Editor’s note: Today, Nov. 11, is Veteran’s Day. The following article is in honor/memory of the countless men and women in Tennessee and around our nation who served their country in the military.
By Lonnie Wilkey
Baptist and Reflector
HERMITAGE — Robert “Bob” DePriest of Nashville had no idea when he joined the Navy in 1943 that he would witness one of the most significant events in United States military history.
Two years later, DePriest was on the island of Iwo Jima during one of the major battles of World War II.
DePriest, who was assigned to the Marines as a Navy medical corpsman, watched from afar as six Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. A copy of the iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal that day is still displayed proudly in the DePriest home in Hermitage 74 years later.
After landing on Iwo Jima, his company, the 4th Marine Division, was immediately under fire by the Japanese and DePriest and his fellow corpsman started treating the wounded soldiers. Casualties were high. DePriest was the only Navy medical corpsman left in his company after two weeks.
DePriest believes without a doubt that his faith in God helped him survive.
Though his parents were Christian and he attended church as a child, DePriest acknowledged he was not a Christian. Upon arriving at a Navy base in San Diego, Calif., in 1943, a Marine sergeant walked up to him and asked, “Are you a Christian?” he recalled.
That sergeant (Robert Frost) later introduced DePriest to a Christian family in San Diego who shared the gospel with him and he accepted Christ while sitting in their home. They invited him to church and he met other Christians who mentored him during his year in San Diego.
During that time, he attended evangelistic services organized by Christian businessmen (Gideons) to reach the servicemen in their community.
“They realized that many of the servicemen would be sent to battle zones and perhaps killed without ever knowing the Lord,” he recalled.
DePriest was given a Gideon New Testament by Sgt. Frost who was instrumental in helping him come to know Christ.
“I later carried it with me when I served as a medical corpsman on Iwo Jima,” he said. “I still have that New Testament. My new found faith in Christ was a constant source of strength and comfort during the war and especially on Iwo Jima,” he added.
DePriest knew that family members and the new Christian friends he made in San Diego were praying for him throughout the war. “I knew the Lord was with me. I felt His presence.”
He ministered to fellow Marines and even read his New Testament to them while in foxholes together. His faith kept him going while men were killed or seriously injured all around him, DePriest affirmed.
Now 93 years old, DePriest is one of a vanishing breed. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 496,777 of the 16 million American soldiers who fought in World War II were still alive in September of 2018.
DePriest acknowledged that he never expected to make it to age 93. “When I was on Iwo Jima, I didn’t expect to make it to age 21. It was hour to hour and day to day.”
He still recalls the pride he felt when he saw the flag raised on Mount Suribachi. “I realized that flag stood for the greatest country on earth and that we were fighting for our country,” he said.
DePriest still maintains a strong love and respect for the members of the 4th Marine Division. “The men I served with were the bravest men on earth.”
After finishing his enlistment in 1946, DePriest returned to Nashville. He attended a revival service at Inglewood Baptist Church in East Nashville where he would meet his future wife, Mary.
They would raise a family together and he would have a 30-year career as an investigator with the U.S. Civil Service Commission (now U.S. Office of Personnel Management).
After retiring in 1979, DePriest and his wife served a two-year stint as Mission Service Corps volunteers with the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board).
His faith that carried him through the darkest days of fighting in World War II has continued to sustain him through today.
“God has allowed us to meet so many great Christians over the years. They all had an impact on our lives,” observed DePriest, a member of Tulip Grove Baptist Church, Old Hickory.
“We were able to grow in our faith and share our experiences with others. God has been our source of strength, comfort and guidance,” he affirmed. B&R