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Horrors of war, finally

For 54 years, Dr. Frank Falgout never talked about it. Not to his war buddies. Not to his colleagues at the hospitals he worked at. Not to his two sons. Not even to his wife, Lil.

"He never said anything about it," Mrs. Falgout said. "I knew he'd been through a lot. He was just so shell-shocked when he got home."

"We left that all behind on Iwo Jima with the 6,000 that died," Falgout said. "They were the real heroes."

That was the way for Falgout and many other World War II veterans who had experienced the horrors of battle.

Then, in November 1999, in his book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw called Falgout and the others out.

"Brokaw said, "If you don't tell anyone, no one will know your stories.' So now we're talking our heads off," Falgout said with a chuckle. "They can't stop us now."

After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a year and a half ago, there's even more of an urgency for Falgout to tell his story about the 30 days he spent tending to the wounded as a Navy corpsman during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Those old memories still are vivid. Falgout can recount with detail his time in the armed services _ from the day the French-speaking Cajun first enlisted after seeing the sign featuring Uncle Sam in the recruiter's window in his home town of New Iberia, La., to being deloused as he finally discarded his ragged uniform spattered brown with the spent blood of his comrades.

Even so, the night terrors that had plagued him ever since are coming with less frequency. "That's one of the signs of the disease _ that it's progressing," said Mrs. Falgout, who has been urging her husband of 60 years to pen his memoirs. "I want him to keep his mind busy."

Falgout has been working on those memoirs. He's also been recounting his story with fellow Marines Norris Buchter, John Camaro and John Black to students in the JROTC classes at area high schools. There, he has been pleased to find a mostly captive audience.

"Those kids are polite. Those kids are the cream of the crop, I'm telling you,' Falgout said. "And they ask a lot of good questions."

"This really enhances what we're teaching here," Ridgewood High JROTC Cmdr. James Stauffer said after hosting a visit from Falgout and Buchter in November. "If we don't get these stories out quick, they're not going to be there."

It was February 1945 when Falgout, the middle child in a family of seven children, landed on Iwo Jima _ the place the Japanese called Sulpher Island _ with E Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment, 4th Marine Division. Their mission: to roust the enemy who were dug in the ground in caves and secure the three airfields on the small South Pacific island.

"Airplanes were shelling the beach when we landed," Falgout told the Ridgewood students. "Then all hell broke loose. Right away I saw three or four dead right on the beach. A thousand Japanese came at us at night."

The mission was especially perilous for the corpsmen carrying packs filled with medicine, morphine and plasma. The bright red cross brandished across the front of their helmet set them apart, making them a good target for the Japanese, Falgout said. After being shot through the hand, he discarded his corpsman helmet and opted to carry a gun so the enemy would think he was a mere grunt.

"They didn't really care about the grunts. They figured if you shoot the corpsman, then three or four men would bleed to death," Falgout said. "The Japanese learned how to call out "corpsman' in English. If a Marine called out "corpsman,' you had to go. You had to expose yourself."

Falgout recalls doing just that to rescue a wounded Marine who had called out for him.

"I was crawling like a snake on my belly, shots flying over my head," Falgout said. "I weighed 165 pounds; he weighed over 200. I put him on my back and carried him. It was the adrenaline that got me through that one."

In the end, the island was taken. Nearly 7,000 Marines were dead and more than 20,000 Japanese were killed. There were some 18,000 American casualties. An American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi, an event captured in a 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph that hangs today in the JROTC classroom at Ridgewood High.

After the war, Falgout, who earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, wanted to become a high school football coach. But at his wife's urging, he went on to medical school and became a general practitioner and later worked in emergency medicine and cardiology.

"She has her own PHT," says Falgout of his wife, with a laugh. "Push Husband Through."

Before retiring in 2000, Falgout taught advanced cardiac support to those in the medical profession in five different counties in the Tampa area.

And he finally decided to tell his story.

"They can't shut me up now," Falgout said. "I have many stories and not enough time."

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