Florida honors a local invisible hero

Story Courtesy of Rebekeh Sheats

73 years, seven months, and three weeks ago, a young Monticello boy stood on the deck of Admiral Kelly Turner’s flagship off the coast of Iwo Jima.
Only 20 years old, this young man – Platoon Sergeant Ernest Ivy “Boots” Thomas – was being interviewed by various news correspondents and was being photographed with General Holland Smith, one of the highest-ranking officers present at the historic battle for Iwo Jima. The position Boots held that day was a position of honor.
He, a mere platoon sergeant, was being recognized and congratulated by the top brass, and his name was being broadcast around the world.
In the midst of this fame, in the midst of this moment of unlooked-for glory, what was young Thomas doing?
He was protesting.
“No, Mr. Pryor,” he told the CBS news correspondent, and firmly explained that he alone wasn’t responsible for the historic flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi. “I didn’t do a thing,” he protested to technical sergeant Keyes Beach who asked him about the part he played in breaking through the Japanese defenses surrounding the base of Suribachi; “The men that were with me should be out here, too.”
Throughout his time aboard ship, Thomas protested the recognition he was given. He didn’t want the glory. He wasn’t looking for praise for what he did. All he wanted to do was set the record straight and be permitted to return to his men.
73 years after a modest young Marine from Monticello stood bewildered by the recognition and applause he received from a jubilant nation for his heroic deeds, the citizens of Monticello gathered to recognize and applaud the labors of another Monticello native, Dr. James Sledge.
Though Jim Sledge was also twenty years old when Boots Thomas raised the flag on Iwo Jima, his youthful days have long since passed him by.
Last Thursday, October 4, was Dr. Sledge's 94th birthday.
On that day, an appreciative crowd from Monticello and the surrounding area gathered at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce to honor Dr. Sledge for 70 years of labor in preserving the memory of Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. “Boots” Thomas.
In attendance were local Monticello and Tallahassee residents as well as out-of-town guests who had traveled from as far as Atlanta, GA, to be a part of the evening’s events.
Young and old joined together to honor Jim Sledge, and children of all ages listened eagerly as Dr. Sledge shared stories about his childhood and about Boots’ heroic life and death.
In attendance at the ceremony was county commissioner Betsy Barfield, who presented Jim Sledge with a resolution from the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners. The resolution noted that “the history of Sgt. ‘Boots’ Thomas would have been forgotten apart from the labors of Dr. James Sledge and others like him,” and that “Dr. Sledge has never received proper recognition for his continued labors and service on behalf of the memory of Sgt. Thomas.” The Board therefore resolved to “join the citizens of Monticello in recognizing and commending the selfless devotion and untiring labor which Dr. James Sledge has displayed in preserving the life and memory of Sgt. Thomas for the past seventy years” and urged all citizens to “follow in the footsteps of Dr. James Sledge” in preserving and honoring the memory of Boots Thomas and other local heroes.
Sheriff Mac McNeill was also in attendance and read a letter from Governor Rick Scott, who congratulated Jim Sledge on his 94th birthday and recognized him “for your dedication and commitment throughout seven decades to honor the courageous sacrifice during World War II of United States Marine Platoon Sgt. Ernest I. ‘Boots’ Thomas.” Governor Scott thanked Jim for his untiring labors which ensured that “the Monticello community, Florida and our nation will never forget the sacrifices made by Sergeant Thomas.”
Chamber of Commerce executive director Katrina Richardson coordinated the event and provided birthday cake and refreshments for the celebration. She also live-streamed the presentations and Jim's talk. Both videos are available for viewing on the Chamber’s Facebook page.
A new book on the life of Boots Thomas and Jim Sledge premiered at the event Thursday evening. Titled Invisible Hero, the book is a biography for young people written by local author Rebekah Sheats. Invisible Hero chronicles the stories of Boots and Jim’s childhood in Monticello and captures the exciting tale of Boots’ time in the Marine Corps and his heroic actions and premature death on Iwo Jima. The book also records the selfless part Jim Sledge has played over the past seventy years in preserving the memory of his fallen friend and shows that, though Jim may be an invisible hero, he is a hero indeed. Copies are available for purchase at the Chamber.
Despite his untiring labors and undaunted courage in keeping Boots’ story alive, Jim Sledge has never sought recognition for his work. Whether he was helping to organize fundraising to erect a memorial to Boots and his platoon members in the 1970s or whether he was retelling the stories of the Iwo Jima flag-raising to a group of middle-schoolers, Jim never asked for credit or praise. When he was honored last Thursday he was quick to note: “So many people have contributed to this.” “I just happened to get the ball rolling,” he continued; “I didn’t do anything.”
As Proverbs states, “The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, and a man is valued by what others say of him.” Even though Jim, just like Boots Thomas, may protest the credit given him, he deserves it nonetheless. The recognition he received on his 94th birthday was truly well-deserved—and long overdue. The evening’s presentations and thanks were only a small token of the gratitude that this and future generations owe him for his selfless dedication in preserving the memory of Boots Thomas.
Truly his example is our heritage.