A lifetime of memories for North Carolina Marine veteran ... Tommy Harrelson, Rockingham NC native, enjoys NASCAR racing. ROCKINGHAM, NC --- It's a long way from the rural North Carolina community of Rockingham to the sun-drenched landscape of...
A lifetime of memories for North Carolina Marine veteran ... Tommy Harrelson, Rockingham NC native, enjoys NASCAR racing.
ROCKINGHAM, NC --- It's a long way from the rural North Carolina community of Rockingham to the sun-drenched landscape of a tiny Pacific Island called Iwo Jima. In the early 1940's, not many Americans knew where this island was or even how to pronounce its name.
But the volcanic outcropping in the Southern Pacific was the next stepping stone in America's efforts to defeat the third component of the Axis Powers during World War II. For island-hopping American forces, Iwo Jima was the next step on the road to Japan.
During his 49-month tenure in the Marine Corps, Tommy Harrelson spent a large amount of his time fighting on the front lines for the 3rd Marine Division during World War II.
Iwo Jima was the third battle he and his buddies entered in the Pacific theater. Having already faced the enemy in battles at Gaudalcanal and Guam, he well knew how hard the fight would be. But as he stepped onto the tiny island, he was unaware that he was about to witness one of the most historic events in American Military history, the raising of the American Flag on Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945.
"The Iwo Jima battle was rough. We lost a lot of good men. It was unlike anything I had ever witnessed," Harrelson said. "We knew it would be tough, but we also knew we were there to defend our country. I had only been there a couple of days when I was fortunate enough to witness the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. At the time I never realized the importance of that event. Looking back on it, I feel very fortunate to have witnessed our flag being raised."
The raising of the flag was captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and later immortalized in bronze in Arlington, VA. The flag raising galvanized a unit of our fighting forces and became known as a symbol of the purpose of the United States Marine Corps.
On his seventh day of fighting in Iwo Jima, Harrelson was shot in the chest and suffered a major injury to one of his lungs. He was shipped back to Corona, CA where he was hospitalized for over 3 months. He knew he had to count his blessings, despite being shot as 6,821 Americans lost their lives on the island of Iwo Jima.
Once he recovered from his injury, he decided to move back home to the sand hills of Rockingham. There he resumed his life with wife Ruby, whom he has been married to for 57 years. They have one son, Larry, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Larry, is a Police officer in Rockingham, NC and also works with security for the North Carolina Speedway.
These days Harrelson can be found relaxing at home, spending time with family. He has also come to enjoy the sport of NASCAR both on television and in person. When you consider the influence the United States Marine Corps has had in his life, it's easy to understand whom Harrelson pulls for on the track.
"Of course, I pull for Bobby Hamilton, Jr. and the Team Marines car," Harrelson said. "Being a Marine it gives me a special feeling to watch the car on the track and know that they are sending out the message of the Marine Corps, both to Marines like myself and young folks that are considering becoming Marines. I think all Marines pull for that car and are proud to see it on the racetrack."
The pride of owning the Team Marines Ford is also felt by the owners of Team Rensi Motorsports, Ed and Sam Rensi and Gary Weisbaum.
"We at Team Rensi Motorsports have had the honor of carrying the Marine Corps colors for the past 3 years. What a privilege!" said Sam Rensi. "My father was a DI () in World War II. He served his country and raised my brother and me to have the highest respect for God, Country and the American Flag. Being associated with the premier branch of the military has been a gratifying experience for Ed and I."
Sam Rensi has been very impressed by the attitude of Harrelson.
"Tommy Harrelson was 16 when he entered the Marine Corps. At 19 he found himself in the South Pacific at Mount Suribachi. He probably had no idea of the historic significance of the event as he watched the flag being raised. He is a humble and unassuming man who speaks of major campaigns with a "matter of factness" indicative of a man " just doing his job". This is the embodiment of a US Marine."
Throughout the last three NASCAR racing seasons, Rensi has been fortunate to meet with many other Marines and learn more about the role of the Marines in our country.
"In this difficult time in our country's history we at Team Rensi are particularly sensitive to the job that is being done by our military today. We consider our association with the United States Marine Corps a privilege and an honor."
Tommy Harrelson is just like most of the United States Marines across the world today that have dedicated their lives to defending our freedom. When Bobby Hamilton, Jr. climbs behind of the wheel of the Team Marines Ford, he knows that to live up to the reputation of all Marines he must give 110% and do his best to drive the # 25 Team Marines Ford to Victory Lane.
"One thing I learned from day one of driving the Team Marines Ford was how important it is to be the best both on and off the track," Hamilton, Jr. said. "I know there are hundreds of thousands of Marines out there that take pride in our racing team and expect us to work as hard as they do in their line of work. I want people like Tommy Harrelson and all other Marines to know we are thankful for their service and we are very proud to have them on board this racecar."
There are thousands of similar stories to the one of this proud Marine. Each one of them have the same characteristics: Honor. Commitment. Trust. Those traits are seen throughout the United States Marines Corps. It gives the Team Marines Racing Team great pride to have such a strong fraternity standing behind them as they go about their battles.