Iwo Jima: 1945-2015

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. What was supposed to be a 3 day in-and-out ended up being 35 days of brutal, intense fighting between the Japanese and American forces, culminating in over 26,000 American casualties. The cost was terribly high, but the capture of the island was crucial. If we could take the Island of Iwo Jima, we could use it as a staging point to get to mainland Japan. It would also provide a much needed landing base for American bombers and P51 mustangs on their missions to and from Japan. The battle was long and hard and bloody. From February 19 to March 26, the Marines moved slowly forward, taking ground bit by bit, but at tremendous expense. Years beforehand, the Japanese had built miles of caves and tunnels underneath the ground, laid mines, prepared bunkers and pillboxes for the ultimate defense of the island. The Marines quickly found out that the only way to get the Japanese out of these pillboxes was by flamethrower, a horrible, yet effective weapon. On February 23, 1945, five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. There was still a long way to go. It would be another month before Iwo Jima was taken, but the sight of Old Glory flying high and proud sent a message to every man on that island: We are here to stay. 

10 Years ago this next week. WWII veteran and Iwo Jima survivor Ivan Hammond with two of my brothers, Jubilee (left) and me. Photo credit: www.pbase.com. 

One of my first memories of meeting Iwo Jima veterans was 10 years ago this month. For the 60th anniversary, Fredericksburg, Texas held a grand reenactment of the battle and over 25,000 people turned out to watch it. It was simply packed. I was only about 8 years old at the time, and I didn't completely comprehend the significance of it all except that my father told me, "This is an historic moment. Pay attention to the people you meet and remember them. There will not be many opportunities like this again." So I did. Over the anniversary week, I followed my dad and two brothers around, lugging a gigantic yellow and white cassette player in a little pack I carried on my back. I brought along several blank cassettes, and for every veteran we met, I would turn that recorder on and listen for all I was worth. I don't remember the names of most the Marines I met that day, but I remember standing in awe at the stories they told us. One man in particular, I will never forget.  He had on a bright red coat with pins and medals, and a red hat with gold colored trim on it; somewhere on the hat were the words Iwo Jima. I listened to the stories he told my dad and brothers, and wondered at the bravery and sacrifice of such a man. To me, only a little girl of 8, he seemed to me the oldest man I'd ever met. As I look back now, I realize he would only have been in his late 70s, a mere spring chicken compared to the fellows of today; yet what he had done for this country was amazing to me. And I've never forgotten him. Every time someone brings up the Battle of Iwo Jima, I remember that man. At one time a brave young Marine ready to conquer the world,  then standing in a grassy little area in Fredericksburg, talking with my brothers and me, his hair was white and his hands a little shaky, but his voice was strong and a spirit of fearlessness was about him that was unconquerable. I will never forget him.

Photo credit: Patrick Johnston Times Record News

This last weekend, my sisters and I were able to attend one of the last Iwo Jima Reunions. For two days we visited and talked with veterans of this great and horrible battle. Marines, Navy Corpsmen, Air Force, and even a SeaBee all gathered together for one last time in Texas to remember and pay tribute to the comrades they left behind. It was a moving experience. They told us their stories looking at maps and replica newspaper clippings. Each man had played a different and unique role in the winning of Iwo Jima, but like all true heroes, they downplayed their own actions and declared the true heroes were the ones who never made it home.

Photo credit: Patrick Johnston Times Record News

The weekend was short, but sweet. In many ways it was an apropos conclusion to my first meeting of Iwo Jima veterans 10 years ago. 10 years from now I doubt there will be any Iwo Jima veterans still alive, none left to tell their own story. The Battle of Iwo Jima stands out as the bloodiest battle in the history of the Marine Corps. More Medals of Honor were given out during this battle than any other during the war; and it was the only time Marine casualties were more in number than the enemy. The level of courage required was high, but for the Americans fighting on Iwo Jima, "uncommon valor was a common virtue." It is only fitting that, on the 70th anniversary of this battle, where so many lives were lost, we stop for a brief moment, and remember those boys who endured and sacrificed so much for you and me.