DREXEL, N.C. — In 1944, Rondall Baird, 17, of this small town in Western North Carolina, had many of the same dreams of the young men of his generation. “He wanted to be a dad. And, he wanted to be in some sort of work that the Lord would want him in,” remembers his youngest brother, Clyde Baird. Clyde lives in his childhood home — and in fact, sleeps in the same bedroom in which he was born 86-years-ago.
Clyde, as he did as an impressionable youngster, still proudly tells the story of his big brother.
It is a story of the Greatest Generation. Like his peers, Rondall was distracted. The world was at war.
So though he had enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and actually completed a semester in the autumn of 1943, Rondall did what his peers were doing. He looked for a chance to serve in what author Studs Terkel labeled “The Good War.”
Clyde recalls, “Because of the severity of the war, he couldn’t go back to school. He felt he had to join. Many of his friends from the area were beginning to enlist in the service.” So despite the promise of a bright future that the degree from Carolina would offer, and with a young bride expecting their first child, Rondall Baird, class of ‘43 from Drexel high School in Burke County, became a United States Marine.
He never would see his son, born in December of 1944. For he died a Marine.
Already en route to the Pacific by then, Rondall was but one of thousands in the grand “March to Tokyo” which military commanders Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz considered essential to the defeat of Japan. Leapfrogging islands westward toward Japan, U.S. forces were experiencing furious battles with the entrenched Japanese.
A mere 750 miles from Tokyo was a small island patch of volcanic ash critical to the success of this strategy. Its name: Iwo Jima.
On March 4, 1945, on this small, strategic battlefield five miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide, Rondall paid the ultimate sacrifice.
He was only one of more than 6,000 U.S. troops and 20,000 Japanese to die on the island in six weeks of fierce fighting that began on February 19, 1945. But to Clyde, and the rest of his family, Rondall’s sacrifice remains a painful memory, 76 years later.
Though saddened, they did not express bitterness. “I never heard Dad say, ‘This isn’t fair. Why do we have this war?’ He knew in his heart, this is what Rondall wanted to do, even to the point of giving his life,” remembers Clyde. Confident that Rondall knew the risks, Clyde recalls, “I heard Rondall say he was a United States Marine. He was so proud. I was proud to be beside him.”
The time Clyde speaks of truly was different. Of those who fought on Iwo Jima, Nimitz said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Reflecting back on the time, it is sobering to consider that even today the lives of those who were left behind remain forever changed.
Clyde was 10 in 1945. Remembering back to when Rondall was married in January of 1944, Clyde recalls helping his brother. He also remembers that Rondall, while in boot camp, would write letters to the whole family – Clyde, his brother, Lloyd, 16, and Rex, 13; his mother Carrie; his father, Clyde Sr.; and his wife, Irene. “Can you imagine the concern he had to write that much,” reflects Clyde, considering each family member receiving letters weekly. “They were simple letters, talking about maneuvers, being tired, talking about how good the bed felt at the end of the day. He would close eah one, ‘With respect to my wonderful parents.’”
Rondall was in the first attack wave on Iwo Jima on February 19. The famous picture of the flag being raised of 546-foot high Mr. Suribachi occurred on February 23. “Rondall, I can well imagine, saw that flag flying,” muses Clyde. Ironically, the day Rondall was Killed in Action (KIA) was the first day an American plane was able to land on the island. As a result, thousands of American lives were saved as B-29s were able to safely land on the island following bombing raids on Japan.
Clyde’s family continued to write to Rondall through early April. But then, Clyde recalls, “On an early day in April, a car came to our house. It was a weekday, because mom was at the mill and dad was at the store. But it was afternoon, because we were home from school. Two marines asked to see Dad. It just didn’t dawn on us what it was.
“Dad was told, but after a few minutes of collecting himself, went to Lloyd, who was practicing baseball. Lloyd recalls that Dad came over to the hill and Lloyd asked, ‘Has Rondall been wounded?’ Dad answered, ‘No, he’s been killed.'”
Clyde says, “We couldn’t believe it. We would never have thought that. Not Rondall.”
Next they went to Rondall’s house to tell his wife, Irene, who then had a four-month-old in tow, Terry Rondall Baird. Clyde says that Lloyd doesn’t remember many of the details of the visit except to say, “I’ve never heard such a scream, a wail, come from such a place.”
In December of ‘48, Rondall’s remains were brought back to Drexel for burial. “How my mother just clung to that coffin. And then the flag was presented to his little son,” remembers Clyde.
Seventy-six years later, Clyde says, “That emptiness, that void, will never be removed. Oh what that sacrifice meant. We’re free to take a ride, or go to church, or a ball game…”
Clyde says the refrain, “When Johnny comes marching home again…” keeps playing in his mind. But he adds, “In this case, the soldier didn’t come home. I know it happened in thousands of places across the United States. But it hit home in Drexel. ‘Johnny’ didn’t come back.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia.