WESTMINSTER, Colo. — Like old pictures protected behind plastic in an album, Don Whipple's memories are pristine after 75 years.
“They’ve been there every day of my life since," Whipple said.
The 94-year-old was just 17 during the battle of Iwo Jima.
“Here’s a picture of when I was a young guy," Whipple said, flipping an album page and stopping on a picture of a young Marine. "This was right after I joined up.”
Whipple now has the chance to meet President Donald Trump. The veteran was invited to Colorado Springs to attend Trump's rally on Thursday.
“We got an invitation last year at this same day from the president to come meet at the White House with him," Whipple said.
From his home in Westminster, Whipple recalled the five-week battle that began Feb. 19, 1945.
“The bloodiest and fiercest battle in Marine Corps history," he said.
Whipple remembered the day of the invasion started with a holiday meal for breakfast.
"Dressing and mashed potatoes and turkey and the whole works - pumpkin pie," he said.
Whipple remembered the orders to have his dungarees cleaned and pressed before he hopped in the Higgins boat. As the landing craft made its way toward the island, Whipple felt everything was routine until he noticed the Navy plane.
"I heard the thing sputter and then it died out and I looked up and there he was," he said.
The plane must have been hit by antiaircraft artillery.
"She started spiraling down and I thought, 'Man, this is for real. These guys are out to kill us.'"
Whipple said he doesn't recall being scared. He recalled landing on the island and the incident that earned him a Purple Heart.
On the morning of the first day of the battle, Whipple was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round.
“The next thing I saw just instantly was a big flash," he said.
Whipple said his captain yelled, "Whip, you've been hit!"
"I looked down on my leg right here. I could see I was bleeding like crazy," he said.
Whipple said he also suffered a traumatic brain injury but later returned to battle. He said he was on the island to see in person the flag-raising made famous by a single frame.
The veteran said he isn't sure if he witnessed the first or second flag-raising that became an iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal, but he remembered the reaction from fellow Marines.
"The ships started honking their horns and guys were shooting their rifles in the air and everybody was cheering," he smiled. "It was a celebration when they saw that flag go up.”
Whipple's visit to the Trump rally will be another honor and memory to add to Whipple's collection.
“It’s a fantastic thing to be a part of the Marine Corps," he said.
Next week, Whipple will also head to Washington, D.C. to attend the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
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