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For Hopkinton, ties to Iwo Jima run deep

Painting pays homage to its 7 surviving vets

Hopkinton artist Dustin Neece looks over his painting “Honoring the Spirit,’’ on display at the State House for Iwo Jima Day. Hopkinton artist Dustin Neece looks over his painting “Honoring the Spirit,’’ on display at the State House for Iwo Jima Day. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2012
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It’s the nights that Bob LaVoie remembers most.

That was when, as bombers thundered overhead and flares sporadically lighted up the sky, the fighting was most frequent and fierce on that small volcanic island in the Pacific 67 years ago.

“It was surreal,’’ said LaVoie, a lifetime Hopkinton resident who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima in February and March of 1945. “Indescribable, really.’’

But what words can’t quite describe, art sometimes can.

LaVoie’s emotions and experiences - along with those of six other men with ties to his hometown who fought in that iconic World War II battle and who, remarkably, all came back alive - are embodied in “Honoring the Spirit,’’ an oil painting by another Hopkinton resident, Dustin Neece.

The recently unveiled painting served as the centerpiece for Iwo Jima Day, observed at the State House on Feb. 17.

“I didn’t want to just make a portrait,’’ said the 28-year-old artist, a graduate of Hopkinton High School and Rhode Island School of Design. “I wanted to create a window into what they had been through.’’

But the goal was also, as state Representative Carolyn Dykema explained during the ceremony, to honor Hopkinton’s “personal connection’’ with the battle.

In the 1940s, Hopkinton’s population was roughly 3,000 - compared with about 15,000 now - so having seven men who either grew up in town or married into it and survived Iwo Jima is a “pretty remarkable statistic,’’ Dykema said.

Of those seven - six Marines and one sailor - three are still alive: LaVoie, Paul Phipps, and John Cahill. The four others were Harold Bowman, Richard Claflin, William Connor, and Joseph “Bud’’ Kinnarney.

Hopkinton resident Hank Allessio, a town historian and veteran himself, made the discovery when he began collecting military portraits from townspeople several years ago.

Neece was eventually commissioned for the painting, which was paid for through donations from local businesses.

“I was surprised to know that anybody else went through the same thing,’’ said the 85-year-old LaVoie, a retired carpenter, husband of 52 years, father of five, and grandfather of 10. “It’s a small town; I talked to them all, knew them all well. I was surprised we had so much in common.’’

The Battle of Iwo Jima - waged on a tiny, little-known island in the Japanese archipelago - is considered one of the bloodiest engagements in one of the world’s bloodiest wars. Covered by naval and air support, 75,000 Marines invaded the 8 1/2-square-mile island in an intense fight against roughly 23,000 Japanese soldiers who had set up positions in a network of fortified bunkers and tunnels. Most battles broke out at night amid Iwo Jima’s rocky terrain and black sand beaches, the air filled with the stinging aroma of sulfur.

This intensity is what Neece attempted to capture. A 40- by 50-inch oil on canvas, “Honoring the Spirit’’ depicts a soldier crouched in a rugged foxhole, gun at the ready, face illuminated by a flare. At his feet is a fallen comrade’s helmet, bearing a bullet hole fresh with blood.

On the soldier’s face is a blur of emotions: determination, apprehension, weariness.

“What touched me most was the intensity of what they went through on an emotional level,’’ said Neece, a figurative artist who has studied with Odd Nerdrum in Norway and Israel Zohar in England.

During the process of creating the painting, he used LaVoie’s grandsons as models, and also, for authenticity, relied on replica guns and props from the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,’’ which is set in WWII.

But most importantly, Neece said, he spent extensive one-on-one time with the three survivors, interviewing them not only about the details of their experience but the emotions they felt, the visceral impact.

“It was a chance to be heard,’’ Neece said in the State House’s Memorial Hall following the ceremony, “to share what they had been through.’’

It was a powerful, detailed unfolding, he said; the three veterans had rarely gone that deep on the subject, even with their own families.

For years, LaVoie certainly didn’t. But after being, as he called it, “hounded’’ by his family and friends, he decided to open up a bit about his wartime experiences.

“People pointed out to me that this is an important part of history that I should talk about,’’ said the veteran, who served in the Marines for almost seven years, and survived open-heart surgery last year. He spoke in a corridor of the State House on the day of the ceremony, still visibly uncomfortable discussing the topic.

Having just turned 18, he was on Iwo Jima for the whole campaign, and was one of just six in his 42-man platoon to get out alive, LaVoie said. “And most of us were a mess,’’ he continued.

Ultimately, the emotions he felt during those bloody, cacophonous days are “hard to explain,’’ LaVoie said.

As for Neece’s painting, he said he was surprised by its realism: “It captured a very important part of the battle, the nights.’’

Being privy to his memories of that time was a “privilege,’’ said Neece, adding that his “highest hope’’ is that the painting will provide some measure of healing for Iwo Jima vets.

“It was for them,’’ he said. “They were the only people that I was concerned about doing justice to.’’

The veterans were the focus of the Iwo Jima Day observances, which started with a parade from Faneuil Hall to the State House, where current and former members of the Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, Army, and ROTC gathered in Memorial Hall, an oval room of brown marble, light streaming in from a stained-glass ceiling.

To a standing ovation, roughly a dozen of the state’s surviving Iwo Jima vets, including LaVoie, entered the hall - one in a wheelchair, a couple of others aided by canes or walkers. A singing of “The Star Spangled Banner’’ followed, along with several speeches from legislators, military personnel, and fellow veterans, thanking them for their service.

Still, like many other vets, LaVoie remains humble about his own contribution.

“The real heroes aren’t the ones who walked off the island,’’ he said. “The boys we left behind, they are. We shouldn’t forget that.’’

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