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WWII vet remembers lasting bond with fallen hero and football teammate who raised Iwo Jima flag

Before Harlon Block became a World War II hero immortalized in the iconic photo of U.S. troops raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, he was part of an inseparable group of eight high school football teammates in south Texas.

The friends, whose story on TODAY's "Together We Make Football" series with the NFL commemorates Veterans Day on Nov. 11, were separated after joining the U.S. Marine Corps together in 1943.

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‘Together We Make Football’: The story of two 1940s Marines

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‘Together We Make Football’: The story of two 1940s Marines

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However, two of them, Block and Glen "Doc" Cleckler, had a chance encounter in Honolulu in December 1944 when Cleckler was on leave, and Block asked his old teammate from Weslaco High School to make him a promise.

"He said 'I want you to give this ring to my mother,''' Cleckler said on TODAY Friday. "He says, 'I may not be coming back.'''

That foreboding statement turned out to be true, as Block was the only one of the eight friends who did not survive the war.

However, history remembers him as the hunched-over Marine gripping the base of the Stars and Stripes as it was raised by six men over Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, after U.S. forces captured Mt. Suribachi.

Six days later, on March 1, Block was killed in action. He was 21 years old.

Joe Rosenthal / AP
Harlon Block, at right, was one of the six Marines who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

The flag raising over Iwo Jima is also immortalized at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, as well as a monument on the campus of the Marine Military Academy in Hearlingen, Texas.

Block's grave is located behind the monument at the MMA, where a memorial ceremony is being held on Friday for what would have been his 91st birthday.

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"When the young men are on the football field they can see that monument,'' MMA superintendent Col. Glenn Hill said on TODAY. "And it represents to them the courage they should exhibit, the leadership, the example that they need to set for others."

"It's a reminder to us as football players and as cadets in the academy of what great things we're capable of,'' MMA cadet James Gallagher told TODAY.

After World War II, Cleckler kept his promise to Block, returning the ring to his mother, but she did not want it.

"She kind of didn't want to talk to me,'' Cleckler said. "She said, 'I do not want to be reminded. You better keep it.’”

Cleckler, 90, wore the ring every day in memory of his friend before deciding to donate it to the MMA in 2010 as a symbol that friendship never dies.

"It's just amazing the bond two people can have,'' MMA cadet Kolten Wagner said. "A football team is a brotherhood. This ring kind of symbolizes that, too. They went through the 'Friday Night Lights' and further on into the war."

Cleckler is the last of the eight friends, whose story is detailed in the best-selling book "Flags of Our Fathers," who is still alive.

A retired high school principal still married to his college sweetheart, Cleckler lives in Hearlingen, where he is never far from his old friend.

"Harlon was my buddy,'' he said. "Don't know why that I made it. Sometimes you don't know how to feel."

Follow TODAY.com writer Scott Stump on Twitter.

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