Vets return to Iwo Jima for 65th anniversary
IWO JIMA, Japan – Dozens of U.S. veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, returned to the remote volcanic island of Iwo Jima on Wednesday to mark the 65th anniversary of one of World War II’s fiercest battles.
The veterans, some in wheelchairs, flew to the island on a chartered airliner and fanned out across its famous black-sand beaches, where the U.S. invasion began on Feb. 19, 1945, and lasted 36 days. All told, nearly 28,000 troops were killed.
They were also taken to the top of Mount Suribachi, where the famous image of the American flag being raised was taken, before joining a joint memorial with U.S. and Japanese dignitaries.
“I was here for the entire mission, start to finish,” said Richard Rothwell, 97, of Catonsville, Maryland. “I had people killed next to me and around me and I was just very fortunate I made it out alive.”
Rothwell, who toured the island with Marine escorts pushing his wheelchair, was commander of a 4th Marines Division battalion when the invasion began. He retired as a colonel, with a silver star for his service on Iwo Jima.
Only five of the 18 U.S. Marine battalion commanders on Iwo Jima left the island still in command. The rest either died or were injured and relieved of duty.
Rothwell said the island today – inhabited only by about 300 Japanese troops because it is still deemed too dangerous for development because of remaining unexploded ordnance – is nothing like it was during the battle.
“It’s a paradise,” he said. “I see no resemblance at all. Even the beach seems different.”
The island, the size of Manhattan, is a maze of tunnels, caves and dense, scraggly underbrush.
Attesting to how deeply dug in its Japanese defenders were, the island is also still giving up the dead, with dozens of remains recovered every year.
The battle claimed 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese lives. Of that, about 12,000 Japanese are still classified as missing in action and presumed dead, along with 218 Americans.
“Only 40 percent of the remains of the Japanese troops have been recovered,” said Yasutaka Shindo, a member of parliament who is the grandson of the Japanese general tasked with fighting the Americans on Iwo Jima. “We will not rest until all of the remains have been recovered.”
In sharp contrast with the American veterans, who snapped photos and collected bags of sand after being honored by a Marine drill team, the several hundred Japanese who attended the anniversary quickly split off and held a somber memorial of their own, with prayers and offerings of flowers to the dead.
Iwo Jima was declared secured on March 26, 1945, but it was a hard-won fight.
Fewer than 1,000 of the Japanese who tried to defend Iwo Jima – seen as key to the U.S. because it had three airfields that could be used to launch raids on Japan’s main islands – survived the battle.
Japan surrendered in August of that year.
“Iwo Jima is a unique place in the history of the United States,” said Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Conway. “It was not the bloodiest fight in the Pacific campaign, it was not the most operationally sound, not the longest and arguably not the most important. But Iwo is burned into our national psyche in a way that no other battle in the U.S. is.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden said it is getting harder each year to hold the Iwo Jima reunions because the veterans are dwindling in number and those who are still alive are getting too old to make the trip.
“I cannot predict how much longer these trips will be feasible for our survivors,” he said. “But whether we are on island or not, our memories of Iwo Jima, and those who died here, will remain permanent in our hearts.”
Marines and Navy medics were out in force to make sure the veterans were safe under the hot afternoon sun during their visit, which lasted only several hours. Some had to be helped into trucks for a rest, but there were no significant problems.
Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1968, well after the occupation of Japan ended in 1952. In an effort to disassociate the island with World War II and the awful suffering the Japanese went through there, the island was formally renamed “Iwo To” in 2006, the name it was known by before the war.
But some of the Japanese on the island Wednesday said they felt their country was forgetting its own history.
“We must not allow this tragedy to be forgotten,” said Hiroya Sugano, a 76-year-old doctor who was still a student during the war but came to the anniversary in memory of an old friend who was a kamikaze pilot.
“It’s a very emotional moment,” he said. “We must not forget that this is where peace was born.”
The American veterans said they had, for the most part, come to respect the sacrifice of their former enemy.
“Iwo Jima is a symbol of courage, on both sides,” said Richard Lowe, 84, of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Lowe, who walks with a cane, was a private first class when he took part in the first wave on invasion day.
He said he remembers being on Invasion Beach after several days of intense fighting and seeing the U.S. flag raised on Mount Suribachi. A photograph of the flag-raising on Feb. 23, 1945, by AP cameraman Joe Rosenthal became one of the most iconic images of the war.
“Everybody cheered and was very encouraged,” he said. “A lot of my friends were killed here. But time moves on.”
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