FORT POLK, La. — On Feb. 25, 1945, Pvt. Joseph J. A’Hearn and the fellow Marines ofF Company, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, were battling entrenched Imperial Japanese forces on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.
The Marines had faced brutal conditions and hostile fire since they began their attack on Feb. 19, and had made their way to a terrain feature identified as Airfield No. 2, a major objective located between Hill 362 and Turkey Knob. Ina basin between called the Amphitheater, the bloodiest fighting took place.According to a letter from A’Hearn’s company commander, the Marine was hit by Japanese mortar fire and died two days later on Feb. 27.
A’Hearn was initially buried on Iwo Jima and posthumously promoted to private first class. In December 1948, his remains — accompanied by a 48-star U.S. Flag —were repatriated and buried in his hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. The flag was presented to his wife.
A’Hearn is the grandfather of Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk Chief of Staff Col. Christopher Moretti. On Feb. 27, 73 years after A’Hearn’s death, Morettireceived permission to hoist the same flag in front of the JRTC and Fort Polk Headquarters to honor the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who gave their lives in service to their nation.
Moretti said his grandfather was drafted in 1943 and answered the call over his mother’s wishes.
“Mygreat-great grandmother didn’t want him to serve,” Moretti said. “But after two and a half years of war, it kind of weighed upon him that he should serve.”
Afterreceiving the flag, A’Hearn’s wife flew it once, then put it away for safekeeping.
After several household moves and the inevitable geographical separation of remaining family members, the flag, along with all of the official correspondence,remained unseen for years until Moretti began his Army career. With it came the desire to remember those who had served before him, bringing the flag back to mind.
“Icame into the Army in 1987, and growing up, I had heard about the flag,"Moretti said. "Once I began serving, I started searching.”
After 16 years of painstaking search, Moretti finally discovered the whereabouts of the long lost family heirloom. During Christmas break while attending the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Moretti paid a visit to his Caution-home.
“I happened to be at my aunt's house with my mother,” Moretti said. “They had located some of my grandmother's boxes and said that they were down in the basement, and lo and behold, that's when I discovered all the stuff that she had saved.”
After conferring with his extended family, it was decided that Moretti would be the sole keeper of the flag. While discussing the flag's history with some classmates at the CGSC, Moretti desired to have his mother come to the school and honor her father's sacrifice on the anniversary of his death. He said he had no idea that flying the flag would have such an impact on both the school and the surrounding community.
Moretti said his original intent was for his mother to come out and fly the flag,render honors to my grandfather and then put the flag away.
“I had no idea of the steam that (flying the flag) had gained,” he said. “All the leadership, and the local media, the press, that was never my intent.”
While the morning reveille ceremony at CGSC was simple, with only Moretti’s classmates acting as a color guard, it was at day’s end — when the flag was lowered — that Moretti realized the full impact of the flag.
Alongwith the CGSC leadership and the local media, there was also the school’s Marine contingent, along with an actual veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Inall, nearly 300 people were present for the occasion. Moretti said he also received emails from veterans thanking him for his remembrance.
Moretti said as the flag was folded and handed to his mother that evening, he realized the ceremony and the flag itself had come to symbolize something much larger than just a remembrance of his grandfather.
“It came to signify a remembrance of all of those who had sacrificed their lives in each of the U.S. wars,” he said.
Moretti promised his mother that he would not only fly the flag in memory of his grandfather, but in memory of the thousands of fallen Soldiers who also sacrificed their lives in service to the nation.
True to his word, Moretti has made sure the 48-star flag has flown every year on Feb. 27 and in many different countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. When it’s time to pass on the flag, Moretti said that his son will be reminded, justas he reminds everyone else, of the tradition's message.
“Itis not about me,” Moretti said. “It's about paying respect to those that came before, especially those that paid the ultimate price.”