Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Hal Hawkins at Iwo Jima


Last updated 4/3/2020 at 12:02pm

February 19, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of America's World War II invasion of the Japanese-occupied island of Iwo Jima back in 1945 for the military purpose of capturing the island's airfields close to Japan's mainland. After 36 days of fierce battles on the island, the war would come to an end within six months, following the Enola Gay's flight from Tinian Island, 735 miles to the southeast of Iwo Jima, dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 11, and participating in the second drop on Nagasaki a few days later.

On Feb. 23, five days after the initial Iwo Jima landing of U.S. Marines and amidst the intense heat of battle, a 22-year old Marine lieutenant, Hal Hawkins, now 97 years old and an artist living in Borrego Springs, flew his C-46 transport plane onto the airstrip closest to Mt. Suribachi, an inactive volcano on the southern tip of the island. He and his crew delivered ammunition and flame throwers and parts to the troops who were battling 21,000 enemy soldiers on the island, many of them dug in, including those atop the volcano. Hidden artillery protected 11 miles of heavily fortified tunnels beneath Mt. Suribachi's surface, ideal for enemy troop concealment and protection from near-constant and months-long bombardment by U.S. Naval forces offshore.

But something else happened in the fog of war on Feb. 23 after Hawkins quickly unloaded his cargo and was taking off. The Navy battleships stopped their heavy and constant bombardment of Mt. Suribachi long enough for the Marines at the top to replace a very small American flag with one more suitable to the moment – the Flag of Iwo Jima.

This moment was captured by Joe Rosenthal in his Pulizer Prize-winning photograph of the flag raising, and then a bronze memorial dedicated to the determination and heroism of all who fought there, including 6,800 American soldiers killed and 26,000 injured during the intense battle. A three-cent stamp commemorating the raising of the Iwo Jima flag was issued in July 1945, just a month before the two atomic bombs detonated and Japan surrendered.

It was a battle of historic proportions with numerous accounts of heroism and sacrifice. Twenty-two Marines and five Navy Corpsmen were awarded the Medal of Honor during the battle at Iwo Jima, 11 posthumously. Approximately 19,000 Japanese soldiers also died in battle, and two of them hid out in tunnels for three and a half years.

And last week, 75 years later, the former pilot, and lifelong artist was found putting the finishing touches on his oil-based painting, a mural on an interior wall of the soon-to-open Propeller restaurant, commissioned by owner Patrick Meehan, publisher of the Sun. The mural includes Hawkins' artistic rendition of his memories of WW-II, including airplanes of the era and his friend and pilot John Glenn, a former astronaut and U.S. Senator who Hawkins reported to be somewhere in the local theater of operations, probably at sea aboard a carrier during Hawkins' Iwo Jima mission.

Also depicted on his oil-based mural, at the far left, are images of Hawkins' C-46 transport plane, flamethrowers he flew in that were used to clear the mountaintop fortress of enemy soldiers, and the raising of The Flag at Iwo Jima, all occurring 75 years ago this month.

And now, even at his advanced age, Hawkins has his artist's eye on a long blank wall adjacent to his nearly completed mural. "I have some ideas for that wall," he said with a gleam in his eye.

Hal Hawkins' mural at The Propeller is both history and art made current by a man who was there to experience it all firsthand.

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