MORGANTON When wind stirs the American flag on the Mount Suribachi replica in Clyde Baird’s yard, something inside him snaps to attention.
A young face comes into focus – the brother he lost at Iwo Jima.
Sixty-six years ago this month, Marines stormed the Japanese-held island 750 miles south of Tokyo, beginning a 31-day battle.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the famous picture of U.S. servicemen raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi – an image that came to symbolize courage and sacrifice.
Baird, who was 10 at the time, idolized his older brother. Rondall Baird had briefly attended UNC Chapel Hill, married and joined the Marines. He’d left for the Pacific without seeing his infant son.
His wife sent him a knit baby shoe as a momento, but it came back undelivered. A few weeks ago, family members found the tiny shoe while looking through unopened letters.
Four years ago, with tons of dirt and rock, he built a 20-by-30 foot Mount Suribachi. It stands 7feet tall, with an American flag on top, along with a replica of the flag-raising.
The lighted monument draws visitors, who pull into Baird’s long, circular drive to look.
He welcomes the attention.
“This is not just in memory of my brother,” said Baird, 75, a retired computer operator with General Electric. “Every time somebody drives by it reminds me of all those people who gave their lives.”
On Iwo Jima, nearly 7,000 Americans died and fewer than 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers there survived during the battle that began on Feb. 19, 1945.
Baird still cries when he talks about his brother. A corner of his home is dedicated in Rondall’s memory – photo albums, letters, a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol.
Friends like the Rev. Don Blankenship don’t think Clyde Baird has gone overboard.
The loss of a family member in war can be just as painful now as it was decades ago.
“You build the monuments you need in your life so you don’t forget,” said Blankenship, pastor of Morganton First Church of God. “The memorials may be painful, but they also celebrate lives – and help you remember all the wonderful things about a person.”
Clyde Baird lives in same house where he grew up, the youngest of four brothers. The oldest was his hero.
“Rondall had curly brown hair and brown eyes like mom,” Baird said. “He was so handsome. I was so proud.”
At Drexel High, Rondall played basketball and baseball. He drove a school bus and worked at his dad’s grocery. He raised strawberries and goats and developed photos at home.
On Jan 2, 1944 he married a childhood sweetheart, Irene Buff, and joined the Marine Corps that June.
Six months later, Baird shipped out and was among the first Marines to land on Iwo. He died March 4, 1945 – just shy of his 19th birthday – and was buried on the island. In 1948, he was re-interred in Drexel Cemetery, about three miles from his childhood home.
Rondall’s widow remarried and moved to South Carolina. She died in 2007.
Recently, Lloyd Baird, 81, of Rockingham County, was sorting letters he’d gotten from his parents’ home in 1994. The items had been sent to Rondall and returned unopened to family members.
One letter, written by Baird’s wife, was thicker than the others. Inside was a baby bootie she described as the first their son had outgrown.
Lloyd Baird sent the shoe to Rondall’s son, Terry Good, in North Augusta, S.C.
“It was a very special moment to receive such an unexpected gift,” Good said. “I now had the original letter from my mother, who had very little information about my father’s status on Iwo Jima. In addition to my own joy in receiving the gift, my three children have also been able to enjoy a piece of their heritage.”
‘There’s a beauty to it’
As the 66th anniversary of Iwo Jima approaches, Clyde Baird isn’t doing anything different. He continues to pamper the monument, pulling weeds, mowing grass, planting boxwoods.
And taking time to reflect. Not just about his family’s loss, but good moments they all shared.
“There’s a beauty to the monument,” Baird said. “It speaks to my heart.”
To view 19 more photos of this story, go to: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/02/03/2034437/clyde-baird-honors-his-lost-brother.html