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Ron Scharfe on Iwo Jima 2015

Scharfe collects sand from Green Beach with Mount Suribachi looming in the background in his first return to Iwo Jima in 2015. 

Rondo’s going back to Iwo Jima next week, but not before he had a talk with two dead buddies.

“I have flashbacks, probably once a month, sometimes twice depending on what I’ve been thinking about,” Ron Scharfe, 91 years old and still a spitfire, said last week.

This one was vivid. He was back on the Japanese island, scene of one of World War II’s great battles and America’s great victories in February and March 1945.

“It was in color, like I’m there right now,” said Rondo, the retired Chicago fireman who has made his home in Missoula for 45 years.

In his dream Scharfe stood over the graves of fallen comrades Frank Solato and Nick DiGiacomo, a couple of “spaghetti-benders” (Italians) from his hometown of Chicago.

“I told them, ’You know, I’ve lived a good life. I’ve got five good kids, had a career with the fire department. I’ve enjoyed life,’ “ Scharfe recalled. “I looked down and said, ‘Hey, how about you guys coming and spending a weekend of liberty in my shoes? But you better not go AWOL on me. I’ll be down there waiting for you.’ "

He said they replied: “OK, Rondo. We’ll come up and enjoy the kind of life you’ve had, and we’ll be back.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, now don’t you guys forget about me.’”

Fireman 1st Class Ron Scharfe was 16 the first time he stood on the beach of the small Pacific Island, his first battle after lying about his age to get into the Navy. He was 87 the next time, a guest in 2015 of the Greatest Generations Foundation for the 70th anniversary of the battle.

“To be standing on sacred ground, 70 years later, it’s pretty awesome,” Scharfe told the Missoulian when he got back.

He’s returning on the 74th anniversay, invited along with a handful of other veterans by the Best Defense Foundation, whose founder, Donnie Edwards, played linebacker in the National Football League for 15 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. 

Scharfe said he’ll be the youngest of 20 American veterans of the Pacific theater on the trip, though a post Friday on the Best Defense Foundation’s Facebook listed just seven and invited viewers to “follow the journey with us” next week.

Scharfe leaves Monday for Los Angeles and his 12-day journey, as in 2015, includes stops in Saipan, Tinian and Guam. The veterans reach Iwo Jima on March 23.

The battle that ended on March 26 in 1945 marked Japan’s first military defeat on its own soil. Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese hands in 1968. Today, the tiny island (just eight square miles) is a military base. It's opened one day a year for a Reunion of Honor for both American and Japanese survivors.

Scharfe will take along a flag to run up a stanchion on Mount Suribachi, which dominates the southwest end of the island. On his last trip he brought home baggies of sand from the beach and stones from the top of Suribachi, where the iconic flag-raising early in the battle was caught by Joe Rosenthal’s camera.

Time has left him with remarkably few physical infirmities, though he tweaked a shoulder in one of his twice-a-week workouts at the Peak in downtown Missoula. Years after the war and after moving to Missoula with his late wife Mary in 1974, Scharfe was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He receives a small benefit for it.

“Like I always say, your eyes take the picture and your brain has the memories,” Scharfe said. “They don’t ever go away. You can take all the pills you want but you can’t get rid of them.”

Why does he want to return?

“Well, they pick you to go and you’re always looking for somebody you know and places you’ve been,” Scharfe replied. “The last time I was there I turned to the right and there was a big old boulder the size of a house. I remembered that (from the battle).

“It’s just getting back there and reflecting on things that happened, some good, some bad. Just knowing you can do it again. It was all luck anyhow.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian