Iwo Jima veteran Harold Ronson makes gift to World War II Institute
Article courtesy of the FSU College of Arts and Sciences
Early in his life, Harold Ronson made his mark at two of the bloodiest battles of World War II: Iwo Jima and Okinawa. And now, Ronson has made his mark at Florida State University with a gift of $100,000 to establish the Harold Ronson Endowed Fund at the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience.
Through his gift to Florida State, Ronson hopes to ensure that future generations of Americans never forget the sacrifices made by his fellow soldiers.
Ronson, who served as part of the Navy’s Landing Craft Infantry from 1944 to 1946 on what he calls “the smallest seagoing vessel there was,” took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima, which began in February 1945 and lasted for more than a month.
“From the boat I was on, we took Marines onto the beach,” he says. “Our boat had a flat bottom and could go within 1 or 2 feet from shore.
“Being at Iwo Jima scared the life out of me. I was feeding ammunition into a machine gun going into the beach. The guy next to me who was firing the gun was hit in the face with a mortar but survived. It was terrible. There was bombing and gunfire night and day. I was just a kid—I was 17—but everybody else on my landing craft was a kid, too. Only a couple of them were over 20.”
Later that spring, Ronson’s boat set sail for Okinawa, where they stayed for three months during a battle that was even bloodier than Iwo Jima in terms of lives lost.
“We fired mortar rockets and we did what was called picket duty,” he says. “We made smoke around the ships so that the kamikaze pilots could not see the ships. There were about 2,000 kamikaze attacks, mostly at night. It was terrible.
“The only thing worse was to be on the beach fighting, which I did not do. I watched the kamikaze pilots smash their planes into our ships one after another. The Battle of Okinawa didn’t get as much press as the Battle of Iwo Jima, but the Battle of Okinawa was a mess.”
Although the war had a profound effect on Ronson and his fellow soldiers, many of them did not talk about their service for several years after they returned home.
“We were just busy trying to do something with our lives,” he says. “We did what had to be done—during the war and in the aftermath of the war.”
For Ronson, that included graduating from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), going to work for W. Lowenthal Textile Mill in Cohoes, N.Y., getting married, and raising two daughters with his wife, Kay. Of his first job after college, Ronson says, “I got a 90-day trial and stayed for 36 years.” During those years, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming president and sole owner of the company, retiring in 1988 after selling the business to Hanes. Following retirement, he and his wife split their time between New York City and the Sarasota, Fla., area.
A decade or so after retiring, Ronson began to reconnect with fellow World War II veterans, one a former shipmate who sold newspapers in Manhattan. Around the same time, Ronson read Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, which furthered his interest in reconnecting with veterans around the country.
In addition to reading Brokaw’s book, Ronson had yet another experience prodding him to want to preserve the memory of the war. It occurred as he sat in Yankee Stadium for the 2001 World Series, held later than usual because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“It was a big day in New York,” Ronson says. “They played the national anthem, and while they played that, on the big screen they showed scenes of New York—the George Washington Bridge, the Empire State Building. They also showed the famous AP picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima. I poked the guy I was with and said, ‘I saw the flag go up on Iwo Jima.’ The kid next to him said, ‘Where’s that?’ As it turned out, nobody around us had heard of the place, so I said to myself, ‘I have got to do something about this.’ ”
Having made charitable giving part of his life for many years, Ronson began to contribute to veterans’ causes, such as the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., and the national World War II museum in New Orleans. And it was at a veterans’ event where Ronson heard William O. Oldson, director of Florida State’s Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, talk about preserving the legacy of the wartime generation. By that time, Tom Brokaw had already given the World War II Institute much of the wartime correspondence he had collected, and Brokaw currently serves as honorary chair of the institute’s advisory board.
“I liked the cause—the fact that they’re keeping alive the memory of what we did in World War II,” Ronson says. “In my eyes, every guy who was in combat was a hero.”
For more information on the World War II Institute, contact College of Arts and Sciences Assistant Dean Nancy Smilowitz at email@example.com or (850) 644-9324.