Iwo Jima 71 years later

Iwo Jima. It's hard to put into words the meaning behind those 7 letters. I think for most people, it's an interesting assortment of vowels and consonants. One Iwo veteran told me, "A 50-something year-old once came up to me and said, 'What does "I Survived I-W-O" stand for?' Realizing it was pointless to explain, I just told her, 'It means, "I Survived the International Women's Organization"."

(l-r) Gene Bell -3rd Marine Division, Liberty, and Ken Jarvis, son of an Iwo Jima veteran. I am holding Mr. Jarvis' father's license plate which says, "Iwo J 1945."

The reality is they ARE letters that stand for something - They spell out the names of the nearly 7,000 boys who never left the island and 20,000 others who became casualties of war. The Battle for Iwo Jima was long, bloody, and hard. But when those Marines saw the first plane emergency-land on the secured airstrip, they knew that, as costly as it had been, it was completely worth it.

Last weekend, I (Liberty) had one of the greatest pleasures and honors of my life attending the reunion for the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima held in Arlington, Virginia. For the last 11 years, Iwo Jima has held a unique and special place in my thoughts. Something about this particular battle has wrapped it's way around the strings of my heart, and as time goes on, it only becomes tighter. When Admiral Nimitz said, "Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue," he was only speaking the truth. The Marines in this battle fought with a persevering endurance so strong, against an enemy so fierce who seemed to stop at nothing to achieve the complete defeat and humiliation our brave boys and beautiful country of America. But despite the odds, our fellas overcame and the battle was declared our victory. 

The Iwo Jima veterans at the WWII Memorial

If you speak to an "Iwo Jima Survivor" today, they won't tell you much. There are just some things that even now, 71 years later, cannot be repeated. A veteran of the Korean War described it perfectly when he said, "People ask you about 'what war is like,' but the minute you start telling them, they don't want to know. They can't handle it. They don't know what it's like to see [hundreds] of dead men. . .all the time. They can hardly bear to see one dead person all cleaned up in a casket." 

But on occasion, they do open up, and when they do, it is an emotional experience. This past weekend, among the humorous and lighthearted anecdotes of "those good ole' days in the Corps," I spoke with several Marines who shared some very personal stories with me. Their words and accounts were told with almost an angst at speaking of things so sacred and tender. Tender because they have lain buried deep in their thoughts for 71 years. And few will ever understand. 

Hearing the stories as I did, so real and raw, it is hard for me even now to repeat them. Partly because of how close I feel to these stories and the ones telling them. I was not there to experience them, but it is almost as if I could experience it all through the eyes of the veteran; and in their voices hear the sounds of battle, the tension of the combat, the smell of gunfire, the loss of friend and comrade. Waiting for a night attack. A close call. Then another one. Until the point where they no longer took note. On and on and on. Then, a brief respite. Only to be repeated again and again. For the veteran of this living nightmare, tears dried up many years ago. . .or at least they don't come as easily now. He just looks back on it all with a contemplative solemnity. Maybe wondering at the high price spent for freedom. But for the listener, this "second-hand" experience of what war is like brings many new tears. Tears of sorrow, compassion, and gratitude. A fuller understanding. . . but also a recognition that the enormity of it will never be fully grasped.

Two of my 5th Marine Division friends. Mr. Harvey (left) was in the Paramarines prior to joining the 5th Division. Mr. Lauriello (rt) experience 37 brutal days on Iwo.

Another reason the retelling is so hard is the fear that repeating the stories will cheapen the sacrifice. It can happen that we become so accustomed to tales of bravery that we are desensitized to the depth of pain behind it. We forget that the boy who died on the beach moments after landing, took a bullet for his friend behind him, and that friend has carried the memory with him for 71 years. The memory of a life cut off in his prime: no family, no future, no life. Not even a minute more. When a day rarely passes without recalling this scene to mind, a 30-second mention by a TV news-anchor just does not seem to do the memory justice. 

Regardless, their stories must be repeated. They must be passed on so that the sacrifice of our courageous boys will not only continue in our memory, but also be remembered in our deeds and actions. Their lives purchased an extra 71+ years of freedom and prosperity for us here in America. May we never do anything to soil the purity of the blood that was shed for our country. Please, never forget Iwo Jima.