Louis Rittelmann was a 21-year-old Marine private when he fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, the World War II conflict in February and March 1945 that cost 6,800 American lives and left 19,200 wounded.
He was on Mount Suribachi at the southwest end of the Pacific island when the Marines defeated the Japanese and raised the American flag in what remains an iconic image of U.S. military courage.
Rittelmann is 93 now, living at the Phoenixville Care and Rehabilitation Center, receiving daily help from Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care. Some memories have faded, but he clearly remembers Iwo Jima and expresses pride that he fought for his country as a Marine.
So Rittelmann was overcome with emotion on Monday when a three-star Marine Corps general arrived to salute him, chat with him as if the two were old war buddies, and present him with a pin honoring his service with the corps.
Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who retired in 2015 after a 40-year military career, leaned in close to the amazed Rittelmann, who was sitting in his wheelchair, wearing his “Iwo Jima Survivor” cap.
“Semper Fi,” Mills said.
“Semper Fi,” Rittelmann replied.
“How are you doing?” the general asked.
“I’m doing great, except for the shoulder,” Rittelmann said.
“You look great,” Mills said. “I might take you back with me.”
“I might go back,” Rittelmann said, smiling. “This is the first time I ever shook hands with a general.”
“Are they taking good care of you?” Mills asked. “Chow’s all right? Lots of pretty girls around?”
Rittelmann just looked deeply into the general’s eyes and beamed. He said he joined the Marines at 18 and trained at Parris Island. “They made a man out of me,” he said.
Mills, who served as a Marine commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “I’ll never forget my drill sergeant. I know he’s shaking his head that I ever made general.”
They laughed together, but soon, it was time for tears.
Rittelmann rose from his wheelchair and stood to sing the national anthem with the general and family members, accompanied on guitar by hospice music therapist Liesel Fraser. Then they sang the Marines’ Hymn.
Before Mills pinned a Marine service pin on Rittelmann, he said, “As a general, I get to pin a lot of things on a lot of people. Very, very seldom do I get to pin a hero.”
Then the general gave Rittelmann a sculpture of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
“They said it was an island that couldn’t be taken,” Mills said. Thousands of Japanese soldiers fired down on the Marines, exacting “horrible casualties,” he said.
Mills looked at Rittelmann with admiration. “For me to give this to a Marine who was there is the highlight of my career,” he said.
Rittelmann’s daughter, Mary Lou Oswald of Bechtelsville, Berks County, hugged her father as both of them broke down in tears.
Privately, she said that for decades, her father hadn’t talked about Iwo Jima. Recently, he opened up a little.
“He calls it his hell on earth,” Oswald said. “He says the only way he survived and got off that island was because his sister was a nun, and she had the whole convent praying for him.”
Oswald said her dad still has nightmares about combat with Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima. “He wrestles them in his sleep,” she said. “A couple of times, he fell out of bed. He still has those dreams to this day. How many years ago was that? More than 70?”
She said Rittelmann still remembers how many Marines died, trying to take the hill under heavy fire. “His commander told him to go and get more ammunition from down the hill and across a field,” Oswald said. “When he was going down there, the only thing he can remember is there were piles and piles of dead soldiers, one stacked on top of another. He had to walk past them to get the ammunition.”
Oswald said that her husband, Douglas, a retired geography teacher, told his best friend Ron Jameson, a retired history teacher, both from Boyertown Area Junior High, about her dad’s military service. Soon, Jameson, a battlefield buff, started taking Rittelmann out of the nursing home for ice cream and conversation every couple of weeks.
Rittelmann was a milk delivery man in the Pittsburgh area after the war and lived in the area most of his life. He and his wife, Mary Jane, had one daughter, Oswald, and a son, Jack, who is deceased. Rittelmann and his wife moved to the Boyertown area several years ago to be near their daughter. The Rittelmanns were married for 70 years when his wife died in 2013 at the age of 92. Two years ago, he entered the nursing home.
Jameson met Mills when the two were seated together in Gettysburg during a luncheon meeting of the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit organization they belong to that saves and preserves historically significant battlefields.
Jameson told the general about Rittelmann, which led to Monday’s visit. Mills explained why he traveled from his Virginia home to honor Rittelmann.
“He’s a Marine, and he’s an Iwo Jima veteran,” Mills said. “Anybody who went through what he went through on that island —,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“There aren’t many of these Marines left,” he said. “That’s why I came.”