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Big Chuck

November 21, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Local youngster created amazing tribute to veterans

When I think of veterans, I often think of the older ones who fought in World War II. I honor all vets from all wars, but as my radio listeners know, I just love to hear stories from the old warriors of the Greatest Generation.

Recently I mentioned the Battle of Iwo Jima. I read off some of the citations of the Medal of Honor winners. They were chilling, astounding and bordering on unbelievable. This particular battle was a veritable meat grinder, with heavy U.S. casualties and almost complete annihilation of the enemy Japanese forces.

After going on at length about the heroism and courage of our soldiers at Iwo, I was told about an unusual tribute to this battle. It was a small, tabletop scale model of the battle and its combatants. It was in Schenevus. I went to see it.

Nick Baker has crafted an amazingly detailed diorama of the battlefield. As I walked around the table, the complexity of his model was surprising.

Marines could be seen leaping from landing crafts on the ashen beaches of this God-forsaken place. Enemy fighters were entrenched in elaborate bunkers. The tops of the bunkers were removable so I could look inside at the Japanese manning their machine guns.

The labyrinth of tunnels recreated evoked an ant farm motif. In the background stood bare and forbidding Mount Suribachi, the island's only natural landmark.

And there, on top of the mountain, the model-maker had fashioned the images of five U.S. Marines and a lone Navy corpsman struggling to raise the Stars and Stripes in one of the war's most iconic images.

The display really captured the difficulties faced by the forces fighting on this island speck. Nick Baker, the creator of this incredible diorama, clearly had a depth of knowledge of what happened there from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945.

Oh. Nicholas Baker is 11 years old.

"My dad (James) was a Marine and my grandpa (John) was in the Coast Guard, so I have a lot of respect for all veterans," the Schenevus sixth-grader told me. "I know what we owe veterans. They were brave and young and they went to war to keep us safe. I feel sad for the ones that were left behind buried under the white crosses. I chose to depict the Battle of Iwo Jima because it was one of the most important battles of the war, and our heroes who fought there should never be forgotten."

I met Lynda Bookhard, the Schenevus superintendent of schools, in the hallway. I mentioned Nick's project to her.

"Oh, my goodness. Isn't it remarkable?" she said to me. "Nick did it for an honors project we have just started at the school. Students who elect to take part in it work on their projects all summer long and then present them to a committee. We were all stunned and very impressed at the accuracy of Nick's model and his attention to detail. It represents a significant amount of time, work and research. And don't forget," she added, "he did it all over the summer."

I asked Nick if creating the model was hard.

"Not really," the plucky youngster said. "I had the soldiers already and I knew the details of the battle, so I was all set. I made Mount Suribachi out of Styrofoam which I painted brown," he said proudly. "But I almost didn't make it in time. In fact, I was working on it right up until I walked into the building on the first day of school.

"Nick is bright and extremely talented," Bookhard said. "He is the kind of student every teacher would be glad to have in class. We all think his depiction of what went on at Iwo Jima in the war is a wonderful tribute to our veterans."

I asked Nick, who is obviously a (young) student of World War II, if he had any special memory he could take away from his summer project.

"Yes," he said emphatically. "I interviewed many veterans of the war for the written part of the project. I talked with a great man named Sgt. Maj. Jim Peterson of Cooperstown. And he gave me something I will always cherish."

I asked him what it was.

He showed me. "Here," he pointed. "It's an actual bag of sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima."

Wow. I had to keep reminding myself that this kid is 11!

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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