I am writing this blog post on Sunday evening November 11. Today is my birthday. I have always held my birthday with reverence; not for anything I ever did, but in honor of those who fought and died for our freedom. I wrote the following article in the summer of 2000. I hope you take a few minutes to read about a true hero that I had the pleasure to know.
Clifford Stokes, and his sister-in-law Shirley, had moved to Kingston Springs, TN from Hammond, Louisiana to be close to Shirley’s children and grandchildren who were living here at the time. Cliff and Shirley moved back to Louisiana a couple of years later but stayed in touch. Cliff passed away a few years ago, but in honor of my friend, I would like to reprint the article I wrote nearly a decade ago. I have not changed or updated the article. I think you will still find Cliff’s story poignant and thought provoking.
by Craig Kitch
A “hero”, by definition, is “a man distinguished for exceptional courage, fortitude, or bold enterprise, especially in times of war”. It seams like people are always searching for a hero to look up to and, when a true hero cannot be found, they will substitute the next best thing they can find. We have been fortunate over the last twenty five years to have lived relatively conflict-free in this country. Yes, there was the Gulf War and a few more recent skirmishes that we have involved ourselves in over the last decade, but I think all would agree that they pale in comparison to the two World Wars and the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts that our fathers and grandfathers knew. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see people elevating movie stars, rock stars and the like to hero status. But I would like to share with you that we have a full fledged, bona fide hero from World War II living right here in Kingston Springs. His name is Clifford Stokes (we call him Mr. Cliff) and he was an integral part of a battle you may have heard of. You see, he was there when our Marines raised the first American Flag atop of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. That was a very important day to Cliff Stokes because it was one of the last things he ever saw. A couple of days later he was hit in the face by shrapnel from a grenade and was left totally blind for life.
We celebrated Mr. Cliff’s 78th birthday a couple of weeks ago and I had the opportunity to ask him about his memories. Cliff was born and raised in Etowah, TN, at the edge of what is now the Cherokee National Forest. He turned 18 at the height of World War II and joined the Marines, signing up in downtown Nashville. Following boot camp, he was sent to the Philippines. On February 19, 1945, Cliff Stokes stepped into the history books when the Marines stormed the shores of Iwo Jima. They had two primary objectives: First, to secure the three airstrips the Kamikaze pilots were using as a base of operations and second, conquer Mt. Suribachi where the Japanese forces were deeply entrenched. The fighting was furious and extremely bloody. “I remember the soil was so loose on Mt. Suribachi you could hardly climb up it” Cliff said. “But we made it! By golly I was one of the first ones to the top and we put the first America Flag on the top of the mountain. That was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” What most people don’t realize is that there were two flags raised on Iwo Jima. The first was raised on the morning of February 23. Later a larger flag was raised in the same spot and the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal was taken.
But raising the flag was just the beginning. They still had to clear the island of the Japanese forces. Cliff remembers “We came to a small cave and Colonel Johnson told me to check it out. I came along side the opening and quickly peeked inside. You won’t believe what I saw: five Japanese officers lying on a sheet! They were all dead. I think that the ranking officer had killed the others and then committed suicide.” He also tells the story about a Japanese-American they came across: “He was with some outfit in Northern California and they sent him back to Japan to get a shipment of dishware. Well, he got dropped off on Iwo Jima and left there. This guy was scared to death. I don’t know for sure how long he had been hiding out in a small cave, but he sure was glad to see us. Once we realized he was an American, we passed him off to our commanding officer to get him home”.
The fighting continued. It was just a couple of days later that Cliff found himself in the middle of a barrage of mortar fire from the Japanese. A mortar exploded out in front of him and a piece of shrapnel hit him in the face. He was instantly blinded and lay face-down in the dirt, which probably saved his life. Had he fallen on his back, he might have drowned in his own blood. “Then one of our tanks came by and scooped me up. Just dropped open the trap door and drug me inside”, he says. “I thought at first it was the Japs that had me. I couldn’t see. I fought them, too. I was not going to be taken prisoner. I would die first”. They finally got him sedated and he realized that he was with his own men. By the time the fighting on Iwo Jima ended 6,821 US personnel were dead and nearly 20,000 were wounded.
Words cannot explain how humbled I felt sitting there; hearing about the horrors of war from a man who lived it. I have learned a lot about heroes from Mr. Cliff. One of the things I have learned is that heroes are true givers. They give their very life (even at the risk of losing it) for the benefit of others. They unselfishly surrender themselves to a higher calling. Mr. Cliff to this day is still a giver. His sister-in-law “Momma Shirley” Stokes heads up “Mercy Hands Ministries” and feeds the homeless. In fact they both give up almost every Saturday of their lives to feed and minister to the homeless of downtown Nashville. Yes, Mr. Cliff is a true giver. He risked his very life and gave up his eyesight so that you and I can enjoy the freedoms that we so easily take for granted.
Clifford Stokes, I want to say “Thank You” for all that you have done for us. I am proud to call you my friend and quick to tell everyone that you are my hero.
Mr. Cliff passed away on Saturday, December 10, 2005. I will miss him very much, but I am happy for him. He is in heaven now and receiving his reward. He has no more pain and his vision is perfect. He lived a long and full life and left this world a better place because of his presence here. One day I will see Cliff again and, for the first time, he will see me. God bless you, Clifford Stokes, and thank you.
Source: Craig’s Blog