KUSA - Here he was, on a ship, leaving the port of San Francisco. He was a sailor in the Navy and ready to see the world. And then it happened. Nearly 70 years later, Joe Lanier remembers it like it was yesterday.
"All of a sudden, San Francisco drops off the horizon. I thought, 'What the hell happened to San Francisco?'" he says with a broad grin. "I didn't know. I was unaware that the world was round."
Lanier's modesty means he'll likely be the last person to tell you that he's come a long way since then, but it only takes a few minutes with the Iwo Jima survivor to realize the grandson of a former slave has indeed come a remarkably long way since his early days in the military.
"Up until I was 17, 'patriotic' was not one of the words in my vocabulary. It never occurred to me I was an American, because I was never treated as such," the man in his late-80s says from the living room of his Highlands Ranch home.
He grew up in Columbus, Miss.
"It's about 15 miles west of the Alabama state line," he said. "We were not treated - for lack of a better term - as humans."
He only decided to join the Navy after a series of seemingly unrelated circumstances.
"We were so poor that I had dropped out of high school," he said. "It was after my mother died. My father didn't have a job and was taking care of my sisters. That's when I inadvertently saw an advertisement to join the Navy."
Lanier's story is one of many that make up 9NEWS' hour-long documentary "8 Square Miles: The Fight for Iwo." View the entire documentary below:
Recently 9NEWS reporters Chris Vanderveen and Dave Delozier traveled to Iwo Jima with the help of the Denver-based Greatest Generations Foundation.
The foundation routinely brings World War II veterans back to the battlefields where they once served.
For more information on supporting The Greatest Generations Foundation, or learning more about their programs please visit www.tggf.org or, call 303-331-1944.
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