When learning history, nothing compares to the power of a first-hand account. History instructor Michele Santosuosso has taken this notion to heart in her senior elective on special operations since World War II, regularly inviting veterans to share their experiences with the boys. Among her guest speakers this year was Don Graves, a World War II combat veteran who provided a quickly vanishing perspective of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“We wanted to save our families and our country,” Graves said about enlisting in the Marine Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We all quit and joined up. Number one, we were patriots – it was drilled into us.”
Graves spoke frankly to Marksmen about enlisting at a young age, carrying a 72-pound flamethrower on his short 145-pound frame and facing the realities and horrors of combat. Of the 335 men in his unit to hit the beach on Feb. 19, 1945, Graves was one of only 18 to leave the tiny island a few weeks later.
“Mr. Graves’ story of his own experience as a 17-year-old enlisting for WWII compares to our experience as 18-year-olds,” Winston Lee ’23 said. “It is crazy to think that at the same age as us, Mr. Graves was at Iwo Jima with a flamethrower on his back.”
The opportunity for students to interact with those who lived the experience they are learning about is a trademark of Santosuosso’s classes. Over the years, she has welcomed veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guests have ranged from frontline infantrymen and fighter pilots to three-star generals and Navy SEALs. They also represent every corner of the St. Mark’s community, including alumni, parents and current faculty/staff members.
“I provide the context and the history,” Santosuosso said. “The speakers give first-hand insight into their experiences. They provide incredible accounts and always encourage my students to ask questions.”
At the conclusion of his talk, the students joined in with Graves to sing God Bless America. Graves left a distinct impression on the boys, and they left one on him.
“He still talks about how special his trip to St. Mark’s was and how much he enjoyed the enthusiasm of the students and their insightful questions,” said Kelly Castonguay, Graves’ representative for public speaking.