10 - Iron Mike
Before there was the Iwo Jima Statue, there was “Iron Mike.” Erected in 1924 to Marines who fought in World War I, “Iron Mike” pre-dates the depot’s Iwo Jima Statue by 28 years. The statue once stood in a prominent location in the center of the base and was the symbol of Parris Island.
Though its origins are obscure, it seems that money for a monument to Parris Island Marines who died in World War I was originated “by officers and men in small amounts during the war, for the purpose of erecting a memorial to the marines who were trained at Parris Island and lost their lives during the world war.” While fund raising continued, solicitations went out for sculptors to submit designs.
The driving force behind the monument was Brig. Gen. Eli Cole, who had commanded Parris Island in 1918 before being sent to France. He returned to Parris Island in September 1919, and during his tenure, the project was pushed forward. Cole was in touch with the National Academy of Design in the city of New York and had the backing of Marine Corps war veterans, including the highly decorated Lt. Col. Frank Evans. By September 1922, the fund had reached nearly $8,000, and Cole reported to Commandant Lejeune that:
As the result of considerable correspondence and interest displayed by Lieut. Colonel Evans, as well as the president of the National Academy, I have a proposal from Captain Robert Aitken to erect the memorial here at a cost within the amount we have on hand—any sum left over I contemplate using to improve the grounds surrounding the actual location of the site of the statue, putting in walks, etc., to make it as nearly as possible a complete and harmonious whole.
Robert Ingersoll Aitken was an internationally known sculptor located in the city of New York. Aitken, who had been a captain of a machine gun unit in the US Army’s 306th Infantry Regiment, wrote Cole offering a proposed design for a statue depicting a Marine carrying a heavy machine gun. Intrigued, Cole asked for clarification on how Aitken would like the statue exhibited and when it would be completed. Cole forwarded the correspondence to Commandant John A. Lejeune, who immediately asked for advice from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent agency of the federal government that reviews and advises on the design and aesthetics of all construction within the nation’s capital.
By October 1922, a location had been approved at the head of the base’s Civic Center in front of the Hostess House. The statue faced north with an unobstructed view to Boulevard de France and the parade deck. It was also decided that the pedestal would be five feet six inches high and be constructed of Stony Creek granite. Cole reported that: “The exact wording of the inscription has not yet been finally settled, but the following has been suggested, and probably will be accepted:
"IN MEMEORY OF THE MEN OF PARRIS ISLAND
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE WORLD WAR."
There will probably be added to the above:
"ERECTED BY THEIR COMRADES."
A wax statue was completed for examination in Aitken's New York studio by February 1923, and by March 1923, the completed design seems to have received approval from both the Marine Corps and the Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. In April, Aitken requested permission to create a final plaster model, which was viewed and approved that month by Lejeune and Parris Island's commander, Brig. Gen. Eli K. Cole.
The monument was cast by the Rowan Bronze Works in New York. It had been hoped that the statue could be dedicated on Memorial Day 1924, but production was delayed, and the unveiling occurred on July 25, 1924. A number of VIPs attended the unveiling, and the principal speaker was Lejeune. The honor of unveiling the statue was afforded to Mrs. Nellie Glen of Atlanta, whose two sons were Parris Island recruits killed in action in France.
During the base pre-World War II expansion, the statue was moved from its original location in front of the Post Inn (Hostess House), when Panama Street was extended west for construction of the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion. That required the statue to be moved in 1940 to its present site on Boulevard de France site near Building 144 where receiving was located during World War II and the Korean War, resulting in the recruits of that period passing the statue to and from initial processing.
Though the statue had been referred to in a February 1923 newspaper account as the “Devil Dog Statue,” its better known nickname is "Iron Mike," a title given to any renowned fighting man. When the statue acquired this title is unknown though as late as June 30, 1942, a depot map listed the statue as the "Aitken Monument."
Unveiling of monument to U.S. Marines, July 25, 1924