Return to the Black Sands of Iwo Jima pt. 1

One year ago today, I stepped onto the runway on Iwo Jima Island for the first time. It was a surreal moment for me. 11 years before, I had first really learned about this terrible battle and it impacted me tremendously. A little later, when my brothers (then 10 & 12) returned from going to Iwo Jima with my Dad for the 60th, I told myself I would visit the island some day. Now, at 18 years old, it was actually happening. And the experience was unlike any I've ever had. 

Now, if you've read any of the previous things I've written about Iwo Jima, you'll know the story and it's characters mean an awful lot to me. This time, however, I'm going to tell you a little about when this dream of an 8-year old girl finally came true, and I made the journey to an island of bravery, courage, and sacrifice, called Iwo Jima. 

The whole experience of getting to Iwo Jima is a story in itself. Preparations, passport anxieties (doesn't that always happen?!), surprise blessings, surprise complications. But in the end, it all worked out, and on March 16, 2015 after a fabulous send-off, we flew out of LAX airport with nearly 30 Iwo Jima veterans and an enormous amount of family of veterans, friends, relatives, and the like; all going to pay respect and remember.  

Airport buddies! Both 3rd Marine Division guys.

Our flight was made up into two 7+ hour flights. Despite the great length of the travel time, it ended up becoming one of the highlights of the trip.  On the first flight from LAX to Honolulu, I had the great pleasure of sitting with a wonderful Vietnam vet who has been traveling to Iwo Jima for the last 15 years. For 7-hours straight, we talked and talked, covering almost as many miles as our plane.

The next flight from Honolulu to Guam, I spent standing in the back of the plane chatting with the veterans and others who congregated there, or walking up and down the aisles meeting the other members of our tour. Carrying an April edition of the 1945 LIFE Magazine featuring Iwo Jima was a great conversation opener for the vets. They thumbed through the pages, telling me various facts about the pictures and articles in it. The 7 hours flew by as everyone got to know each other in this wonderfully relaxed way; and some pretty remarkable stories were swapped before the "fasten seatbelt" sign came on for landing. 

Hafa Adai! The traditional Chamorro (Guam) welcome

We arrived in Guam sometime pretty late on the 17th. Of course our hours were all mixed up since we had passed the international dateline and were now 15 hours ahead of the rest of America. Tired as we were, the entire group was welcomed to the hotel with a delightful reception. 

The next few days were spent traveling to various historical spots on the Island of Guam. Among our group we had many veterans who took part in the fighting for Guam in 1944. Several had been back over the years, but for those coming back for the first time, it was a stirring experience.

One of those to be making a first return trip was the last Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient Hershel W. Williams. In previous years, he had refused to return to these battlefields as the memories were too painful, but as the 70th anniversary approached, he decided that it was time. Like the other veterans returning for the first time, there were many emotions and memories that came back to Mr. Williams.

Hershel W. Williams MOH with his great-grandson on Iwo Jima

One afternoon we had made the trip up to Nimitz Hill and the Admiral's home there. After some commentary and talks outside, everyone went in to the Admiral's house for refreshments, and I found myself with Mr. Williams, his friend, an entirely empty portico, and a spectacular view of nearly all of Guam.

After a few moments of silence, Mr. Williams began to talk about his first experience of combat on Guam. It was more stream of consciousness spoken aloud than an intentional conversation with either me or his friend. He told us of those first nights in combat when the slightest noise made your hair stand on end. The expectation of any moment hearing the blood curdling, "Banzai!" charge and the suicide attacks that immediately followed. When they finally did come, it was when least expected. Charging at you in the dark they screamed, "Die Marine! Die Marine!" Jumping into the foxholes they fought a fierce hand to hand combat. A comrade fell or an enemy was killed. I hardly breathed for fear of breaking his stream of thought. These were memories that had remained on a dusty shelf for 70 years, but now, looking over the very landing beaches and locations where he had fought and distinguished himself, they came flooding back. His reverie ended, but the memory of this moment will stick with me. 

Jim Skinner, USMC 

Another morning on Guam, one of the veterans, Jim Skinner, came up to me with a book of photos from his time in the Marine Corps. He had been telling me about it over the last few days, and I was quite eager to see it. For probably half an hour, we looked through the book, and he told me about each picture. They were all great. Pictures of his girlfriends, Marine Corps buddies, training, family, and all the general photos you would find in an old military photo book. But there were two that stuck out to me the most. Turning the page he said, "This is a picture taken right before I killed my first Jap... and this picture is right after. You can see there he is in the corner of the picture." He didn't take glory in these two pictures as if they were trophies of war, but saw them as they were, a photographic documentation of one of the most life-changing moments in the career of a combat soldier: the first time he kills. Mr. Skinner is another story in itself. A story of bitterness and redemption. He passed away two months after our trip to Iwo Jima. 

Lt. General Snowden with Naval radioman Tsuruji Akikusa 

I would be greatly remiss if I did not mention Lt. Gen. Snowden, the real driving force behind the return trips to Iwo Jima. General Snowden, an Iwo Jima veteran himself, through his gracious relationships with the Japanese government over the years, made it possible for American veterans, families, and friends to travel to Iwo Jima to pay respects and remember. A remarkable man with a very commanding presence, he talked to the entire group before we flew to Iwo, strictly admonishing them as to how our behavior and attitude should be on the island, as it was entirely a gift given to us by the Japanese to make this trip.

The day before we flew to Iwo, to better prepare everyone, Military Historical Tours (the groups which makes these trips to Iwo Jima every year) hosted a symposium on the battle of Iwo Jima. By then, more attendees and veterans had trickled in, and we had quite a crowd. The symposium was most excellent and couldn't have been more informative. During the afternoon, I listened in on some of the veterans' interviews that were taking place in the hotel. This was uniquely special because the the vets being interviewed were about to make their first trip back. On the edge with excitement and apprehension, they talked freely about their experiences during the war, their reasons for going back, and their fears and hopes of what the morrow would bring. Healing? Closure?