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Sylvia

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This photo and the following caption appeared in the Boston Globe: Bay State Marines Rest After Iwo Battle. After three and one-half days of continuous battling against the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, 750 miles south of Tokyo, these heroic Marines take a well-deserved rest. They are c, members of Company C, Ninth Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division. — Photo courtesy Yvonne (Berube) Sylvia

On the cover of a large blue scrapbook, there is a piece of tape, on which Yvonne (Berube) Sylvia wrote: “Brother Edmund J. Berube. Born August 18, 1918. Killed March 3, 1945.”

The championship 1935-36 Edgartown basketball team. Front row (left to right): Rodney Berube, Henry Smith, Tony Silva. Back row (L-R): Vernon Shepherd, Phil Perry, co-captain Edmund Berube, co-captain Frank Mello, Doug Brown, Bob Kelly, coach Joseph Robichau.
The championship 1935-36 Edgartown basketball team. Front row (left to right): Rodney Berube, Henry Smith, Tony Silva. Back row (L-R): Vernon Shepherd, Phil Perry, co-captain Edmund Berube, co-captain Frank Mello, Doug Brown, Bob Kelly, coach Joseph Robichau.

On the inside title page Mrs. Sylvia inscribed, “In loving memory of a loving brother.” There is a large valentine, with a felt heart and bow reminiscent of a simpler time, pasted on the facing page. “From your son in the service on Mother’s Day,” the valentine message reads. Mrs. Sylvia’s brother signed the valentine, “Love Edmund.”

The book, its pages frail and yellowed over time, contains photos, letters, documents and clippings Mrs. Sylvia assembled to preserve the memory of her brother and to document his accomplishments. At this it succeeds admirably, but the scrapbook also provides a glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard and the ways in which the war years affected Islanders.

The Colonial Drug Store, at the corner of Main Street and North Summer Street, where Edmund Berube worked to save money for college.
The Colonial Drug Store, at the corner of Main Street and North Summer Street, where Edmund Berube worked to save money for college.

By all accounts, Edmund Berube was a gifted athlete who excelled at track and basketball. Beneath a team photo of the 1935-36 Edgartown School basketball team is the notation, “won 14, lost 3, won trophy.”

His high school report card for the same year shows a curriculum of six subjects: U.S. history, civics, chemistry, gymnasium, music and citizenship. He did well.

He entered the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in the spring of 1941. Various photos show him on the streets of Boston with fashionably dressed young ladies and with classmates, including his roommate Raymond Gosselin of New Hampshire, who later became the president of the college of pharmacy.

The Western Union telegram that bore the sad news of Edmund Berube's death to his family.
The Western Union telegram that bore the sad news of Edmund Berube’s death to his family.

The scrapbook contains 15 letters Mr. Berube sent to his sister between the time he arrived in the Pacific and landed on Iwo Jima with the Third Marine Division. The first envelope is dated October 7, 1944, the last, February 15, 1945.

The letters all have a return address of “somewhere in the Pacific” and are signed, “your loving brother.” The letters are remarkable for the sense of the ordinary they convey.

Mr. Berube often wrote about news from home and how much he looked forward to a return to the normalcy at home. In one letter he worried that his many nieces and nephews would not recognize him.

Ed Berube relaxing on an Edgartown beach.
Ed Berube relaxing on an Edgartown beach.

“How is your social life coming along these days?” he wrote on October 12, 1944. “I sure wish I could be with you to help you entertain a bit. That night life would sure be a help to my pent up spirits.”

Day to day Island life – who had married, the arrival of babies, holidays – meant something special to Mr. Berube as the months of separation passed by. And although he never mentioned a particular woman, he looked forward to the day he would marry and raise a family.

Islanders seem to have a knack for bumping into each other, no matter where they are in the world. In a letter dated, December 20, he wrote, “You remember Frank Noyes from Oak Bluffs, graduated in 1942. Well, he is here in the same battalion with me and a pharmacist’s mate also. We can have our arguments, like when we played basketball against each other.”

Edmund Berube (left), with classmates at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1942.
Edmund Berube (left), with classmates at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1942.

Mr. Berube was with Marines who had already had experience fighting the Japanese. If he was worried or concerned because of what he had learned and consequently what he might expect, he never shared such anxious thoughts with his sister.

As he celebrated the New Year in the Pacific, his letters became more somber. “Here we are starting on another year, and many new things are to be given to the world,” he wrote on January 1, 1945. “We will just go along almost the same as before life changed a bit, but behind it all our thoughts are to be back together. The New Year for me was a decidedly different affair than was the previous one … Of course, I was still what people look upon and call a civilian. Ella had eyes for Alvin, but he had eyes elsewhere. Ella, Pauline, you and Betty were a little more indulgent than the rest of us and I do believe just a trifle on the silly side. But the fun did not last long enough, so here we are passing another [year].”

Ed BerubeOn February 13, five days before the first wave of Marines landed on the black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, Mr. Berube sent his last letter to his sister. He criticized some of the movies shown to the troops but wrote not a word of the upcoming battle or nonstop bombardment of the island that he witnessed. He wrote about photos he recently received. “I really like your picture and also the one with Albert [her husband]. They really made me feel wonderful all over, it took me back to the days when you were in school in Boston and all the fun we had. That of course is one of the things we have to help us though blue days. I do not like to look back, but rather ahead to the future when everything can be done as you want and have your good times as normal humans. I hope some day I can walk into someplace out here and meet someone from Edgartown.”

Ed BerubeHe added a comment on some lively and current town gossip, offered some brotherly advice and a request for film for his camera. In one of his only comments on the war, he wrote, “Yes, the war news is very good, but still some way to go for a finish.” He ended, “Yvonne, I have really run out of words so will say so long for now. Regards to all. Your loving brother, love Edmund.”

Mr. Berube’s unit landed on Iwo Jima, on February 22. A Marine Corps photographer snapped a photo of Mr. Berube and a group of Marines soon after. The photo, carefully preserved in the scrapbook, appeared in the Boston Globe and was the talk of Edgartown.

Ed BerubeOn March 3, a Japanese sniper shot Edmund Berube as he went to the aid of a wounded Marine. He was 26 years old and one of the 6,800 servicemen killed in a battle defined by its unrestrained ferocity.

Mrs. Sylvia has pasted into the scrapbook a faded Western Union telegram, sent the family on March 15, 1945: “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your brother Edmund Joseph Berube pharmacists mate second class USNR was killed in action while in the service of his country.”

In the weeks that followed, the Berube family received many cards and letters, many carefully preserved in the scrapbook.

One letter was written on Marine Corps stationary and dated April 18, 1945. The writing is badly faded, but the sentiments are indelible.

Ed Berube“Your son, Edmund, served as one of my corpsman in the first battalion Ninth Marines,” Frank K. Johnson wrote to Mrs. Berube. “He did a fine job for us. I thought you might like to hear from one of the doctors he worked for. All of us liked Ed, and we miss him too.

“A little more of the details about his death may help to ease a little of the pain that I know you now have. A Japanese sniper killed him instantly as he was crawling over a stone to help one of his buddies. He was seen almost immediately by another Corpsman and was already dead.

He is buried in the Marine cemetery on Iwo Jima.

“As a tribute to him his fellow Corpsmen chiseled out a little monument of stone and placed it on his grave.

“My sincerest sympathy goes out to you and yours in this time of bereavement.”

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Dennis G. Lyons, vice president for alumni and professional affairs at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, invited the Berube-Sylvia family to attend this year's scholarship award ceremony. From left to right: Ellen (Wheeler) Sylvia, Elizabeth (Sylvia) Mello, Mr. Lyons, Brian Sylvia and Yvonne (Berube) Sylvia. — McCardinal Photo

Mrs. Yvonne Sylvia of Edgartown traveled with members of her family to John Hancock Hall in Boston on May 14. She was there at the invitation of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences to present the school’s World War II Memorial Scholarship, which honors the graduates of the school who lost their lives in the war.

The story of her invitation began in 2006 at the school’s annual Hooding and Awards Ceremony, which recognizes sixth-year students for outstanding academic achievement.

Sitting in the audience that day, Dennis G. Lyons, vice president for alumni and professional affairs, decided that the names of those World War II casualties who are memorialized by the scholarship should be known. In the 60 years since the war ended, records had been lost.

After some diligent research, however, Mr. Lyons learned the identities of three: William J. Carroll (class of 1943), Francis G. Harris (’39) and Edmund Berube (’44) of Edgartown.

In the course of his research, Mr. Lyons met Mrs. Sylvia and saw the scrapbook she had made in her brother Edmund’s memory. That scrapbook provided the material for a story about Mr. Berube, “An Alumnus to Honor,” published in the recent winter edition of the college publication, The Bulletin.

Mr. Berube grew up in Edgartown, co-captained Edgartown High School’s championship basketball team and was president of his senior class. He worked at the Colonial Drug Store, owned by Len Henrickson.

“Mr. Berube was popular with customers and became well known in town,” wrote Mr. Lyons. “Mr. Henrickson was so impressed with him that he offered to help pay his college tuition to attend pharmacy school.”

Just as in high school, Mr. Berube was very popular with his classmates and was elected president of his senior class. He expected to finish college and to return to Edgartown to work at the Colonial Drug Store.

As the fighting on all the war’s fronts grew in intensity, there was a dire need for men with the type of medical training provided by the College of Pharmacy. In 1943, Mr. Berube and the 72 other members of the class of 1944 learned that there would be no break, but that they would attend classes and graduate on October 27 as what would be known as the “second class of 1943″ as part of an accelerated war-time program.

Lewis Lappas of Boston, valedictorian of the first class of 1943, described the disruption the war had created in the professional and personal plans of his classmates as part of his graduation oration delivered that February. “Tomorrow we leave this place, our collegiate home, and depart in many directions to enter the mad conflict that threatens the ruin of our beloved America,” he said, “an America that has made our education possible, an America that for us has a meaning not limited to a portion of the earth’s surface, but that rather symbolizes a kind of world, no matter what it might be named, in which ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘peace’ are not empty words.

“We must lay aside our plans for further study, our hopes for marriage, for homes, for professional careers. Undoubtedly these things will come to most of us in time, but not immediately; and they will come to none unless we gladly postpone them now in order to do our share in the re-creation of the kind of American world in which such things will again be possible.”

Like so many other young men and women of his generation, Mr. Berube postponed his future plans and answered the call of service. Two months after he received a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy, he joined the Navy.

He spent the winter months at the U.S. Naval Training station in Samson, New York. In July, he completed his training with high marks and received the rank of pharmacist’s mate, second class.

A common virtue

On August 14, 1944, he left San Diego as a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Third Marine Division.

The battle for Iwo Jima began following a sustained bombardment that did little to weaken the Japanese defenses. The Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions began landing on the southeast shore of the volcanic island on February 19, 1945. The Third Marine Division, which had been held in reserve, landed two days later.

One account provided in an official Naval history describes the horrific fighting and bravery of the corpsman that typified the battle of Iwo Jima. “Wounded men were lying all around,” it read. “It was impossible to stand erect on the beach, and the corpsmen crawled from casualty to casualty to bandage wounds and administer morphine and plasma. Within an hour after the aid station had been set up, a shell exploded on one side and fragments injured several of the men…. In the fury of the battle there were many dramatic instances of rescue and treatment. A Marine who had been blinded and had both hands blown off, was groping his way toward the beach when a corpsman saw him and ran a gantlet of fire to get him to safety. A corpsman in battle for the first time sewed up four chest wounds under fire and undoubtedly helped save the lives of the four injured men.”

Speaking of the battle, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz would later say, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

During the first 21 days of the battle, the casualty rate was in excess of 1,000 per day. In moving about to care for the wounded, the Naval history explained that, “corpsmen were subject to intense enemy fire and frequently were shot down alongside their patients.”

According to Navy records, in one division alone, casualties of hospital corpsmen in each of six battalions exceeded 50 percent. In four battalions, casualties exceeded 60 percent, and in one, they were in excess of 68 percent.

It is likely that the bloody shores of Iwo Jima were far removed from the thoughts of most of those sitting in John Hancock Hall on May 14, when Mr. Lyons told the graduates, “We will never know exactly what Ed experienced on that island, how many lives he saved or how many young Marines he comforted in their last moments of life. Ed Berube died on March 3, 1945. While crawling to help a wounded Marine, he was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper’s bullet.”

Mr. Lyons called on the graduates and future pharmacists to take inspiration from Mr. Berube’s life, one of great potential and of sacrifice in the care of his patients.

Mr. Lyons had invited Mrs. Sylvia to the school’s annual Hooding and Awards Ceremony after learning about the short, heroic life of Edmund Berube.

The meaning of sacrifice was not lost on Yvonne Sylvia, who joined Mr. Lyons to present the award, recognizing the ultimate sacrifices of College of Pharmacy graduates, to David Tran of Malden.

Following her brother’s death, Mrs. Sylvia’s ties to the college remained strong. Her son Edmund Berube Sylvia (who died in 2005 of cancer) attended the College of Pharmacy and met his future wife, Ellen Wheeler (class of 1975) there.

Mrs. Sylvia said that as she looked out at the class of 2009, she was struck by how many women were in the graduating class. And she thought of her brother. “He had just gotten his life where he wanted it, after waiting so long and working so hard to be able to afford it,” she said. “And he was not in the service very long when he was killed.”

Edmund Berube is buried in Edgartown cemetery next to members of his family. At the request of his mother, his body was returned from Iwo Jima, in April 1948.

Memorial Day is set aside for the nation to honor men and women, ordinary people for the most part, who answered the call of duty and in doing so lost their lives. At a time when the word hero is too quickly attached to achievements of no great significance or sacrifice, the life and death of Edmund Berube of Edgartown stands in contrast to the casual practice.

Monday, people for whom Memorial Day remains a holiday with special significance and meaning will place flags on the graves of fallen soldiers across the nation. Mrs. Sylvia said that members of her generation remember those great sacrifices. She comforts herself by recalling, “I just was so glad I had him for the time I had him.”