Brian Hamilton: What would our heroes say today? |

Brian Hamilton: What would our heroes say today?

Watching an eyewitness to one of our nation’s most historic moments swell with pride as he shared his story left a lump in my throat.

Manuel “Chick” Cicogni’s eyes grew wide with excitement, his hands forming a pair of binoculars as he described his fellow Americans raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima.

“My friend, he’s up on the bridge (of the USS Idaho) raising the flags — raising and lowering the flags of various designations — and I was up there with him, and we were secluded there. He says, ‘Chick, they’re raising the flag!’ He had great big, powerful binoculars. He gave me the binoculars, and I looked up and sure it was. It was up there. They were raising the flag.”

That moment, what’s become the symbol of World War II’s Pacific theater, happened 75 years ago this week.

It was nearly seven years ago that Chick shared that story, one of several conversations we had about his 99 years of life and our community’s history in advance of The Union’s year-long 150th anniversary series in 2014. Our chats also were meant to serve up a surprise story of sorts on his 100th birthday, though he sadly died just a month ahead of that milestone.

I think about Chick often, and particularly so in the days leading up to this anniversary. His friend, George Chileski, was kind enough to introduce us, recognizing Chick’s stories and those of the “Greatest Generation” should live on long after they’ve left us.

And, of course, we’re losing more of our heroes every day.

Lou Conter, a longtime Grass Valley resident who survived Pearl Harbor, is now one of just two remaining survivors of the USS Arizona crew. Donald Stratton died at his Colorado Springs home in his sleep Saturday with his family in attendance, Time magazine reported.

Years ago, I’d gotten to know another veteran who was at Iwo Jima. Bill Steele, “the unofficial mayor of North San Juan,” used to chat me up all sorts of topics — particularly local politics — and always ended our phone calls reminding to “Keep your powder dry.” Bill saw action at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and was honored by California’s 3rd Assembly District as Veteran of the Year in 2012.

Bill was the sort of guy that would give someone the shirt off his back. In 2013, Bill was asked to assist the family of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Victor E. Schutt in locating a Blue Dress uniform, three days ahead of his burial. Bill relayed a message to the family that it was an honor for a fellow Iwo Jima Marine to wear his uniform, as his own plans included cremation. Bill died just five months later.

It was an admirable act of kindness to an otherwise complete stranger, a fellow area resident and, perhaps even more important, an American Marine.

“We later learned his name — Mr. Bill Steele,” wrote Roger, Carole, Kimberly, Mary and Wendy Schutt, who were so moved by the gesture they ensured Bill’s community would know about it via an op-ed published by The Union. “Bill was also 92 years of age, also a veteran of the battle of Iwo Jima, and he also landed on the island only hours prior to Dad’s landing with his troops! Bill landed at Green Beach; Dad landed nearby at Yellow Beach. They each survived the war, but they never met!

“And add this important piece, to our family equally significant … it turns out Bill and Victor are each well known as very outspoken, straight-shooting, proud vets, the type who don’t back down from anyone and who are more than willing to offer their varied opinions on life in the Good Ol’ USA!”

No doubt Chick and Bill, Lou and Sgt. Schutt — along all those who fought against the Axis powers — had opinions on how things ought to be. But I very much doubt it mattered one iota whether their shipmates or brothers in their bunkers were Democrats or Republicans.

After all, they put their lives on the line in the name of freedom for all America, all of its people — and all of its allies around the world.

What would these heroes think of us today? When the value in the marketplace of ideas largely comes down from which side of the aisle a plan is put forth? When compromise is not only rare among our leaders, but actually held in contempt? When we refer to our fellow Americans as “the enemy”?

Rest assured, there was no confusion about who was the enemy in their time.

We should never forget the horrors they faced and the sacrifices they made.

And we must remember why they did so.

It is as obvious as the pride in their voices — and the lump in our throats — when they speak, or once spoke, of what “America” means to them, and to the world.

It’s as simple as the message my friend Chick sought to deliver at a Memorial Day speech in Grass Valley a few months before he died.

“Love your country.”

I’d like to think that meant all of it, all of America, all of us.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at or 540-477-4249.

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