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Victoria Michels, wife of Marine in famed Iwo Jima photo, dies

Victoria Michels of Riverside loved when the lilacs bloomed. | Family photo

Victoria Michels raised four daughters, worked at Western Union and enjoyed a long retirement in which she volunteered at three hospitals, cooked endless supplies of homemade gnocchi for her family and savored good coffee and dressing up in costumes at Halloween.

Mrs. Michels, who died on July 9 at 93, also is linked to a famous photo from World War II, one that captures a defining, morale-boosting moment at the Battle of Iwo Jima, the bloodiest conflict in U.S Marine Corps history.

Her wartime sweetheart — and future husband — was James R. Michels. The couple met at a wedding, where they glided around the dance floor like ballroom champions.

“They liked each other right off the bat,” said a daughter, Betty McMahon.

The Riverside girl and Bridgeport boy stayed in touch through letters while he served in the military.

A young Victoria DiTorrice Michels. | Family photo
A young Victoria DiTorrice Michels. | Family photo

On the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, the tough-looking, carbine-toting Jim Michels was immortalized in a photo that seemed to telegraph the implacable grit of the Marines. He helped guard soldiers as they raised the first U.S. flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.

When they succeeded, the surrounding cheers rose to the decibel level of a football game.

“It was a big morale boost,” said Charles P. Neimeyer, director of the USMC History Division/Gray Research Center in Quantico, Virginia.

Though Mr. Michels didn’t like to talk about the war, he did discuss that transcendent moment.

“The only thing that he talked about,” said Betty McMahon, “was when our flag went up, how loud the cheering was, and the noise from the boats below. It was unbelievable.”

“All those guys on that patrol didn’t know if they were going to make it up that mountain at all,” Neimeyer said. Jim Michels “was within touching distance” of the flag.

James Michels, with carbine, helps guard Fifth Division Marines of the 28th Regiment as they hoist to the top of an improvised pole the flag they carried to the summit of Mount Suribachi in 1945. | USMC photo
James Michels, with carbine, helps guard Fifth Division Marines of the 28th Regiment as they hoist to the top of an improvised pole the flag they carried to the summit of Mount Suribachi in 1945. | USMC photo

“My dad was watching out for them,” McMahon said. “They were like sitting ducks up there.”

Within 15 minutes of flying the Stars and Stripes, the Japanese pounced. “They came out of a cave and attacked the flag-raisers,” Neimeyer said.

Two hours later, a larger, replacement banner was hoisted in the second flag-raising at Iwo Jima, memorialized in an iconic photo and in sculpture at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington, Virginia. The dramatic picture of the second flag-raising came to overshadow the first.

Over the years, Mrs. Michels and other relatives of the soldiers who first climbed Mount Suribachi were happy to see those men gain more recognition.

The first and second flags are at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. So is Mr. Michels’ uniform, according to his daughters.

Before he left Iwo Jima, he visited the Pacific island’s cemetery. Nearly 7,000 Marines were killed in the battle. “He cried because he was leaving a lot of his buddies behind,” Betty McMahon said.

Mrs. Michels was proud of her husband and staunch in her support when he struggled with post-traumatic stress and sleep disorders after the war, according to their daughters. At times, he was admitted to Hines VA for treatment of depression.

Victoria Michels remembers her husband’s WWII experience at Iwo Jima with her daughters Betty (left) and Sue. | Sun-Times file photo
Victoria Michels remembers her husband’s WWII experience at Iwo Jima with her daughters Betty (left) and Sue. | Sun-Times file photo

She was born in Chicago, the child of Italian immigrants Carmela and Chester DiTorrice. After Victoria’s mother died when she was 3, her aunt and uncle, Antonia and Enrico, who didn’t have children, took in Victoria and her brother and sister and raised them on Riverside’s Quincy Street.

Young Victoria went to Riverside Brookfield High School and enjoyed visiting the Roxy Theatre in Berwyn. She kept a scrapbook about the movie star she dreamed of marrying: Bing Crosby.

She and Jim Michels were married 34 years until, his death in 1982. They raised their family in Riverside. He worked as a driver for Crane Co. and Columbia Pipe & Supply.

Victoria and Jim Michels were married 34 years, until his death in 1982. | Family photo
Victoria and Jim Michels were married 34 years, until his death in 1982. | Family photo

Mrs. Michels liked the Riverside water tower, the song “Lara’s Theme” from the film “Doctor Zhivago” and Bill Clinton, whom she met in Washington at a commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“In her 70s, she volunteered at three hospitals” — Hines, Loyola and MacNeal — said another daughter, Donna Schelthoff. At Hines, “She’d dance with some of the patients when they had a dance.”

Though the years robbed her of mobility, she remained cheerful and grateful, relatives said. Last year, upon hearing the band R-Gang at a festival, “She was just bopping away,” said another daughter, Mary Michels. “We had a traveling wheelchair, and she got up and was dancing.”

Each spring, she looked forward to the lilacs blooming. “Mom would say, ‘This must be what heaven feels like.’ She always loved the smell of the lilacs,” said a fourth daughter, Sue Kanz.

She said the rosary often and attended daily mass at St. Hughes in Lyons.

Mrs. Michels also is survived by seven grandchildren and step-grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Mrs. Michels was a regular at Riverside’s Flur Bakery, where she enjoyed the coffee.

“We had the [funeral] procession go past the coffee shop,” said Betty McMahon. “The people came out, and they held their cups up — one last salute to Vicky as she passed by.”

Victoria Michels and her daughters, (top to bottom) Donna Schelthoff, Betty McMahon, Mary Michels and Sue Kanz. | Family photo
Victoria Michels and her daughters, (top to bottom) Donna Schelthoff, Betty McMahon, Mary Michels and Sue Kanz. | Family photo