By Mark Hendricks (Hillviews, 2011)
Glen Cleckler ’50 and his wife JoAnn ’52 sit at the base of the Iwo Jima statue in Harlingen. One of the Marines depicted in the statue is Harlon Block, Glen’s friend who died on the island in 1945.
From time to time, Glen Cleckler, 87, still visits his dear friend Harlon Block. He stands respectfully beside his gravesite. He may speak to him quietly, with a trace of a smile on his face, about the perils of growing old. But, for the most part, Cleckler uses these visits to remember.
And on this sweltering summer afternoon on the campus of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, it is no different. Cleckler looks down upon his old friend’s resting place and remembers. The memories come easily, perhaps because they comprise a story that is so impossible to forget. The two were best friends in high school in the Rio Grande Valley town of Weslaco. They were young, handsome, athletic, and popular – teammates on a conference champion Weslaco High football team. Both seemed destined to play college ball. Cleckler, in fact, had a scholarship offer to Howard Payne.
But one afternoon in the fall of their senior year of high school (1942-43), Block had a mischievous idea. It was an idea that would tip the first domino and start a sequence of events with consequences both tragic and heroic.
It would also eventually solidify a friendship that still lives, more than six decades after Block’s death. “Harlon suggested that we skip school that afternoon and go to a movie,” says Cleckler. Cleckler was not keen on the idea at first. He had been hoping for perfect attendance that year. But Block was persistent, so Cleckler, Block, and a third friend and teammate, Carl Sims, piled into Block’s pickup and took off for the theater.
The Weslaco theater was out of the question because the manager there was a big fan of the local football team and would certainly recognize the three truants. They eventually ended up 18 miles away at a theater in Harlingen. After the show, it occurred to Cleckler that they would need an excuse for missing school that afternoon, or they would face the principal’s dreaded paddle. “Right there by the theater, there was a Marine Corps recruiting office,” says Cleckler, and another life-changing idea was formed. The recruiting officer there told the three to come back after they finished high school, but they picked up some recruiting brochures and applications anyway and headed back to Weslaco.
The next morning, they were confronted by the principal, A.C. Murphy, who had his paddle at the ready. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to see why we were out of school?’” says Cleckler. He showed the principal the recruiting materials and presented him with a filled-out Marine Corps application. “He said, ‘I have misjudged you boys. When do you join?’ We told him we would join as soon as we could, and we escaped the paddle,” Cleckler says. Well, Cleckler, Block, and Sims figured their enlistment would come later that spring after graduation, but about three days later, Murphy came back with a better idea.
He had made arrangements for the three to take their exams and graduate early. Eventually, five other fellow seniors and football teammates joined them, and a special early graduation ceremony was held in January for the eight future Marines. Cleckler was chosen to speak on behalf of the group at the graduation assembly and, to this day, he remembers that one-sentence speech word-for-word.
“I said, ‘Wherever we go, whatever we do, we will always remember you in this place today,’” says Cleckler. They left for Marine Corps basic training in San Diego shortly thereafter. Following boot camp, Cleckler, Block, and the others went their separate ways, assigned to separate Marine Corps units in different parts of the Pacific theater in World War II. U.S. Naval operations during the Pacific campaign were highly complex. There were construction projects, security details, and battles to be fought in scores of locations with names that most of the young Marines and seamen had never heard of — places like Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, and Peleliu. For the most part, rank-and-file Marines did not know exactly where they were going until they got there.
In late 1944 and early 1945, Cleckler was on a troop transport harbored in Honolulu, where he and other Marines awaited their next departure for whatever destination lay in store. One evening he boarded a transport barge to go ashore for a night of liberty. On the way to shore, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and came face-to-face with his old friend, Harlon Block. “Imagine, being out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and running into my old friend! That was quite a surprise,” says Cleckler. Block’s unit was on a troop transport harbored adjacent to Cleckler’s ship and both had been granted liberty that evening, which led to the chance encounter on the barge. They spent the evening ashore talking about old times, catching up, and speculating about where they might go next.
On the way back to their ships that evening, Block removed a ring he was wearing and handed it to Cleckler. It was a gold Marine Corps ring he had bought after completing Marine paratrooper training. He gave it to Cleckler. “He told me to give it to his mother when I got home. He said he wasn’t coming back. I told him to go jump in the lake, but he wouldn’t have any of that. Some guys just got that feeling. So I took the ring,” says Cleckler. They shipped out soon after. At the time, they did not know their destination, but they surmised they would be going to the same place, and they were.
The Battle of Iwo Jima involved some of the fiercest fighting of the war. American commanders had estimated that the island could be captured in three days. It took 36. During those 36 days, 6,800 American servicemen — the vast majority Marines — were killed. More than 20,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle. On the fourth day of the battle, the Marines secured the high point of the island, Mount Suribachi.
Although the fight was far from over, that event provided one of the most iconic moments of World War II, when photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. The Marine at the base of the flagpole, pushing the pole into the ground, is Harlon Block. Eight days after the flag-raising, Block was killed by mortar fire.
Cleckler survived Iwo Jima. He was rotated back to the United States and assigned to a military police unit at the Corpus Christi Naval Base. He paid a visit to Block’s mother and tried to give her Harlon’s ring, but she did not want it. “She told me I should keep it — that I’d been his best friend. So I did,” says Cleckler. Cleckler expected to be recalled to the Pacific theater, probably for what most thought was the upcoming invasion of Japan. But the Japanese surrendered before he shipped out. Cleckler served out the remainder of his enlistment stateside and then went looking for a college.
That football scholarship offer to Howard Payne was no longer on the table, thanks to time and coaching changes. He eventually decided on Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State. He joined the Bobcat football team, became a starting center and linebacker and was highly regarded as an allaround athlete. Cleckler graduated from Texas State in 1950.
He returned to the Rio Grande Valley to Harlingen, where he served more than three decades as a coach, teacher, principal, and family man. His wife, JoAnn Smith Cleckler is a 1952 Texas State alumna. They still reside in Harlingen.
Their home is near the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, home to the largest existing statue depicting the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi. It is, in fact, the original working model prepared by the sculptor Felix de Weldon that was used to cast the monument that stands at Arlington National Cemetery. At the base of the statue is an inscription bearing the words of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who said of the Marines on Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
A few feet from the statue is the gravesite of Harlon Block. Originally interred at Weslaco, his body was moved to the academy in Harlingen in 1995 during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the battle. And Block’s ring? Until last spring, Cleckler wore it every day. Through his years as a Bobcat, through his career as an educator, through his life as a husband and father. But last year, in a ceremony beside the monument and the gravesite, Cleckler donated the ring to the Marine Military Academy. It is on display at the academy’s museum.
On this day, Cleckler stands beside Block’s grave. He has borrowed the ring from its display case. He turns it over and over in his hand, feeling the memories it never fails to produce.
“You know, I wanted to keep it, but I felt this was better,” he says, looking at the monument to his friend and his comrades in arms. “It belongs here.”
The child of a Marine Corps officer, Mark grew up on the move. A barefoot childhood on the beaches of Oahu, coming of age in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Mark made his way through five universities before settling in as a Texas State University Bobcat. He was a news, crime and sports reporter as well as news editor for the Laredo News, and served time at the San Marcos Daily Record. After a decade or so in the newspaper business, he went into higher education communications, and has spent almost a quarter-century back at Texas State, where he is now the Director of the University News Service.