For years, Cole “Junior” Griego kept quiet about his experiences as a medic during the Battle of Iwo Jima, preferring to keep his stories to himself, his stepdaughter said.
But on Sunday, the former Navy corpsman opened up at the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs, where he shared the spotlight with a four other veterans on a panel at a socially distanced meet-and-greet.
Billed as a chance to meet representatives of a vanishing generation — known to many as the Greatest Generation — the event was held in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s Aug. 15, 1945, surrender declaration, which effectively ended the war.
Among those in attendance were Noe Romero, a crew member on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier when it was torpedoed in the Battle of Midway; Ed Beck, a prisoner of war who escaped the Nazis after his capture during the Battle of the Bulge; Bill Roche, a B-17 gunner who was twice shot down by Germans, surviving to become an instructor at the Air Force Academy; Marilyn Doenges, a wartime nurse who served in Britain; and JJ Inman, a Flying Tiger, volunteers who flew combat missions out of China immediately after the U.S. was drawn into the war.
“These are the guys and gals that did it,” said Bill Klaers, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs aviation museum, which reopened to the public five weeks ago, following a closure related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roughly 100 people donned masks for tours of the museum, and to join the queue for a chance to talk with Colorado Springs-area veterans, who in some cases brought striking reminders of their service, such as the telegram Beck's mother received after he was taken captive.
For Robert Atkins of Colorado Springs, who was a youngster during the war, the event was a chance to meet people who loomed large in his imagination.
Waiting in line to see Romero, he clutched a copy of a book on the Battle of Midway, wanting to show the veteran pictures of the sunken carrier on the floor of the Pacific Ocean near the atoll of Midway, three miles beneath the surface.
It turned out that Romero had a copy of the same book with him, so Atkins asked that Romero sign his copy before expressing his gratitude for his service in a battle that helped win the war.
“This is living history,” said Mark Schaefer, a volunteer who helped arrange transportation for the veterans who attended. “If we don’t do it now, we’re going to regret it – coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
Said volunteer Richard Tuttle: “It’s touching that they’re even here to talk about these things. They don’t have to. They all are heroes in many ways.”
Griego’s stepdaughter, Renee Tabet, said he finally began discussing his wartime experiences in 2015, when the two received an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. There, Griego was saluted by strangers at the airport and hotel, and his discussions with fellow veterans jarred loose old memories, he said.
She said she wept upon learning what he went through while tending to the wounded in the ferocious combat on Iwo Jima.
“I didn’t know a lot of the story. You learn it in high school, but you don’t grasp it. I grasped it, and it was amazing,” Tabet said.
The event was held alongside the exhibits and reconstructed World War II planes in a 40,000-square-foot hangar near the Colorado Springs Airport.
Limited advertising was done to keep crowds small to better accommodate COVID-19 safety measures, which included a requirement that all attendees wear masks. The panel was set up at a table near the open door of the hanger, ensuring plenty of airflow, organizers said.
Before COVID-19 hit, the museum had verbal commitments from donors to expand the hangar doubling its size, an improvement expected to cost $6.5 million, and arrangements are underway to resume that work in hopes of completing the expansion, Klaers said.