HERMITAGE, Tenn. (WTVF) — There will come a time when our World War II veterans will no longer be with us. In the meantime, we have an incredible opportunity to hear history from those who lived it. Few have a more remarkable story to tell than Nashville native Robert DePriest.
Some of the photos, clippings and research inside DePriest's album we've all seen in history books. "You can see we’re laying on the ground with our rifles. That almost looks like me but I don’t know," said DePriest.
But he saw it all with his own eyes. "I know those were real people that did that," he said.
He was just 19 years old, serving as a medic in the U.S. Navy when he found himself embedded with the Marines on a daring mission. "Here’s Iwo Jima," said DePriest, as he points to the island in the Pacific Ocean on a map.
DePriest was in one of the first waves to storm the beaches on Iwo Jima. "They lined us up in lines and then they gave a signal for the first line to start moving in towards the beach," he said.
He remembers service members dodging enemy and friendly fire, in every direction. "Our first group of officers nearly all got killed or wounded," said DePriest.
As a medic, DePriest says they worked around the clock for days, recovering and treating the wounded. "Rescue people and carry them back, haul them on our backs and crawl on the ground with them on our backs, under fire," he said.
Often, all he could do was comfort the dying. "I picture about 18 to 20 of them still to this day. They were such great people and they lost their lives there and it was for our country," said DePriest.
It took more than a month for the United States to conquer the island. The only break in the attack that DePriest can remember, came at dawn on the fifth day of the invasion. "I heard all of this hollering and I looked up to Mount Suribachi and there that flag was going up," he said.
DePriest was witnessing the now iconic moment that Marines hoisted Old Glory at Iwo Jima. The photos and video of the moment have now become instantly recognizable. Even then, DePriest says he knew he was watching history unfold and unfurl, with his own eyes.
"Well Democracy doesn’t come cheap, and that was one time we were defending our country and our way of life and democracy," said DePriest.
His service to our country didn't end with the military. For decades after he returned home, he served as a federal investigator. Now, on special occasions, the 95-year-old shares his war stories with the next generations so that memories of those he lost live on.