Marty Samowitz didn’t pay much attention when he saw five Marines and one Navy corpsman raise the U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi.
It was Feb. 23, 1945 — the fourth day of the battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
Troops had reached the top of the mountain, so they raised the flag in what seemed like an ordinary scene to Samowitz, who sat smoking with the Marines he served alongside.
He didn’t know that the scene, captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, would go on to become what Samowitz later called “an iconic symbol of the worst war in history.”
In February 2012, on the 67th anniversary of the battle’s beginning, Samowitz shared his stories from World War II with the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key.
“We were just fooling around because we were happy to get to the top,” Samowitz said.
Someone asked: “What did it feel like to walk to the top of Mount Suribachi?”
That caught Samowitz’s attention.
“Walk!?” he scoffed. “We crawled up on our elbows and knees.”
Martin “Marty” Samowitz, a Longboat Key resident and the oldest known Iwo Jima survivor, died Dec. 6.
He was 99.
“He packed so much life into those 99 years,” said Lynn Weddington Welly, who befriended Samowitz when her husband, Michael Welly, was general manager of the Longboat Key Club. “It’s not just that he lived to be 99. It’s what he did in those years.”
Born Oct. 28, 1914, in New York City, he was 27 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted a short time later with the Air Force and fought in the Pacific as part of the 7th Fighter Command, 20th Air Force but volunteered to attach to a Marine unit in preparation for the battle of Iwo Jima.
He was nearly a decade older than most of the Marines he fought with, most of whom were in their teens and early 20s. Decades later at Iwo Jima survivors’ reunions, Marine veterans would sometimes ask him,
“Remember me? We shared a foxhole.”
In truth, their young faces blended together.
As the troops prepared for the invasion, a general told them it would take two days, tops. Instead, the battle raged on for 36 days.
When the war ended, Samowitz had to wait a few months to return home because there weren’t enough ships to bring all the troops home at once. When he was finally discharged on the West Coast, he and a few buddies bought new clothes, threw away their military uniforms and took the train back home to New York.
Upon his return, he began working at his father’s business, Perry’s Shoes. He sold the business in 1970 but contracted to continue to work there.
In 1971, he noticed a young woman named Paulette interviewing for a position.
“Marty had an interview room with an open glass. He said to his office manager, ‘I don’t care what she does. You hire her,’” said Paulette Samowitz, his wife of 40 years. “That was the beginning of us.”
In 1974, Samowitz founded Marty’s Discount Shoes, which grew to more than 70 stores by 1997; he later sold the business in 2006.
The Samowitzes purchased their unit at Grand Bay in 1998, after searching throughout the state for a retirement home. But even as Samowitz grew older in years, he didn’t seem to age in real time.
He read New England Centenarian Study founding director Dr. Thomas Perls’ “Living to 100,” then called Perls to tell him about how he was a “young lad” in his 80s who still rollerbladed and skied. Intrigued, the doctor flew from Boston to meet Samowitz.
Samowitz typically read three or four books at a time and five newspapers per day.
“He found life so interesting,” Welly said. “He was always reading and absorbing.”
Last year, before the Wellys moved off the Key, they took the Samowitzes out for a goodbye dinner.
Samowitz had a confession: He shook his head and admitted that, at 98, he’d just started watching TV.
In his later decades, Samowitz became active with Iwo Jima survivors’ groups that grew as veterans retired.
“For years and years and years, I didn’t think about Iwo Jima,” Samowitz told the Longboat Observer. “It was only later that you think about what it was and what those days were.”
Still, he declined to go on charter flights to Iwo Jima with other survivors on anniversaries.
“I didn’t like it the first time,” he told them. “I’m not going to like it the second time.”
In recent years, the number of Iwo Jima survivors began to grow slim.
In August 2010, Samowitz attended what the Iwo Jima Survivors Association called its 65th Final Reunion — the “final” because the number of survivors was dwindling so low.
The final reunion had a candlelight service in honor of members’ comrades who lost their lives on Iwo Jima and the survivors who had since died. A table remained empty in honor of those who were unable to attend.
On Oct. 3, 2010, Samowitz reflected on the final reunion in an email to fellow survivors that he called “Idle thought on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Atlantic City, N.J.”
The Journal of the Iwo Jima Survivors published it.
It stated, in part:
“Can you believe it’s been over 65 years since D-Day when we stormed the beaches on that godforsaken black sand island off Japan and lost almost 7,000 of our comrades? The candlelight service for our departed, who lost their lives then, and in the intervening years, was so moving that these hardened eyes of mine could not help but shed a tear.”
Samowitz gathered with friends and family members in his Grand Bay condominium Oct. 28, to celebrate his 99th birthday.
He reflected on his life in a “My View” column published that week in the Longboat Observer.
In the column, he wrote that he’d been rich and he’d been broke, but his greatest accomplishment was providing support for dozens of charities through the Martin A. Samowitz Foundation he’d established in 2004.
One of those gifts was a $1 million pledge to Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s ENVISION initiative he and Paulette made last December.
In the column, he quoted Andrew Carnegie, who said, “He who dies rich dies disgraced.”
He also paraphrased a Scottish philosopher whose name he didn’t remember: “Those who help others will always live in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Samowitz received a surprise at his party: The Betio Bastards, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge made a video to wish him a happy birthday. The Marines told him they were honored to serve in the same Marine Corps he served with on Iwo Jima and wished him “hoorahs” and “semper fi” from their ship.
This time, Samowitz paid attention to the young faces as they spoke through the screen of the MacBook Pro laptop — and raised his right hand for a final salute.
Samowitz is survived by his wife, Paulette; daughter, Lani Haynes; and two granddaughters. Paulette extends thanks to his physician, Dr. Dean Hautamaki.
A celebration of life will take place in January. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]