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A living Shelter Island treasure, George Strom, 94, connects with kids

The “Greatest Generation” is alive and well on Shelter Island. It comes to us in a dwindling group of individuals, one of whom is George Strom.

George, born on November 27, 1926 in South Dakota, is a World War II Navy veteran who was married to the love of his life, Marie Strom, for 70 years. But those are just the basic facts of his long and interesting life. On May 25, just before Memorial Day, he regaled the 8th and 10th grade classes at Shelter Island School with stories of his military service. George, whose mind at age 94 is as sharp as someone 50 years his junior, has a lifetime of experiences and memories.

He was a teenager when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. His brother was already serving, and George was eager to defend our country. After graduating early from high school, at age 16 he went down to the recruiting station in New York City to sign up. The one minor complication was that you needed to be 17 to join the military. So, with the help of his approving father, he forged the date on his birth certificate to say he was a year older, passed the physical and waited for his induction letter, and was delighted when the letter came.

Unfortunately, the letter said: “Dear Mr. Strom, Thank you for your interest in joining the Navy. But please wait until you are 17 years old.” While they didn’t have computers back then, they did have records, and George was forced to wait until the spring of 1944 to enlist when he turned 17.

Soon he was in boot camp at Great Lakes, a large Naval base north of Chicago, and then to the University of Wisconsin to learn to become a radio operator. He caught his ship, the USS Eldorado, in San Francisco which sailed for the invasion of Iwo Jima, a small island 650 miles south of Tokyo. While only a handful of civilians lived there, it was a strategic stronghold for the Japanese military.

The battle of Iwo Jima became one of the deadliest battles of the war, taking place from February 19, 1945 to March 26, 1945. Of the approximately 21,000 Japanese soldiers stationed there, 19,000 were killed and 1,000 were taken prisoner. On the American side, 7,000 were killed and 10,000 were injured.

The USS Eldorado served as the nerve center directing operations for the offensive. It was also the headquarters for war correspondents who broadcast to Americans back home. Since George was a radio operator, being stationed on this ship made perfect sense. Prior to the battle, the American warships practiced their shelling right over the Eldorado. At one point the admiral on the Eldorado had to ask the ships to please move because they might miss and instead hit some of his men.

As the battle began, the Marines landed on LCI’s (Landing Craft Infantry), which were amphibious assault boats. But the Japanese were ready for them. From his position on the Eldorado, George saw the horror firsthand of many casualties. The strategy was for the Americans to establish a beachhead, and by moving more troops forward they were eventually able to push the Japanese soldiers back and claim victory.

After the battle, hospital ships were filled with the injured. Due to an overflow of injured Marines, 12 of them were sent to the Eldorado and six of them died. George and some of his compatriots were called in to bury the dead Americans at sea. A chaplain said a prayer for each of them as they were hoisted overboard. Last week, 76 years after this happened, George recalled this memory to a reporter with tears in his eyes, thinking of the families who were unable to bury their loved ones.

The ship’s next mission was Okinawa, performing the same kinds of duties as at Iwo Jima. But George wasn’t on the ship at that time because he had been recommended for Officers Training School and had returned stateside to begin his training in New England. The war ended while he was in school.

Clearly, George knew something about ships, so, after the war as a member of the Merchant Marine, he got a job working for the United Fruit Company, and was involved in the transport of bananas from Central and South America and the Caribbean to the United States. He was routinely at sea for weeks at a time.

And then he met Marie. George was on a short leave from United Fruit when he attended a barbecue on Long Island given by Marie’s aunt. He took one look at her and was smitten, he said. But he was scheduled to return to his ship in three days. Afraid she would meet someone else while he was gone, he immediately asked her to marry him and she accepted. Marie was 18 and George was 24. They were married for 70 years until her death on July 19, 2019. George and Marie had a storybook marriage. He misses her every day, he said, but is finding great solace living in Shelter Island.

George and Marie were living in Holtsville, Long Island and had raised their four children there. He was in the real estate business by then and had never heard of Shelter Island, but was asked to appraise some houses here. Like so many others before them, they came to the Island, fell in love with it, and moved here permanently in 1983. George built their beautiful home on Dickerson Creek where he continues to live and enjoy the company of many friends.

One of his friends, Tom Cronin, was the person who called and asked if he was willing to talk to his son’s class about his experiences in the war. George thought he would be chatting with a small group of kids, but after being greeted by teachers Michelle Corbett and Peter Miedema, he learned that the group was much larger than he had expected. However, as usual, he took that in stride.

According to Mr. Miedema, the students were not excited at first when they were told that someone was going to talk to them about history. But they immediately became enamored with George. They loved his stories and his personality. When asked what the students took away from the event, Mr. Miedema reflected that the consensus was that sometimes war is necessary, but it should be avoided whenever possible. He said, “Life is fragile and the sacrifice that all those boys made in World War II really hit home to the kids.”

In addition, he believes that the concept of “Greatest Generation” made an impact on the students as they listened to the life that George has led.

While many Islanders don’t know George personally, any visitor to the Memorial Day parade has seen him driving one of his vintage cars. Because there were no cars in this year’s parade, he walked from the firehouse to the American Legion; not bad for a guy of 94. With his ubiquitous World War II Naval cap and constant smile, George is easily recognized around town, a true, living Shelter Island treasure.