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Worth the wait: Perham veteran Paul Ceynowa, who witnessed the flag raising at Iwo Jima, is awarded combat medals nearly 70 years later

Submitted photo Paul Ceynowa, when he was about 19 or 20 years old and in the Marine Corps. Born and raised in Perham, he fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima and then settled down in Missouri before returning to the area about eight years ago.

Paul Ceynowa was one of the first soldiers to step foot on the beach of Iwo Jima during World War II.

It was Feb. 19, 1945, the first day of what turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war – the Battle of Iwo Jima. A passenger on the first boat to reach the South Pacific island that day, Ceynowa’s boots hit the sand at about 9 a.m.

The Perham native, a proud Platoon Sargeant with the Marine Corps, was about 20 years old then.

That day was his first in battle, and it was a gruesome introduction. Running out ahead of his troops, Ceynowa led the 28th Regiment across the beach to the island’s west coast. Their objective was to reach and secure Mount Suribachi.

The passage was perilous. The troops ran through about 500 yards of volcanic ash, through rapid gunfire and frequent bombings. The air was thick with smoke and gun powder, the blasts were deafening, and the losses were devastating.

Communication among the troops was lost early on, with the death of the platoon’s “radio man,” who was shot while running alongside Ceynowa. As the day went on and the violence ensued, many more were killed, on both sides.

“That first day was a holocaust,” recalled Ceynowa during an interview last week. “More men were killed than survived... I got lucky. How all that stuff missed me, I don’t know. It was a miracle.”

Ceynowa’s regiment managed to reach Mount Suribachi by that afternoon, but the attacks and fighting continued heavily for the next four days. By Feb. 23, Marines had the mountain surrounded, and a few of Ceynowa’s men climbed to the summit to raise an American flag.

That flag raising, caught on camera by Joe Rosenthal, would go on to become one of the most significant and recognizable photos of the war. Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for it, and the photo would go on to inspire the Marine Corps War Memorial sculpture in Washington, D.C. Over the years, the photograph has been featured in a Clint Eastwood movie as well as on a postage stamp, the cover of TIME Magazine, and numerous other media and artworks.

Ceynowa was there to see it taken.

The battle continued on for nearly five weeks after the flag raising, though the violence peaked in those first four days. When it was all said and done, Ceynowa was one of just 11 Marines to walk away from the battle uninjured. His uniform gave away a few close calls – his backpack had four bullet holes in it, and a bullet had shot through one of his pant legs.

Ceynowa was honorably discharged from the Marines about a year later, earning a Good Conduct medal and a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor.

But it wasn’t until last Wednesday, nearly 70 years later, that he actually received those medals.

In a special ceremony at the Frazee Care Center, where Ceynowa now lives, the Otter Tail County Services Office and Dent American Legion came together to honor the courageous veteran, and to award him with the medals that had, until then, been lost to history.

Charles Kampa, Veterans Service Officer for Otter Tail County, said many veterans who were supposed to be awarded medals at discharge never actually received them. That’s one of the reasons why his office reviews the discharges for veterans in the county – so these mistakes can be discovered and rectified.

Kampa said Ceynowa’s “V” for valor is an especially notable medal, as it recognizes heroism in dangerous combat. In this case, during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“I think it’s great,” said Ceynowa’s brother, Mark, a Perham resident, at the ceremony. “I think more veterans need to be recognized...even if it’s long after the fact. It’s a great memento for him and the family. I’m proud that he’s my brother and that he served in the 28th Regiment.”

The Ceynowa family has a long history in Perham. Paul said his relatives were among the first settlers in town, and many family members have stayed and raised their families in the area.

After being born and raised here, Ceynowa left to join the Marines at age 18, attending basic training at Camp Pendleton in California.

“The only way I could save the country was to join the Marine Corps,” he said of why he decided to enlist. “I liked the Marine Corps. When we set out to do something, we got it done.”

His regiment’s success at Iwo Jima is an accomplishment that he’s still “very happy about” to this day.

Following his service, Ceynowa married and settled down in Missouri, where he worked as a factory representative for a number of years. He has one daughter, Anne, and three grandchildren. About eight years ago, he moved back to the Perham area.

Seven years ago, he was part of an Honor Flight that took World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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