Remembering Iwo Jima – Local veterans recall the bloody struggle and its iconic image
For many, the battle for the island of Iwo Jima is captured in a single photograph of a group of U.S. Marines struggling to plant a symbol of freedom atop a hill 60 years ago today.
Richard Bowen and Dave Gray only heard the cheers and hollers echoing from the top of Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, after a young wire service journalist snapped the picture that would come to define a generation of men.
At the time, the young soldiers, both of whom now live in Nevada County, were too busy dodging a Japanese military intent on halting the U.S.-led effort to capture the island.
What gets lost in history, the two men said, is that the battle for the island raged for five weeks after the triumphant members of Easy Company planted the Stars and Stripes atop the mountain.
“That was just the beginning of the battle,” said Bowen, who was 19 when he was sent with the members of Easy Company’s 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division to provide medical support for those at the foot of Mount Suribachi.
The field generals and media, long caught up in the symbolism of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, never fully comprehended the struggle for the island 550 miles southeast of Tokyo, the survivors said.
The iconic flag-raising, both veterans said, quickly overshadowed battles between the Japanese in their bunkers below the black sand and U.S.-led forces led to 26,000 U.S. casualties, including more than 7,000 deaths.
Gray, who landed on Iwo Jima four days before the flag-raising as a member of the Marines’ Health and Safety Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd regiment, 4th Marine Division, said the U.S. forces faced a brutal enemy in their drive to capture three airfields.
“We did this at a great loss,” said Gray, who had the job of laying metal tracks in the sand to build the airstrips.
“The flag-raising was just a symbol, really,” he said. “Prior to that, our guys were getting slaughtered.”
Broken boats and bodies littered the beach near the Pacific Ocean beneath Mount Suribachi where Associated Press photographer Rosenthal made six members of Easy Company instant heroes.
It was this second of two flag-raisings that has been immortalized in photos, movies and a best-selling book, “Flags Of Our Fathers,” written by James Bradley, the son of flag-raiser John Bradley.
The motion picture version of the novel is currently in pre-production and is scheduled to be released sometime next year by producer Steven Spielberg.
Bowen and Gray have been brought together by Dustin Spence, a 2002 Bear River High School graduate who is attempting to record Bowen and Gray’s recollections as part of an oral narrative for the movie.
Whether he succeeds won’t be known for a while. But it is the 20-year-old’s drive and determination to keep the story alive that impresses both veterans.
Spence’s grandfather, Clarence, flew P-38s in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
“I grew up listening to stories from him,” said Spence, a junior at the University of California, Davis. Spence has read “Flags of Our Fathers” and visited Normandy’s Omaha Beach to better understand the stories that took his grandfather years to retell.
The memories come back slowly as well for those who were at Iwo Jima.
“I hadn’t hardly thought about it until I read this book, and it’s brought a lot of memories back,” Bowen said.
Until he began visiting Bear River High School a few years ago as a guest speaker, Gray didn’t talk about it much, either. He said his children didn’t know until they were grown that he even served in the military.
“How can you talk about such gruesome stuff?” he said. “I put it behind me a long time ago.”
Today in San Francisco at the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel with dozens of Iwo Jima and World War II veterans, Bowen will for the first time be rejoined with some of his comrades who fought the battle for Iwo Jima.
“Thinking about it now, it seems like yesterday,” he said.
About the battle
The battle for Iwo Jima, 550 miles south of Japan, began on Feb. 19, 1945, and ended March 26. An estimated 6,825 U.S. soldiers, and nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese troops on the island, died.
The Marines who hoisted the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island were Mike Strank (1919-1945), Harlan Block (1919-1945), Frank Sousley (1925-1945), Ira Hayes (1923-1955); Rene Gagnon (1925-1979); and John Bradley (1923-1994). Bradley is a key figure in the book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” written by his son, James.
Source: “Flags of Our Fathers,” Iwojima.com
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