Iwo Jima Revisited on 60th Anniversary

By P. T. Brent, 4/6/2005 9:45:20 PM

Dateline: Iwo Jima, Japan 11 March 2005

Sixty years has done little to diminish the visceral memories of both the Japanese and U.S. Marine survivors visiting for this 60th anniversary of the battle to the few living survivors. It is the last journey for many of these brave Marines who traveled far and long to have one last look on a battlefield, which has not changed since 1945. The rusted detritus of a violence, tanks, cannons, mortars, bayonets and personal effects still stand silent sentinels, untouched by time, to one of war’s most horrific battle sites.

General Mike Hagee, the Marine Commandant’s presence well exemplifies the reverence the Corps has for this hallowed and infamous island. The top Marine stated: “This reunion of honor well represents a bridge between Iwo Jima and our Marines fighting in Iraq. Marines today still have uncommon valor and both locations are landmarks of individual courage.”

Marine and Navy pilots, 59 years ago, called it “a charred pork chop.” From the sky in a Marine Corsair this sulfuric volcanic island is dramatically different from what was experienced by Marine infantry on these black coral beaches. The 3rd, 4th, & 5th Marine Divisions encountered horrific casualties when attacking this now legendary rock. A miniscule island comprised of only seven and one half square miles, it was smaller than Santa Monica, California. It is about twice the size of Honolulu Harbor and about 2/3 the size of Pearl Harbor. A task force of 495 ships assembled off shore, more than our current Navy now has in totality (about 300 ships), awaiting orders to “land the landing force.”

Iwo Jima (Japanese for Sulfur-Island) had another invasion this month. The Marines based on Okinawa landed in full force on a training mission. Marines are long on training. Green beach just below Mount Suribachi (556 tough feet) was far less lethal than their predecessor Leathernecks experienced 59 years ago. Iwo’s black coral sand swallowed the men up to their knees, immobilizing them.

The results were incomprehensible losses to both the Japanese and the Americans alike. Over 40,000 casualties were suffered by both sides, including the 28,000 killed in action. There were 82 Medals of Honor awarded in WWII. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were earned on Iwo Jima alone.

One MOH was awarded to PFC Jack Lucas, who had conned Marine recruiters into an enlistment at the age of 14. Pfc Lucas turned 17 while on Iwo and had been a stowaway on the troop transports. This baby Marine fell upon two grenades and subsequently survived 27 surgeries. When asked, why he took such a risk, Jack replied: “to save my buddies” Jack was honored at the ceremony at Iwo Jima.

We joined a total of 84 Iwo Jima Veterans. Ranging from 77 to 92, these aging Leathernecks are all here for a last visit. Maybe the first and only time since 1945, these men will for a final moment revisit this hallowed island, now a shrine to both sides.

These somber men speak softly and profoundly:

"Not a day in my life goes by I do not think of Iwo." Andrian Minch “C” Company 1/25.

"A rough place to be" said Pvt. Ed Des Rosiers of Boston enlisted on 10 November 1942.

When asked why he went … Marine Close answer: “I’m a Marine, we go where we are sent and do what they tell us to do. We do not go home until the job gets done”.

"It was kill or be killed, I feel at times, maybe, I never should have left here alive." Was the sentiment of Bill van Court of New Jersey.

"It made a better man out of me" stated Al Abbatiello who hails from the Bronx NYC Al was back for second time with his full family.

Pfc John Schuman, Kingman Kansas “I” Company 3/28 wounded on 12th day. Recovered in Hawaii. John finally returned for a last reflective moment. Spoke of losing his best Marine pal Leo Butler who the day before had saved his life.

Long after the battle, the Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi would receive high accolades from the Lt. General Holland Smith of the Marine Forces. Smith lavished praise on this amazing Japanese military man. He said he fought better than the Germans or any foe; we had ever fought in World War Two. General Kuribayashi was educated in the USA. He was quoted: “The United States is the last country in the world that Japan should ever fight.”

The Defender of Iwo Jima Japanese General Kuribayshi's grandson greets General Chip Gregson, CG MarForPac on Iwo Jima as Marine Commandant General Mike Hagee and Lt. General Rusty Blackman stand by.

Alamo in the Pacific

For the Japanese and their Commanding General this was their Alamo. Iwo is just 660 miles from Tokyo. The Mayor of Tokyo was also the Mayor of this same prefecture with two critical airfields. The USA was attacking their homeland. Just like the Texans, General Todamuchi Kuribayashi had been ordered to hold off the invaders of his homeland as long as possible. Like the Alamo, he was tasked with fighting to the last man. This would make the cost so dear to the Marines; his hope was America might negotiate rather than invade Japan.

Like the Alamo, the Japanese Army fought until virtually every one of 22,000 troops had died; including thirty children, each was issued two grenades, one to attack Marines and the other for self destruction. There is a monument at Iwo for these young botany students who were stranded on this sulfuric island. The Marines, for the first time, had higher casualties than the enemy, with 24,000 Marines killed or wounded. Two out of every three Marines who landed were killed or wounded. The transport ships, which were crowded upon arrival, departed Iwo Jima with ample room on board for all the somber men returning home.

The General Kuribayashi had spent a year building, arguably, the most impenetrable fortress of all time, comprised of a series of caves from 30 to 75 feet below the rock surface. Many days of naval fire and air bombing resulted in few casualties. Only 7 out of 22,000 were killed in attacks prior to “D” day. The Japanese were not on Iwo. Indeed, they were “inside” it. Lighting systems, ventilation shafts, and 400 beds carved into the rock walls constituted their hospital. The tunnels all were interlaced so their murderous artillery and mortar fire would descend upon the Marines throughout these horrific battles. One Marine said, “not getting hit was like running through rain and trying to stay dry”.

The General admonished his men to kill 10 Americans each, before they die for the Emperor. They were completely out of water and food the last ten days. Their night attacks on Marines showed all Marine canteens missing.

On the 8th of January 1949 the last two Japanese soldiers came out of these sulfur caves and surrendered to the American forces. They had read in a discarded paper that Americans were celebrating Christmas in Tokyo.

These Japanese soldiers were brave men who died at their posts; hated then, respected now.

Today those caves still have many ghostly military accouterments, which like the bodies of the defenders have been mummified by this sulfuric heat. In 1984 Colonel Ripley of the Marine historical division discovered the journal of Kuribayashi and his chief of staff’s body, all perfectly preserved.

1/400 of a second …

Over half a century later, each year, Marines (and they are “still” Marines) return to this black sand island where they lost 6,821 of their fellow Marines. These few aging warriors come once a year. They slowly climb up Mount Suribachi, where on “D” day plus four, the 23rd of February 1945 in 1/400 of a second, Joe Rosenthal captured the combat picture of all time. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Five Marines and navy corpsman from the 28th Marine regiment raised an oversized US Flag on a 100 pound rusted plumbing pole. The flag (8 X 4 foot ships port flag) from an Hawaiian Based LST 779 was recovered from a damaged Pearl Harbor 7 December ship. The camera shutter blinked spontaneously as a Marine said “there she goes …” Now the world’s largest bronze sculpture is located in the nation’s capital. The Corps icon established for all time. In this Guam Navy dark room a photo technician, first to see this Pulitzer Prize picture and. ... wrote on the envelope ….

“Here’s one for all time.”

The resulting Iwo war bond drive set a never broken record, over 220 million was raised. (billions by today’s standard) The three-cent postage stamp sold a record 20 million dollars in stamp sales. The record for this unique vertical green stamp is still never broken today. (first class postage costs 37-cent stamp today … still a good deal)

Three of the six flag raisers died before leaving the island. Of the forty Marines on the Suribachi assault platoon only four survived. Our way of life in America, like freedom, is not cheap. On Iwo, we experienced a carnal and a gruesome standard rarely witnessed since Gettysburg. “An ominous reminder to those who would wage war with the United Sates” stated John Ripley the head of the Marine Corps history and traditions division.


Mail Call & Full Metal Jacket's Gunny Lee Ermey duels with author on Iwo Jima's Tarmac.

Sadly, 1500 World War Two veterans die daily in the USA. Riverside National Cemetery in Southern California buries one veteran, every minutes Monday thru Friday.

All these Marines are a salute to every US fighting man who was ever sent off to war since 1776. Hopefully Americans will always prove worthy of their sacrifices.

After securing the island, the Marine burial detail placed this sign at the cemetery for their fallen comrades…

When you go home

Tell them for us and say

For your tomorrow

We gave our today

Americans will forever be indebted to these humble heroes of yesteryear.

The Marines of Iwo Jima

Author’s personal reflections ….

My Mom and I had just exited the Strand Theater on Division Street in Chicago one warm summer night. The feature film was a classic “Sands of Iwo Jima”. My Mom with quiet pride asked, did you know Robert Brent, the man I am about to marry was a Marine?

I was 8 years old and asked the next day, if he had been on Iwo with John Wayne? The movie Sands of Iwo Jima left a lasting impression on then Patrick Monaghan. I walked home thinking what an incredible and brave man this future stepfather must be. Perhaps he was even cooler than the “Duke’. I vowed to follow in his footsteps after I out grew my Buster Brown shoes.

Years later while at Little Creek Virginia with the second battalion, 24th Marines I remember climbing down a cargo net, laden with military paraphernalia into a Higgins boat, which smashing against the side of a Navy 558 foot LSD. It was intimidating, and unlike the Sands of Iwo Jima, there was no patriotic Marine's hymn being played in the background, like there was for Sergeant John Stryker. (Marine-John Wayne) Military adventures in real life are far flung from the silver screen.

During that time PTB taught Marine Corps history classes at the reserve center. Iwo Jima was always a serious study.

Today, I stepped off a Marine Corps aircraft at Iwo Jima. The rush of getting there (no easy mission) and the energy all faded. Left were some inner feelings, almost … impossible to describe. Never have two extraordinary warrior groups fought so bitterly for such a small bleak place. Their nobility and the sacrifices would rest heavily on any visitor's mind, perhaps a little more so, for a Marine veteran. These memories from third grade echoed and demanded this journey.

About Iwo Jima

U.S. wanted a base 660 miles from Tokyo for bombing and for crippled planes to be rescued.

It has hundreds of miles of tunnels and was defended as homeland by the Japanese.

Now back in Japanese custody, it is jointly used in perpetuity by the U.S. Marines and Japan for military exercises.

It is maintained as a shrine by the Japanese for their war dead.

Suggest a visit to http://www.PacificWarMemorial.org

P. T. Brent is a Hawaii business man and former U.S. Marine infantry veteran.



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