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Save a life, find a friend

By Courtesy Story, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, California -- There is no greater story teller than a veteran of war. However, it is often difficult for them to articulate the things they had seen in a way that the average civilian might understand. Sometimes the story gets lost in the details. Sometimes the humor or significance of a certain situation is lost on the listener. The term “you just had to be there” is far too often an understatement. Damaso Sutis found a friend to share his story. In fact, he found two.

Retired Gunnery Sergeant Damaso Sutis began his day boarding a bus heading to Camp Pendleton for the 72nd Battle of Iwo Jima Commemoration Tour. The tour made stops at the Santa Margarita Ranch House and the Mechanized Museum that houses military vehicles past and present. 

It was here that Sutis met a Camp Pendleton fire captain that happened to be assisting with the tour. Jonathan Charfauros was there at the Mechanized Museum to assist with any of the veteran’s potential health issues. These veterans, although battle hardened and war seasoned, are pushing 90 years old.

And those are the “young ones.”

Charfauros, standing in the musty-old warehouse amongst old tank-like vehicles and trucks and newer up-armored humvees and light attack vehicles was approached by Sutis. Sutis, proudly wearing his black Iwo Jima Survivor baseball hat and a red silk jacket with multiple military unit patches, asked Charfauros where he was from.

 “I walked up to this young man in the blue uniform and I asked if he was Guamain, that was my first battle, Guam,” said Sutis. 

The Battle of Guam was part of the Pacific Campaign to regain Japanese-held strongholds in the Mariana Islands. More than 7,000 Americans were wounded, 3,000 killed in action. 

Meeting a hero brings out a certain feeling that cannot be replicated. Charfauros smile was infectious; from ear to ear. There were briefs and explanations from tour guides around them. There were other veterans shuffling around the old vehicles. But Charfauros and Sutis did not leave each other’s side. Both gentlemen were engaged to tell their story.

Charfauros shook Sutis’ hand and thanked him for his service and sacrifice. He began to tell the veteran about his family’s story, and how he wouldn’t be here had it not been for the 3rd Marine Division liberating Guam. 

“When I was young, I noticed my grandfather had these scars on his back that he would never tell us kids where they came from,” Charfauros said. “After he passed away I asked my father, and he finally told us what happened. He said when the Japanese occupied Guam, they would use the locals to build their fighting positions and basically do any other labor they needed. Afterwards the Japanese would lock them in bamboo cages, stab them and leave them to die. Had the Naval Corpsman not saved him, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Sutis told Charfauros all of his war stories from his time in Guam. Sutis then gave Charfauros one of his challenge coins. 

The challenge coin in itself is a unique military memento. In the past, service members would carry a challenge coin given to them by someone of higher rank or authority. If a service member was in a bar and had a challenge coin from their sergeant major, another service member could put their commanding officer’s challenge coin down and the lesser of the coins buys the other a drink.

Charfauros was given a challenge coin by a Marine veteran. 

That Marine veteran was retired Gunnery Sgt. Sutis who fought in World War II and is also a Battle of Iwo Jima survivor.

Charfauros was proud to receive this honor. He knew the implications of what that coin really meant. Marines just don’t give out these coins whimsically. And the old-timers definitely don’t.

As Sutis and Charfauros were sharing their moment, another veteran came by and caught their attention. 

Gene Bell was also at the Battle of Guam as a young corporal. Bell’s career as a Marine and a police officer has taken him many miles away from the Battle of Guam. Bell thought that he was one of the few, and possibly the only, Marine veteran on the tour who was at the Battle of Guam. Service members that were in during World War II and part of the Battle of Guam are known as the Liberators.

It was then that Bell had found another veteran, who was at the same battles. He found another Liberator. However, they were not only on the island together, they even went on the same ship.

 “Come to find out, we both went overseas on the same tramp steamer,” Sutis said. 

“Oh, that was a terrible thing!” Bell said.

“Terrible thing, absolutely,” Sutis said.

“He’s the only other guy I’ve met that was on the same 28th replacement draft going overseas the first time we went to Guam,” said Bell.

Although the Battle of Guam was a site of heavy loss, the men were able to recall the good times they had during their deployments and the fulfillment it brought them.

Bell was eager to tell Sutis about his stories and Sutis the same. They began to trade each other coins and lapel pins. Inside this warehouse, two war veterans found a sanctuary to tell their stories that otherwise will be forgotten when they pass. These stories included getting drunk on coconut milk and old buddies that did not make it back and how one of the biggest and deadliest battles in our Nation’s history is experience by a 17 year old kid.

Bell explained how their company clerk died and his platoon was asked if anyone could type. Bell took three years in high school and that was enough for him to be the new clerk. A story that someone would pass off as a minor detail, but it made both laugh. For a moment, both veterans weren’t in their 90s with their secrets. They were 17 again sharing their stories.

The reminiscing was cut short as everyone was rounded up for group photos. But for a few precious moments, reminiscing about their time as Battle of Guam liberators and Iwo Jima survivors, made them happy.