Veterans Day Spotlight: A conversation with Escolastico “Cole” Griego, a veteran of Iwo Jima

A side-by-side picture of Cole Griego

The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the deadliest military campaigns between U.S. Marines and the Imperial Army of Japan. This five-week battle was one of the bloodiest fighting of World War II and is believed that 21,000 Japanese forces were killed on the island, while only capturing 200. More than 7,000 Marines were killed with thousands of others wounded in action.

During a conversation with Cole Griego, his wife Sylvia Griego, and daughter Renee Tabet, he recounted how his military career started and the intense battle he was a part of during World War II. He was drafted in June 1943, from the small town of Belen, located south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the completion of high school, he was flown to the Navy Hospital in San Diego to receive his military training as a Navy Corpsman combat medic.

Receiving the final parts of his medical training on Pearl Harbor, his 5th Marine Division unit was sent to Iwo Jima, nicknamed Sulfur Island, where he quickly became immersed in 36 days of “living in hell.” Griego described how he was under constant enemy fire from direct enemy rifles and indirect intense artillery shelling. He remembered losing a majority of his fellow Marines, but as a Navy Corpsman, he had to keep moving around the sandy volcanic battlefield to provide immediate first aid to the wounded. When he was not making split decisions on triaging the wounded, he recounted having to use his rifle to fend off Japanese forces as they emerged from their bunkers.

Thinking back on some of the events occurring during the intense 36-day battle, he remembered almost never taking a shower, and when a shower was provided, he had to put on the same dirty clothes. When asked about the food, his leaders, and what kept him going mentally and physically, he recounted, the C-rations that was provided was not the best, but it was a meal. Most of the time, he had to eat it cold. He indicated he had some good and bad leaders, but he always looked forward to a Change of Command that took place to replace the leaders he disliked.

The photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima

What kept him going each day was the Marines on the battlefield and the support he knew he had to provide as a Navy Corpsman in order to keep them in the fight. His most precious memory was when he was at the base of Mount Suribachi, attending to the injured and watching the Marines raise the flag as Joe Rosenthal took the iconic photo. He says, “It was the best day of my life watching that flag go up.”

When the battle was over, he was shipped back to Pearl Harbor for rest and relaxation. When asked what it was like after the fighting was over, he stated his unit did not know what was next. He was unaware whether they would move on to another part of the operation or if they were going to be shipped home. When his unit received their next mission, he was tasked to perform three months of clean up duty on the island he spent fighting for 36 days.   

Griego was honorably discharged in January 1946 and was awarded the World War II Victory Medal and the American Area Asiatic-Pacific Medal. He returned to his beloved home of Belen, New Mexico, where he first met his baby girl Deola, who had been born while he was in battle. He credits the connection to his wife and family for keeping him mentally stable while he was in the service.

Griego joined the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier and retired in 1980. In 2015, he and Sylvia moved to Colorado Springs. For his 96th birthday in September, family and friends were joined by the community for a drive-by party at his home.

“He is the one of the most content, happiest persons, ” his daughter Renee Tabet, told a local television station during the celebration.