Medford resident Dorothy McMahan wasn't looking forward to Christmas, her first since Norman, her husband of 60 years, passed away last spring.
But a letter she received late in December from a stranger in Indiana changed her grief to joy. The missive informed her that 17 members of the letter-writer's extended family are alive today thanks to her husband's heroism in the horrific World War II battle of Iwo Jima, which ended on March 26, 1945.
"To know all these people would not be here had it not been for Norman is so wonderful," said Dorothy, 80, a 1950 graduate of Jacksonville High School. "It just touched me to the core to discover that.
"Before I got the letter, I had this dark, heavy grief that I couldn't get above. This has brought so much relief, so much joy."
"When we read that letter, both of us had tears coming down," added their daughter, Norma McMahan, 55. "Dad was always my hero, but this sure put him up a few notches higher on the hero meter."
The letter was from Brent Verwers, 44, of Columbus, Ind., who wrote that Norman, a private first class in the 4th Marine Division, was responsible for saving the life of his father, Cpl. Cornie Verwers, now 88 and living in Eldorado, Ill.
"Please accept my condolences for the passing of your husband, Norman," the letter began. "I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet him to tell him what I am about to tell you. In my mind, your husband is a true American hero."
Without Norman's courageous actions on March 6, 1945, Verwers wrote, his father would not have lived, and he and his three siblings, along with their eight children and four grandchildren, would not be alive today.
"Please know that I hold your husband in high esteem and have a profound gratitude for what he did 65 years ago on that tiny island in the Pacific," he wrote.
Verwers' letter arrived a little more than 65 years after a similar letter — from his father, Cornie — was sent to Norman's mother, Serena McMahan, back in Medford. Dated June 3, 1945, that letter also thanked the Marine for his selfless act of courage.
"Your son helped save my life," Cornie Verwers wrote. "I don't hardly know how to word this, but want it to be one way of showing my appreciation to your son. He showed great courage under enemy fire and risking his own life."
The historic photograph of the Marines raising the flag on top of Mount Suribachi on that pork chop-shaped island on Feb. 19, 1945, is perhaps the best known of WWII photographs. But in reality the battle had just begun. For more than a month the battle would continue until 6,226 Marines were killed and 19,189 wounded. More than 17,000 Japanese soldiers were also killed. Only 216 prisoners were taken.
Standing a hair over 6-feet-4, Norman McMahan was known as a "gentle giant" by his family. In the Marine Corps, he was a cook, a skill the man who would retire from working at local timber mills demonstrated during special occasions at home.
"He was a very good cook," his widow said. "He was famous for making the dressing at our church's Thanksgiving dinners."
"Being a Marine, he always had to have everything laid out just right," Norma added. "He would cut the turkey just beautifully. The white meat was laid out along the dark meat very neatly."
But the former Marine, who joined the Corps from Medford in 1941, wasn't a braggart who liked to tell war stories about Iwo Jima, they noted.
"At first, he didn't talk a lot about it," Dorothy recalled. "But later, when we went through his stuff, he talked about the fellow he saved and wondered where he was. I do remember him saying they took their rifles and coats and made a stretcher and carried him out after it got dark. He said there were caves all over, and enemy soldiers kept shooting at them from the caves."
Nor did Cornie Verwers talk much about the battle of Iwo Jima, Brent Verwers, a financial consultant, said in a telephone interview with the Mail Tribune.
"It seems like my father and Norman led similar lives," he said, noting his father's health has been failing in the past year. "After they served their country, they came home, got married, raised their families and went on with their lives.
"Like a lot of those men who saw some of the worst combat in World War II, he didn't talk a whole lot about it," he continued. "They wanted to move on with their lives. But those few times when he did talk about it, he always credited Norman McMahan with saving his life."
It was only after publication of the top-selling, 1998 book, "The Greatest Generation," by Tom Brokaw, that his father began to gradually open up a little about Iwo Jima, he said.
"He said they were pinned down," he said. "The first bullet knocked off his helmet. The second struck his heel. The third — he was on the ground, spread eagle — hit him in his right shoulder, went through his chest and exited his left arm pit.
"He could hear but he couldn't speak — he was in shock," he added. "He remembered hearing Norman say, after they were ordered to pull back at one point, that he wouldn't leave him, that he would carry him out on his back if he had to. The order was changed for them to wait and get him out at night."
After getting permission from his father last year to try to find some of his old comrades at arms, Brent Verwers learned from an organizer of the unit's reunion that Norman McMahan hailed from Medford, Oregon. Through the Mail Tribune's website, he learned that the former Marine had died on May 13, 2010.
"It's sad that I never got to meet him and tell him 'thank you' for what he did," Brent Verwers said. "But I wanted Dorothy McMahan to know that our family would never have happened if it weren't for what Norman did to save my father in March of 1945. He will always have our gratitude."
Citing her family's strong religious faith, Dorothy said she believes her husband now knows of his living legacy. Moreover, she figures the letter has helped expand the McMahan family which, in addition to Norma, includes another daughter, Linda Bishop, a teacher in Idaho.
"We feel like Brent and his family are now part of ours, and it's all because of Norman," she said.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org