NEW ORLEANS --
“These young people have to know what their forefathers went through. They don’t understand,” said Bert Stolier, standing in front of pictures of the lines of graves decorating the green fields of France.
“This is the cost of victory. It is also the cost of losing,” he said as he gestures at the pictures of the graves while talking to a half-dozen Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit April 21, 2012.
And he would know better than most. Stolier joined the Marines in 1940 and served aboard the heavy cruiser USS Northampton. He trained as a Marine Raider, rising from private to eventually earn the rank of warrant officer. He was present at Pearl Harbor, witnessed the Dolittle Raid launch from the USS Hornet, crewed the Northampton’s five-inch guns during the Battle of Midway, raided Makin Island, fought on Guadalcanal, survived for two days in the water after his ship was shot out from under him, waded ashore at Tarawa, and stormed the black, bloodied sands of Iwo Jima.
His war carried him from the opening shots at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, to the deck of the USS Missouri when Japan signed the surrender in Tokyo Harbor on Sept. 2, 1945, marking the end of World War II. He walked through the irradiated ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear blasts annihilated those cities. He has seen the cost of victory and defeat on a level most will never experience. “If you became a prisoner of war in Europe, you had an 80% survival rate. If you became a prisoner of war in the Pacific, you had a 12% survival rate. If you were a Marine, you were decapitated.”
In December 1945, after the war, Stolier left the Marine Corps. Upon coming home to his birthplace of New Orleans, he saw his then four-year-old son for the first time and got a job as a stock boy. In short order, he worked his way up the chain, became a salesman, and eventually started his own company. He was married for 64 years, and is the father of five children. Now, he works at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “I volunteered for this and I’ve been here since the day it opened.” Stolier will gladly talk to anyone who’s interested about his experiences in the war. “There’s all the artifacts here you want to see. But stories? I can tell you about the Pacific.”
Stolier is lean and weathered. A daily runner, his exercise regimen shows in the manner with which he carries himself – with grace and no sign of discomfort in his face. In conversation, he’s animated, humorous and warm. He tells of battles that every Marine knows; places that are drilled into recruits from the very first week of Marine Corps basic training. He talks of the battles that defined the course of the war, of events that changed the world, of names that resound throughout the consciousness and soul of the Marine Corps. He quotes, illustrates his examples, and helps explain the conflict as he saw it from the trenches.
When he’s not working at the museum, he also travels the country, talking to audiences about this war that irrevocably changed the course of the world. His speaking helps enlighten the public on a subject their knowledge of is commonly sparse.
“He was a very phenomenal and articulate individual, who was able to bring his stories to life with a level of detail and honesty that was impressive,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Christopher Joy, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear defense officer with 26th MEU. “We can read any book, watch any show, but this guy lived through this, and this was the best way we could possibly learn about it.”
Stolier speaks with conviction, with quiet soul, and with a certainty of his beliefs. He lived the war that defined the Marine Corps forever more. He saw an empire brought to its knees through steel, fire and blood across the vast Pacific, and now lives to tell the American public the lessons it ought to learn. “I am so damned proud, as I stand right here, to have been a Marine,” Stolier said.