On Memorial Day we routinely talk about paying tribute to the 1.2 million Americans who “made the ultimate sacrifice.” All too often, though, this phrase remains an abstraction, unrelated to the real people behind the statistic.
This is unfortunate because learning the stories of those who died can be an enobling and inspirational experience that leads to a deeper and more profound appreciation for the holiday and those we honor.
A case in point is Marine Private James Trimble 111 who died on Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945. “Jimmy” Trimble was a scholarship student and star athlete at Washington’s St. Albans school in the early 1940s. He was widely viewed as the best baseball pitcher in the region and, at age 17, he was given a full scholarship to Duke University by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith to work with Olympic pitching coach Jack Coombs, before joining the Senators roster,
By this time Jimmy had fallen in love with Christine White, a beautiful student at Woodrow Wilson High School, who went on to become a successful actress in Hollywood. The two talked of marriage at the end of the war.
Determined to do his part, Trimble gave up his scholarship to compete for the Navy’s V-8 pilot program, only to be stunned by the news that he had been disqualified by defective sight in one eye. Undeterred, Trimble used a family connection to gain admission to the Marine Corps and reported for basic training at Parris Island. His pitching prowess was soon discovered, however, and he was offered a deal by the base commander in which he would pitch for the base team for four months and leave with the rank of corporal.
This arrangement would effectively have taken him out of the war during its final months. Trimble turned the offer down, however, saying he had gotten into the war to fight. Shortly thereafter he and his fellow inductees were shipped out to Guam to prepare for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
Trimble’s pitching skills again awed all who saw him, including fellow platoon mate Don Mates who said, “I thought he would be the next Bob Feller.” (A Major League pitcher renowned for his fastball.) Trimble pitched a winning game for the Third Marine Division All Stars against the Fifth Marine Division All Stars on the island of Saipan, (known a the “little World Series”) but the series was cut short because the Marines were ordered to prepare to ship out to Iwo Jima.
Upon arrival offshore of Iwo, Trimble and Mates were held on board for three days until conditions permitted them to go ashore and set up a headquarters for Third Marine Division Commanding Officer Gen. Graves Erskine
Wading ashore after the initial landings the two men beheld a scene of utter devastation and horror. Mangled vehicles were thrown in every direction and dead bodies and body parts were scattered everywhere over the volcanic sand or floating in the water.
Pushing their way inland the two men and their team set up a command post on the site of the main Japanese airfield, an area that was undergoing continuous shelling by powerful Japanese spigot mortars. To stop the damage wreaked by the mortars, Gen. Erskine asked for a team of eight volunteers to locate the mortars and destroy them. Trimble and Mates immediately volunteered.
That night Jimmy wrote what would be his last letter to his fiancee (whom he had nicknamed Sandy). He apologized for the smeared paper, writing “we only have water for drinking, not for washing …” With an obvious premonition of what lay ahead, he closed with these haunting lines: “Goodbye Sandy. God bless you. I will love you forever. — Jimmy.”
The next night, well beyond the Marines’ front lines, the team of eight were bivouacked in four fox holes on the side of a ridge, clouds of noxious volcanic sulphur fumes filling the air when the men were attacked by a force of 80-100 Japanese soldiers. In the four-hour battle that followed, Trimble was stabbed, severely wounded by an exploding grenade and finally killed by a Japanese suicide bomber with an explosive charge wrapped around his waist.
According to Mates, who was severely wounded, the blast vaporized the Japanese soldier and nearly severed Trimble’s body.
The next day, the graves detail searched Trimble’s uniform and found the letter, which eventually made its way to her.
Gen. Erskine, shaken by the death of his star baseball player, ordered the Marine base baseball field on Guam named “Trimble Field.” A Trimble Field still exists on Guam today. Scholarship funds established at St. Albans School and by the Young Marines and the American Veterans Center all help to keep Jimmy Trimble’s memory alive today.
Jimmy Trimble gave up his family, his fiancee, his friends and a promising career in professional baseball — all to serve his country. Like 1.2 million of his fellow Americans, Jimmy Trimble made the ultimate sacrifice.
As we remember the fallen today, especially those who still grieve, may we find comfort and hope in these words from the “Book of Wisdom”:
“The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and the pain of death shall not touch them. To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are in peace.”
• James C. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center.
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