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EVARO — Louis Charlo would’ve turned 93 on Thursday. He never reached 19.

Charlo, a Salish Indian and product of St. Ignatius and Polson schools, died on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in the last months of World War II. It was just a week after he and three other Marines became the first foreign invaders in four millennia to lay claim to Japanese territory.

The teenager from the Flathead Indian Reservation was in the patrol that first scaled 546-foot-high Mount Suribachi on the morning of Feb. 23, 1945. Later that morning, his patrol led a larger group to the top. They lashed a small American flag to a 20-foot piece of pipe and raised it. 

Charlo was reportedly back on top that afternoon when a bigger flag was unfurled. Photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the latter became the war's most famous symbol.

On March 2, Charlo was near the foot of Suribachi attempting to lug wounded buddy Ed McLaughlin of Nebraska to cover in an area nicknamed the Meat Grinder. Japanese snipers cut them both down mere feet from safety. Charlo’s remains were brought home to Montana in 1948 and buried at the Old Catholic Cemetery in St. Ignatius.

That his name was revealed nearly 75 years later on a memorial sign alongside a U.S. highway that’s numbered 93 was only coincidental.

“I didn’t think it would ever happen, really,” said poet/playwright Victor Charlo, younger brother of the man he knew as Chuck, after Thursday’s dedication. “We talked about it but that was about as far as it ever went.”

“It’s long overdue,” Victor Charlo’s son Martin Charlo said. “Our family knows our history really well, but I think the younger generations are kind of starting to forget about some of the heroes of our tribe. This is going to be a good remembrance, not only to honor our family, but I think this honors all of our tribal members who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Nearly 100 people were on hand for the unveiling of a sign at the southern entrance to the reservation. Montana Department of Transportation chief Mike Tooley presented a small replica of the memorial sign to Charlo. The two-mile stretch between mile marker 7 at Evaro and mile marker 9 are designated the “Louis Charles Charlo Memorial Highway” and will have identical signs saying as much at both ends.

The home Louis Charlo left at age 17 to go to war was alongside the highway at mile marker 8, Victor Charlo said.

Charlo’s nephew, state Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, served as director of ceremonies for the dedication, which opened with welcoming remarks from Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes chairman Ron Trahan, a U.S. Army veteran, and tribal council member and Navy veteran Dennis Clairmont.

Victor Charlo offered a prayer in the form of a poem he wrote for his big brother. The drum group Red Song performed a flag song and honor song, followed by remarks from family members, including Scotty Gardipee, Victor Charlo's cousin and longtime Evaro resident. 

Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel Raph Graybill, and Mike LaValley, a Blackfeet-Gros Ventres, on behalf of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, read messages from their bosses.

April Charlo, Victor’s daughter, presented Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, Jr., D-Browning, with a blanket made by her mother called “Fire at Night.”

Weatherwax sponsored the House bill authored by Morigeau and signed in May by Bullock to establish the Louis Charles Charlo Memorial Highway.

It was part of an unprecedented spate of 11 memorial highway and bridge dedications that came out of the 2019 Legislative session.

Three hours after the Charlo Memorial Highway dedication, a similar ceremony took place south of Absarokee, where another World War II hero was honored at the Fishtail turnoff on Highway 78. An 18-mile stretch of state highway 419 was designated the David Thatcher Memorial Highway.

Thatcher, who died in Missoula in 2016 at age 94, was a member of the famed Doolittle Raiders who bombed Tokyo months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He outlived all but one of the 80 Raiders.

Thatcher graduated from Absarokee High School in 1939 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940. He survived a crash landing after the raid and rescued crew mates on the coast of China, then went on to fly 26 missions in a B-26 over North Africa and Europe. Among them was the first bombing raid over Rome.

The Missoula Veterans Administration Clinic was named in Thatcher’s honor earlier this year.

Stretches of highways near Seeley Lake and Lolo were renamed in July for young firefighters Trenton Johnson of Missoula and Brent Witham of California, respectively. They died fighting fires in the summer of 2017.

An act to rename a section of Interstate 90 through Missoula for native daughter Jeannette Rankin was one of those passed. That dedication ceremony has been scheduled for next June 11, 140 years after the birth of the peace advocate and America’s first Congresswoman. The year 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

When Louis Charlo sought and received his parents’ permission to enlist at age 17, his main claim to fame was being the great-grandson of Salish Chief Charlo (1830-1910). Chief Charlo maintained a policy of peace toward whites but refused for years to cede control of the beloved Salish homeland in the Bitterroot. That ended in 1891 with a forced three-day march to the Jocko Reservation.

The town of Charlo on the Flathead Reservation and an elementary school in Missoula are both named in the chief's honor.

Morigeau said as he grew up and became aware of his uncle’s heroics at Iwo Jima, he assumed Louis Charlo had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest and most prestigious personal military decoration.

Louis hadn’t.

Victor Charlo has his brother’s Purple Heart at home in Dixon, but he was surprised to hear in Morigeau’s bill that Louis earned the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon with one bronze star, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon with one bronze star and the World War II Victory Medal.

“I’d like to know where those are. I’d like to get them if I could,” he said.

In a letter sent in 2016 to Victor Charlo, Gen. Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, said:  “Although Charlo deserved a medal for heroism, the only award he received was the Purple Heart. There is no record of any medal being submitted or awarded ... (but) I can’t emphasize enough that our Corps considers him a hero. He was part of one of the most brutal battles of World War II and gave everything for his Corps and country.”

“When you look at what he did,” said Morigeau, “carrying a man out on his back who was injured, sacrificing his life for somebody and also being a part of both those flag raisings at Iwo Jima, those landmark moments in our history and our country ... in my mind he already has a Medal of Honor.”

“Our family, we all talk about this regularly,” Morigeau added. “And when you meet these military historians and people who really study up, when they know who he is, it really makes me proud when they come over and say they want to shake the hand of a family member of Louis Charlo.”

More widespread recognition is on the horizon.

Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is a scholar of the American West who travels to Montana frequently. When he was here in the summer of 2018, Viola visited with the Charlos and others familiar with Louis Charlo’s story.

Viola is senior adviser to the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which is in fundraising stages toward installment on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A multi-day dedication is set for Veterans Day 2020.

“In a nutshell, we will feature Charlo in an exhibit we are doing for the memorial at the Indian Museum, his story will be in the book we are publishing for the memorial, and he will be cited in the classroom materials we are developing about Indian military service and patriotism,” Viola said via email Thursday.

“Louis Charlo will be anonymous no longer.”

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