The Japanese Alamo

Combat Notebook: Dispatches from the War on Terrorism
By P. T. Brent, 7/2/2004 9:00:33 AM

Iwo Jima - 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. A task force of 495 ships gathered, more than our current Navy now has in totality, assembled off shore awaiting orders to "land the landing force."

Iwo Jima (Japanese for Sulfur-Island) had another invasion last 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"

Joe Fachet is back on Iwo for the first time since he fought there. Joe, when he first arrived as a replacement Marine, asked a corporal why a man was out there amongst the Marine bodies with bullets flying all around him. The Corporal replied: "he is Father Pat Lonergan, our chaplain, giving last rites to the men." With tears running down his cheeks, Joe Fachet said until the day he dies, he believes he saw a halo of safety around Father Lonergan.

We join the other seven Iwo Jima Veterans. Ranging from 77 to 85, these aging Leathernecks are all here for a last visit. There 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."

"A rough place to be," said Jim Platt of Buffalo

"It was kill or be killed, I feel at times, maybe, I never should have left here alive," was the sentiment of Charles Modrell, Kansas City.

"It made a better man out of me," stated Al Abbatiello who hails from the Bronx NYC.

Bill Leverence 85, and son Mike 55, from Chicago showed his Dad's now famous Iwo flame thrower photograph. Dad, wounded on Iwo, finally returned for a last reflective moment.

Long after the battle, the Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi would receive high accolades from the Lt. General 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."

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; that 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, 24,000 Marines were 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 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. Five Marines and navy corpsman from the 28th Marine regiment raised an oversized US Flag on a 100 pound rusted plumbing pole. 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 the dark room photo technician, first to see this famous picture, 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). Three of the six flag raisers died before leaving the island. Of the 40 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.

Sadly, 1,500 World War Two veterans die daily in the USA.

All these Marines are a salute to every U.S. 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

About Iwo Jima -- The 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.

Check out the following Web site:

Lt. General Kuribayashi grandson made a special speech in Japanese to the assembled Marines and Japanese officials.

Here is the conclusion of Yoshitaka Shindo's remarks -- translated.

"We salute the United States Marine Corps. Thanks you all for being here today and what it says about the human heart. God Bless America!"

P. T. Brent is a Hawaii business man and former U.S. Marine infantry veteran. He has been embedded with the Marines in Iraq and other conflict areas for the past 60 days.

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