Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Old Friend Remembers True Hero

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Old Friend Remembers True Hero

Article excerpt

Byline: Charlie Patton, Times-Union columnist

In the summer before war came and changed their lives forever, Ernest Thomas, known in his North Florida hometown of Monticello as "Boots," lived with the family of Jim Sledge.

Thomas's father had died in 1939 and his family moved to Tallahassee. But Thomas -- star athlete, star student, three-time class president -- stayed in Monticello to finish high school and work at the A&P.

As Thomas prepared to leave for college in the fall of 1941, his friendship with Sledge deepened. They had become like brothers. In September, Thomas left for Indiana, where he had a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering at Tri-State College. Sledge began his senior year of high school.

Then, in December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. "I've got to fight," Thomas wrote his mother, just before he joined the Marines. "I can't think of anything but Pearl Harbor."

Sledge finished high school, then went into the service as well. After the war, he went to dental school, then returned to Monticello and opened a practice. Thomas came back to Monticello too. In 1948, his body, which had been buried on Iwo Jima, was returned to the United States. His grave in Roseland Cemetery was marked with a marble stone inscribed with the epitaph: "Killed in action on Iwo Jima, five days after raising the first American flag on Mt. Suribachi."

For Sledge, that simple epitaph has never been enough. He never forgot his "brother," and he never abandoned the struggle to keep Thomas's memory alive. That's why he spearheaded efforts to get an Iwo Jima memorial in Monticello, something that finally happened in 1981. That's why he traveled last weekend to the hamlet of Long Prairie, Minn., to attend a re-enactment of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima that was part of the dedication of the town's Veteran's Memorial Park. …

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