Woody Hughes, former Maine West coach and witness to Iwo Jima flag-raising, dies at 95

Elwood "Woody" Hughes, one of the state's last survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima and a witness to the iconic flag-raising by his fellow Marines, died Tuesday.

After the war, Hughes became a longtime teacher and coach at Maine West High School in Des Plaines. He was 95.

"He was one of our oldest and most respected members," said Mike Huttner, commandant of the Northwest Suburban Detachment of the Marine Corps League, based in Arlington Heights. "Woody was a highly visible, highly respected and active member of our detachment, and for a long time he was our chaplain and spiritual leader."

Hughes shared his wartime story in a Veterans Day video produced in 2015 by Elk Grove High School social studies teacher Bruce Janu.

In it, he described growing up on a farm in Indiana and enlisting in the Marines in 1943, after graduating from high school. In the war, he served as a runner on the front lines with Navajo code talkers. The code talkers deciphered complex Japanese transmissions, and Hughes would take the messages back to the battalion command.

Hughes also described seeing mutilated bodies and running amid artillery and mortar barrage, but he said he was never frightened.

"In the Marine Corps, you are so concerned with doing the job that you block out the fear that comes with it," he said.

Hughes shared his eyewitness account of the flag-raising on many occasions and finally wrote about it, submitting an article to Semper Fi, the magazine of the Marine Corps League, which published it in 2019.

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Hughes wrote how Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson ordered a patrol to ascend Mount Suribachi and secure the summit. He gave the patrol a flag with the instructions to plant it, "if you reach the top," Hughes wrote.

"From my vantage that morning, I could see the small figures making their way up the mountain," he continued. "Sometime later I heard loud cheering and the sound of ships offshore blowing their horns. Marines everywhere were banging their mess gear and their helmets as we looked up to see our flag standing tall at the top of Surabachi. I joined in the cheering!"

Hughes was discharged in 1946 and promptly attended Ball State University on the G.I. Bill. He graduated in 1950, the same year he married Susan, who was from his hometown of Roanoke, Indiana. Their marriage lasted 63 years until she died in 2013.

The couple settled in Wheeling, when Hughes took a job as a teacher and a coach at Maine Township High School, now Maine East in Park Ridge, in 1953. He was an assistant baseball coach and helped guide the team's two state championships in 1958 and 1959.

In the fall of 1959, he joined the founding faculty of Maine West in Des Plaines, where he taught business classes and coached basketball and baseball. He retired in 1983.

"In his retirement, his passion became educating the youth about service, sacrifice and patriotism," said friend and fellow Marine detachment member John Colas of Long Grove.

Hughes could describe battles on the islands of Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Guam, but his most requested testimony was about what he saw during the five-week battle on Iwo Jima.

Just last year, Hughes was one of about 40 survivors who traveled to Washington to attend a 75th anniversary commemoration of the battle at the World War II monument on the National Mall.

"In his later years, Woody embodied what the Greatest Generation was all about," Colas said.

Hughes is survived by three children, Bill, Emily and Ellen, nine grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for 9 to 11 a.m. Monday at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights. Services for family only will follow at 11 a.m. A motorcade will take Hughes to his native Roanoke, Indiana, for internment Tuesday.

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