners, sister of Lt. Col. Don Finn, former executive officer, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, purchased the half-pound, 60-page book and gave it to her brother after he returned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Kuwait in February 1991, as a token of her appreciation for his sacrifice while serving overseas.

It was not the content of the thin, worn book that got her attention, but what was inscribed on the yellowed pages inside.

“As I thumbed through the book, I noticed it had several signatures in the front and in the back of the book,” she said. “I had no idea who the people were, but knew they were in some type of military organization. I thought it would make a great gift.”

Showing its age and bearing signs of its long-distance travels, the book has 27 inscriptions on its brittle pages in multicolored ink that have faded over time.

Missing its original paperback cover, the book gave no indication what service or what conflict the servicemen were in. However, after further examination, Finn discovered some wrote their service numbers, ranks, units and hometowns.

Finn tucked the book away for safe keeping and in September 1992, while stationed at Twentynine Palms, Calif., he began to research the origin of the book and the names listed in it.

“This was before Google and the Internet,” he said. “I had to use the phone book and look up the names and their hometowns. I looked up the area code, called information and the operator gave me a list of phone numbers. I called each one, hoping to track down the name listed in the book, a family member or close relative.”

Finn kept track of the contacts he made on pieces of paper, which he still keeps inside the front of the book. Eventually, he made contact with Louise Thomas, niece of Pvt. Robert M. Coppenbarger from Baxter Springs, Kansas.

“She told me she knew he was in the Marines and he had fought on Guadalcanal. That’s all she knew,” he said. “The book was published in 1944 and the Battle of Guadalcanal was in 1942, so I knew the signatures were from later in the war.”

On more than one occasion, Finn talked to relatives, who concurred their family members were Marines, but did not know which battles they had fought in.

He finally spoke to Jack Hayland’s son, Bill.

“His son was able to tell me that his father, now deceased, was in the Marines in World War II and that he fought and was injured during the Battle of Iwo Jima,” Finn said. “He was an infantryman with Golf Company, 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division.”

Continuing down the list of names, Finn came across an inscription in the book, which made him realize the Marines were writing to Jade “Short Stuff” Ladd, a Jewish Marine, who was leaving the island.

One notable inscription was from Hank Hiner, nicknamed the “Big Dutchman.” He wrote, “Believe it or not, from a German to a Jew, the best of everything. That’s what the hell we are fighting for.”

Another Marine, Monroe Willie Higgs nicknamed ‘Kangaroo-Texas-Jack Rabbit’ from San Marcos, Texas, wrote in Spanish, “good luck to a good man.”

Finn said Higgs was the only signer of the book he actually talked to. The others were deceased.  Higgs served as an infantryman with 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division on Iwo Jima and was also wounded.

“I remember, vividly, his reaction to some of the names I read to him,” Finn said. “He seemed to drift back in time and laugh at certain names. Some of the names he recalled and others he did not remember.”

Higgs could not remember specifically signing the book and had no specific recollection of Jade Ladd, Finn added.

“Higgs did say it sounded like something they would do when a buddy was being evacuated off the island to a hospital ship after being wounded,” he said.

Through his own research and sketchy recollections of others, Finn feels he has put enough pieces together to solve the mystery of the book’s history.

“The book is significant to me because my sister gave it to me and it means even more that the book was signed by Marines who fought on Iwo Jima,” he said. “The book was on Iwo Jima and came back with a Marine who was wounded on the island. Wow! That was pretty amazing.”

Finn speculated that a young Marine had taken the book from home to read while he was on his way to Iwo Jima.

“It must have been in a Marine’s back pack when he made the assault on the island,” he said. “Someone was looking for something to pass around to Marines in the unit to sign and gave it to Ladd before he was evacuated off the island.”

“The Marine Corps is steeped in history,” said Finn, who has a degree in U.S. military history from Colorado State University. “Iwo Jima is hallowed ground for the Marines.”

Although one of Finn’s goals is to visit Iwo Jima, his recent retirement means he will likely not be able to.

“I have always been envious of Marines who have been to Iwo Jima,” he said. “Every Marine I know who has been to the island has a vial of sand. I know I may never make it to Iwo Jima, so to me, this book is my vial of sand.”

Iwo Jima, Japanese for “Sulphur Island,” is a small, pork chop-shaped volcanic island located about halfway between Saipan and Tokyo. The island is 4 1/2 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide at its widest point, a total surface of eight square miles.

The highest point of the island is Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano rising nearly 550 feet above sea level on the southern end of the island, according to www.newworldencyclopedia.org.

Casualties were high with 6,821 Americans dead and 19,189 wounded and 20,703 Japanese dead and 216 captured, according to the Web site.

Although the origin of the weathered book and some of its travels still remain a mystery, Finn considers his book a treasure, having come full circle from a Marine who fought on the sands of Iwo Jima to one who fought on the sands of Iraq.


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