A WWII veteran’s journey: Through hell and back to tell about it


Donald Irwin, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, shakes 1st Lt. Lauren Campbell’s hand, April 7, 2017, on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan. Irwin, who served aboard a number of ships during World War II, fought at Midway and Guadalcanal and survived the sinking of the USS Colhoun during the Battle of Okinawa. Irwin returned to Okinawa and exchanged stories with the Marines and Sailors stationed on the island. Irwin is a native of San Jose, California, and Campbell, a native of Redwood City, California, is a material control officer with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force. (Photo: US Marine Corps)

By Cpl. Amaia Unanue, III Marine Expeditionary Force

At 4:30 p.m., April 6, 1946, the United States Ship John C. Colhoun II received a call for help from a ship under kamikaze attack. When the Colhoun sailed toward the vessel in distress, the kamikazes turned on the Colhoun, crashing into the bridge of the ship and sinking it. Navy veteran Donald Irwin survived, but lost 34 shipmates that day, off the coast of Okinawa.

On the 72nd anniversary of the Colhoun sinking, Donald returned.

“I thought to myself, ‘Am I too old to have a bucket list?’” said Irwin, a 93-year-old, San Jose, California, native. “I’ve always wanted to return to Okinawa.”

As he laid a wreath on Toguchi Beach, Okinawa, Japan, in commemoration of the 34 fallen service members, he closed a chapter of his personal journey.

During their two weeks on Okinawa, Donald and his wife Geneva toured the Battle of Okinawa Historical Display, the former Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters, and visited active duty Marines and Sailors to tell his story.

The veteran’s story reads like a timeline of the Pacific campaign. When the bombs descended on Pearl Harbor, Donald heard them explode. Afterward, the veteran participated in the Battle of Midway, raids on the Marshall Islands, the invasion of the Solomon Islands and the Doolittle raid in Japan. From the beginning of the war until the end, Donald was fighting somewhere in the Pacific.

One of the Marines listening was Cpl. Dakota Ford, a field radio operator with Marine Wing Communications Squadron 18, Marine Air Control Group 18, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force. Ford, who met Donald Irwin at the Camp Foster United Services Organization building, said he felt humbled to hear the veteran’s story.

“Sometimes we complain about us working in a sweaty workshop, but he’s actually been there, taking rounds and sending rounds down range, and watching his buddies to his left and right die, so it’s definitely humbling, and I’ll instill that in my Marines,” said Ford.

Donald and Geneva also toured Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st MAW, where they got the chance to see the MV-22B Osprey and ask questions about its development. Donald said he walked in between two lines of Marines, shaking the hands of over 200 service members. He described the moment as overwhelming.

“Emotionally, seeing all those people standing in line to meet me was absolutely amazing to me — that those young people went out of their way to meet me,” said Donald.

Throughout this trip, Donald and Geneva said they both felt very honored and welcomed. Donald said his most memorable experience was seeing what Okinawa looked like now and comparing it to the last time he was here.

“The last time I was here was, of course, in the dark, and the war was still going on, and things looked messy,” said Donald. “All of the city build-up through 72 years covered up the bad parts. So that made an impression on me.”

Not only did Okinawa leave a memorable impression on Donald, but he also said he hopes that he left an impression on the service members stationed in Okinawa. He said he believes the service members here would still be the first to fight.

“I say to them, ‘When we were here, we were on the front line,’” Donald said. “And then I tell them, ‘So are you.’”