In October 1944, in the depths of World War II, a young man from Baltimore named Robert Rubenstein dropped out of high school and, with his mother’s permission, enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was 17.
Rubenstein was assigned to a machine gun crew, served on the battleship USS Tennessee and survived the war. He came home to Baltimore, raised a family and was always proud of being a Marine.
On Wednesday, his son, David, the billionaire philanthropist, announced that he is donating $5.37 million to refurbish the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the 100-ton bronze sculpture of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima during the war.
The donation is being made to honor the elder Rubenstein, who died two years ago, and all Marines who have died in service to the country.
The announcement came during a morning ceremony at the memorial in Arlington Ridge Park, near Arlington National Cemetery. It was attended by Rubenstein; his mother, Bettie, 84; and government and Marine officials.
The event was a surprise for Rubenstein’s mother, who had not been told about the honor.
“I wish my husband could have been here to see this,” she said after the ceremony. “How honored he would have been. I’m just so proud of my son and all the things he’s doing
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful honor,” she said.
The gift is being made through the National Park Foundation, the charitable partner of the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial.
The donation follows Rubenstein’s $10 million gift to Montpelier, the historic Orange, Va., home of the nation’s fourth president, James Madison, in November.
He previously donated $5 million to the White House Visitor Center in September and $12.3 million to Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, in July.
And after the 2011 earthquake, he paid $7.5 million of the $15 million cost to repair the Washington Monument.
Rubenstein — co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based global private-equity firm — has a passion for U.S. history and has made numerous major history-themed donations in the past.
“He wasn’t any great military hero, didn’t win any big battles,” Rubenstein said of his father, who died of a heart attack at age 85 in 2012. “Just a private first class. . . . [But] he was always proud of being a Marine.”
He said he believed that his grandmother had signed his father’s permission papers with “some trepidation.” But teenagers everywhere were enlisting. “She signed the papers, and he went in. And he was always proud to have done it,” he said.
“I thought that I should have done something to honor him while he was alive,” Rubenstein said Tuesday. But his father’s death was unexpected.
He said he had recently taken his mother to visit the memorial. “It didn’t look so great,” he said. “But I’m not an expert, and I didn’t really know whether work was needed or not.”
He said he contacted National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. They toured the memorial together, and Jarvis pointed out what work the memorial needed. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ ” Rubenstein said.
Jarvis said Tuesday that he and Rubenstein “have had this ongoing dialogue about the needs of the National Park Service. . . . It’s not like the Marine Corps Memorial is in dire [need] of repair. But it definitely needed some work.”
The memorial is based on the famous photograph that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took of a group of Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945.
The Battle of Iwo Jima continued for several weeks after that, claiming the lives of about 20,000 Japanese and almost 7,000 Americans, including three of the flag-raisers.
The 78-foot-high memorial was created by Felix de Weldon, an Austrian-born painter, sculptor and U.S. Navy veteran, and was dedicated on Nov. 10, 1954.
The money will go, in part, toward cleaning and waxing the statue, which hasn’t been done in about a decade, said Simone Monteleone, who is a resource-management chief with the National Park Service.
Currently, the statue “has sort of a green hue to it,” she said. “When you clean it and wax it, it’ll probably appear to be a darker, more bronzy color.”
The black Swedish granite panels of the statue’s base will be polished, and some of the inscriptions in the granite will be regilded. Repairs will also be made to the pavement, lighting and flagpole, and the landscaping will be upgraded.
Initial work on the two-year project has begun, the Park Service said, with much of it scheduled to happen next year.
“This area is like sacred ground to the Marine Corps,” Marine Maj. Gen. Michael R. Regner said Wednesday as he stood before the memorial. “It represents the finest.
“Mr. Rubenstein, sir: I congratulate you,” he added. “I thank you.”