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Iwo Jima vet recalls the battle through music

Monday - 5/26/2014, 1:55am  ET

MATTHEWS.JPG
Frank Matthews and Band of America's Few director Matthew Farquhar, at the performance of Matthews' music on Sunday. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)

A brutal battle inspired his music

WTOP's Kathy Stewart reports

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WASHINGTON -- When Frank Matthews fought on Iwo Jima, he captured the hellish experience through his music.

He turns 88 next month, but he was only 18 and a Private First Class in the Marines when he spent 28 days in the brutal battle on Iwo Jima. "I landed in the middle of the afternoon on the first day" -- Feb. 19, 1945. He suffered numerous injuries, but says, "My wounds were severe but not so bad that I had to be evacuated."

During his patrols, he was tasked with using a flame thrower to clear out the caves on the island. The battles were relentless, and the Japanese were a formidable foe determined to fight to the last man. In the end, Matthews was the only man left in his platoon of 40 guys after the battle ended.

With the battle over, the island was completely silent after the month-long ferocious fight. That last day, which was a Sunday, the chaplain said he needed Matthews to play the National Anthem over and over and over again on a portable pump organ during religious services. The chaplain said that the men would not be singing, but they would be stand tall and enjoy hearing it, especially after the hell they had been through.

Afterwards, Matthews found himself at a makeshift gravesite. "They were still burying people," he says. It was hard to get his head around the fact that 7,000 of his buddies were gone.

"This was a strange sight, to suddenly see all these bodies, all these graves at Iwo Jima. That evening, I thought it looked like the ocean had deposited a whole bunch of graves there. It was just totally unreal."

He left the island the next day with a melody in his head.

For Matthews, melodies painted the picture of war: "They remind me of what I saw and what I felt. They were like sketches that other guys drew." It was many years later, after his wife died in 1999 and he moved in with his youngest daughter in Stafford, Va., that he turned those melodies into music.

On Sunday he was honored when the Band of America's Few, made up of former Marines, performed two of his pieces during the Memorial Day Concert, held outside of the National Marine Corps Museum. The Iwo Jima piece is entitled "Evening Tide," and he wrote the second piece, entitled "Pass in Review," for his fellow docents at the museum.

But Matthews insists that this day isn't about honoring him but his comrades. "It's a privilege to be able to get up and talk about these guys who were my buddies, even though 7,000 of them died at Iwo Jima in that battle. That's why I can never forget." He's hoping people all across America on this Memorial Day don't forget either.

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