Don Graves first called out to God with his face buried in the sandy beach of Iwo Jima.

It was Feb. 19, 1945, and Graves was on a combat assignment as a trained flamethrower for the U.S. Marine Corps. He was in a landing craft headed toward the beach when it came under attack. 

Graves, who was 20 at the time, remembers climbing over the side of the craft into the water after it landed. He struggled to get to shore under the weight of the 72-pound flamethrower on his back. Somehow he made it, collapsing on the beach face-first into the sand.

“I said, ‘God, I don’t know much about you. But if you’re real and you could do for me what people say you could do, and you get me off this island, I’ll serve you the rest of my life,’ ” Graves said. 

The Battle for Iwo Jima is known as one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. About 70,000 Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers took part in the battle and nearly 7,000 Marines were killed. Another 20,000 were wounded, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. 

Soon after, Graves’ life unfurled to reveal a battle of its own. The 98-year-old veteran and Fort Worth resident visited Met Church on Oct. 29 to share his life story and commitment to ministry. 

Bill Ramsey, senior pastor of Met Church, gathered with about 100 attendees inside the church on Oct. 29, 2023, to hear World War II veteran Don Graves share his story. “How do I feel about my country? I love it. I respect it because I understand the history of it,” Graves said. (Courtesy photo | Kenny Richard)

About 100 people gathered inside the multipurpose room of Met Church to hear Graves’ story. Bill Ramsey, senior pastor of the church, opened the event with a prayer and expressed his gratitude for Graves’ service. 

“We’re grateful for this man. We’re honored that we can honor him, and so we pray to bless our time together, bless our families,” Ramsey said. “Your hand has been on him as a young boy, as he served our country and as he had lived his life.” 

Graves opened up the conversation by sharing how he was motivated to enlist in the Marines. His father served as a Marine in World War I. 

Graves remembers feeling the spark of inspiration in December 1941 when the Detroit native heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. 

After hearing the speech, the Detroit native decided to skip school and visit the Marine Corps recruitment office. The 16-year-old Graves was turned down by the recruiter because of his age. 

In the years leading up to World War II, the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard allowed enlistment at 17 with parental consent and 18 without, according to the University of Montana.

After his 17th birthday in 1942, Graves returned to the recruiter’s office and enlisted in the Marine Corps. 

After boot camp, Graves was assigned to an anti-tank unit and was later trained as a flamethrower operator in preparation for his first combat assignment at Iwo Jima. 

Graves was one of the few Marines within his Second Battalion, Fifth Marine Division to survive the 36-day battle and make it off the island.  He was honorably discharged from the military in 1946 with the rank of corporal. 

Graves remembers seeing many of his friends killed or wounded in action. One war memory that remains fresh is witnessing one of his young partners in battle get shot right next to him. 

“His head came back, helmet flew off and fell on the ground. The helmet went right there between my feet,” Graves said. 

When Graves looked inside the helmet, he found a photo of a young lady sitting in a chair with a baby on her lap. Memories like that made it hard for Graves to keep the promise he initially made to God while lying on Iwo Jima’s sandy beach. 

“I cursed Iwo Jima. I cursed the Marine Corps. Listen fellas, I cursed God,” Graves told the audience at Met Church. “I forgot about my prayer on the beach.” 

Graves shared how he faced the challenge of adjusting to civilian life after the war. To cope, he started drinking. Graves’ wake up call was an invitation from a friend to attend a worship service by Billy Graham, a prominent evangelical Christian preacher.  

Graves told the audience he remembered tearing up during the service when Amazing Grace was softly-sung during the service. He sang the beginning of the hymnal to attendees. 

Attending worship services and studying the Bible helped Graves transition to becoming a minister. 

“I fell in love with the Bible. I just fell in love with it,” Graves said “ I fell in love with Paul, our apostle.” 

Graves became involved with Youth of Christ, a national Christian movement that started in the 1940s. He later took college-level theology classes and became a minister in the mid-1970s. He retired from preaching in 2007. 

“Bless that book. It put me in the ministry for 32 years. I had a great time and I worked hard,” Graves said.

Attendees had the opportunity to meet Graves, take photos and get autographs from him after an event on Oct. 29, 2023, in Met Church in Fort Worth. A table and backdrop decorated with Marine Corps regalia was set up in the lobby of the church. (Courtesy photo | Kenny Richard)

At the end of the conversation, Graves received a standing ovation from the audience. Jeff Kiss, a member of the church, contributed to the applause.

Both Kiss’ grandfather and father served in the military. Hearing Graves’ story made Kiss reflect on his family history and gave him something to talk about with his two daughters, who are learning about Veterans Day in their schools. 

“Some of us are younger families, so it teaches us and shows where we came from,” Kiss said. “To look back and hear stories like this and hear men who have been through it and gone to churches and see how God has worked in their life is just refreshing. ” 

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter @marissaygreene.

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Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member and covers faith in Tarrant County for the Fort Worth Report. Greene got her start in journalism at Austin Community College, where she spearheaded the...