TICONDEROGA - Ray Tolar made a vow 66 years ago to honor the sacrifices of his fellow Marines.
That's why today - Feb. 19 - Tolar will raise his American flag and salute.
"For me this is a cause," the Ticonderoga man said. "It's important to remember what freedom costs, to remember those who have died."
Feb. 19, 1945, U.S. Marines landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The small island, about 10 square miles, was vital to an anticipated American invasion of Japan that would end World War II.
Tolar, then an 18-year-old, and his fellow Marines were told Iwo Jima would be a 3-5 day "warm up" for the invasion of Japan. It turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles in history.
When U.S. Marines finally secured the island on March 16, they had 6,891 dead and more than 18,000 wounded. All but 212 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders on the island died.
Tolar turned down a scholarship to RPI to join the Marines in 1942. By the time he reached Iwo Jima, he was a grizzled veteran having seen combat in the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Tinian.
"None of them were easy," Tolar recalled of the Pacific battles. "And it wasn't just the battles. Once we spent 41 days on a transport (ship). We couldn't use lights at night because the Japanese might see us; we had to stay below. We had bad air, bad food; it was a terrible experience."
But while Tolar, a member of the Marine 4th Division, had seen action, nothing prepared him for Iwo Jima.
"We came in the first wave, on the right flank," he recalled of the Iwo Jima landing. "We expected a lot of fire, but there wasn't."
The Japanese had retreated from the beach and had established defensive positions in caves and bomb craters. Their strategy was to allow the Americans to advance into carefully-devised "kill zones."
That strategy worked. Americans were able to cut the island in two on the first day of the battle, but suffered more than 2,400 casualties.
"We tried to dig in (foxholes), but the island was volcanic rock and you couldn't dig," Tolar said. "You were in the open all the time. It was so rocky you didn't have any cover."
At one point, pinned down by Japanese fire, Tolar used the body of a dead Marine for cover.
"I don't know who he was, but he saved my life that day," Tolar said.
After three days of fighting Marines captured Mount Suribachi, the island's highest point. There Marines raised an American flag, a moment that became famous thanks to a photo shown around the world.
"I didn't see it right away; we were trying our best to stay low," Tolar said of the flag. "But I saw it later." Many assumed the flag raising was a symbol of victory.
"That was really just the start of the battle," Tolar said.
In the fierce combat, Tolar and four other Marines became separated from their unit. On their own several days, Tolar and the men were classified Missing in Action. They ran out of food and water.
Tolar came across the body of a dead Marine. Searching the man's pack for ammunition and other useful items, he found an apple.
"I'll admit it, I thought about eating that apple," Tolar said.
Instead, he took it back to fellow lost Marines and cut it into five pieces.
"No one said thank you, but they didn't have to," he recalled. "The looks on their faces said it all.
"Every time I turn on the water I think of Iwo," Tolar said. "When I eat I always leave a few morsels on my plate, just because Ican. I'll never forget those days."
The casualty rate among Marines on Iwo Jima was a staggering 22 percent, but Tolar escaped unhurt.
"I was one of the luckiest Marines ever," he said. "We lost so many buddies. We were demoralized."
The battle taught Americans the resolve of Japanese defense. It played a key role in the decision to use atomic bombs when attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki rather than invading the Japanese homeland.
"The Japs didn't give up," Tolar said. "You had to kill them. Sometimes they'd kill themselves. They'd do anything but surrender."
It's important Americans remember battles like Iwo Jima, Tolar said. To help with that cause Tolar has written a memoir titled "28 Days" about his experiences.
Tolar and his friend Charlie Drake, another Ticonderoga Marine veteran, make it a point to observe anniversaries such as Feb. 19.
"On Memorial Day we raise the flag and salute," Tolar said. "But we should do more. We should remember the sacrifices of Americans every day. Charlie understand that. A better friend and Marine you'll never find.
"Mark Feb. 19 on your calendar and, if you will, give thought to this meager reminder," he said. "A degree of sorrow will be felt in your heart as well as a tremendous sense of pride for being an American and what it stands for.
"Semper Fi," he concluded.