Historic flag honors nation's fallen warriors
March 7, 2013
FORT DRUM, New York (March 7, 2013) -- At exactly 6 a.m. Feb. 27, a very special American flag was raised at Hays Hall, the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry). The cannon boomed, and reveille was played as the flag made its way up the flagpole through the cold, rainy air.
At first glance, this flag looks like any other American flag that is raised and lowered at military installations around the world every day. It is only when one looks closer that the physical difference is noticed. On the flag, there are 48 stars where normally it would count 50. This difference was no factory error; it is the correct number of stars for its time.
In fact it is a World War II-era flag that, after escorting a fallen Marine infantryman on his final journey home from the island of Iwo Jima in 1948, has become something much more. Now, it is a memorial that honors all who have given their lives in previous wars and those that will be fought in times to come. It is something old that has become not only new again, but everlasting.
Joseph J. A'Hearn was 26 when he was drafted in 1943. The war had started two and a half years earlier, and A'Hearn felt he could no longer ignore the feeling to do his part. So, despite his mother's wishes, he answered his nation's call to arms.
"My great-great-grandmother didn't want him to serve," said Lt. Col. Christopher S. Moretti, chief of fires for 10th Mountain Division (LI). "But after two and a half years of war, it kind of weighed upon him that he wanted to serve."
A'Hearn enlisted in the Marines and was assigned as an infantryman to F Company, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. On Feb. 19, 1945, the battle for Iwo Jima began. Surviving only eight days of brutal fighting through the harsh jungle terrain against a determined and deeply-entrenched enemy, Pvt. A'Hearn lost his life.
"He was killed eight days into the campaign," Moretti said. "The day that he died, they were at Airfield No. 2."
Airfield No. 2 was a major objective located between Hill 362 and a terrain feature that became known as Turkey Knob. The basin that lay between these terrain features was nicknamed the "Amphitheater," and it was there that the bloodiest fighting of the battle took place.
"In the company commander's handwritten letter, it stated that he was killed during the battalion attack," Moretti said. "It stated that he was hit by Japanese mortar fire and he succumbed to his burns."
A'Hearn was buried on the island and posthumously promoted to private first class. In December 1948, his remains, accompanied by the 48-star flag, were returned back to the U.S. where they were buried at his final resting place in his hometown of Somerville, Mass. The flag was then given to his wife.
"My grandmother flew it one time," Moretti said. "And then she folded it up like a shirt, put it in a clothes box and then packed it away."
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. It was then that the flag came back to mind.
"I came into the Army in 1987, and growing up, I had heard about the flag," Moretti said. "Once I began serving, I started searching."
It would be 16 years of searching, made all the more difficult because of the family's geographical separation throughout the New England area. In 2003, Moretti was attending the Command and General Staff College, or CGSC, at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. While there, he went home to Rhode Island on Christmas leave, and through a conversation, he learned of the flag's whereabouts.
"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 a discussion between Moretti and his extended family, the decision was made that he would be the sole keeper of the flag. While discussing the flag's history with some classmates at Fort Leavenworth, Moretti desired to have his mother come to the school and honor her father's sacrifice on the anniversary of his death. He had no idea that flying the flag would have such an impact on both the school and the surrounding community.
"The original intent was for my mom to come out and to fly the flag, to render honors to my grandfather and to then put the flag away," Moretti said. "I had no idea of the steam that (flying the flag) had gained. All the leadership, and the local media, the press, that was never my intent."
The early morning reveille ceremony at Fort Leavenworth was simple enough, with only his classmates acting as the color guard. The flag went up and flew all day with the school leadership's full support. It was when the flag was lowered at the end of the day that the true extent of the flag's gaining attention was made apparent.
Along with 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. In all, nearly 300 people were present for the occasion. He also received emails from veterans thanking him for his remembrance.
As the flag was folded and handed to his mother that evening, Moretti realized that 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. 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, the 48-star flag has flown every year since and in many different countries, including in Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts. Moretti also is looking at passing the flag down to his son, who is currently involved in a local ROTC program and has expressed a desire to enter the military when he graduates.
When the time comes to pass on the flag, Moretti said that his son will be reminded, just as he reminds everyone else, of the tradition's message.
"It is not about me," Moretti said. "It's about paying respect to those that came before, especially those that paid the ultimate price."