U.S. vets return to Iwo Jima to mark 65th anniversary of battle
The 97-year-old American’s memories of comrades blown away on either side of him on Iwo Jima are a world away from his vision of the island after returning to commemorate one of World War II’s fiercest battles.
“It’s a paradise,” former Marine commander Richard Rothwell said Wednesday as he sat in a wheelchair overlooking Invasion Beach. “I see no resemblance at all. Even the beach seems different.”
Rothwell was among nearly a dozen aging veterans able to make the 65th anniversary trip to the tiny Japanese island thanks to last-minute intervention by the U.S. Marines, who flew the stranded group here after their charter flight was diverted to Haiti to help with quake aid.
Rothwell, who toured the island with Marine escorts pushing his wheelchair, was commander of a 4th Marines Division battalion when the invasion began on Feb. 19, 1945.
“I was here for the entire mission, start to finish,” said Rothwell, of Catonsville, Maryland. “I had people killed next to me and around me and I was just very fortunate I made it out alive.”
The U.S. flag was raised above Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, but fighting continued for more than a month and, all told, nearly 28,000 troops were killed in one of the war’s most iconic battles.
Though scenic, Iwo Jima is still dangerous. It is inhabited only by about 300 Japanese troops because it is believed to be covered with too much unexploded ordnance to be habitable. The volcanic island the size of Manhattan is a maze of tunnels, caves and dense, scraggly brush, and has been largely untouched since the war.
The trip by the 11 veterans, most in their 80s or 90s, was arranged by the Denver, Colorado-based Greatest Generations Group, which organizes battlefield returns and events to educate students about war history.
The group diverted its chartered plane to Haiti and the vets were languishing on the Japanese island of Okinawa when Colorado lawmakers took up their cause, and then the Marine Corps got the veterans on a C-130 flight to Iwo Jima.
“We were delighted to find out we were going to get to go,” veteran Robert White, 89, said as he looked out from his wheelchair from the top of Mount Suribachi. “When you really want to have something done, the Marines do it for you.”
The 11 veterans had only three hours on Iwo Jima — now officially called Iwo To — but White, of Denver, said he was happy for the opportunity to return.
“I saw a lot of Suribachi from the flatlands, but this is the first time I’ve seen what it looks like from the top,” he said.
About two dozen veterans who arrived earlier in the day attended a memorial with U.S. and Japanese dignitaries and the families of Japanese who were killed.
The bigger group of veterans flew to the tiny island on a separately chartered airliner and quickly fanned out across its famous black-sand beaches.
Attesting to how deeply dug in its Japanese defenders were, the island is still giving up the dead.
The battle claimed 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese lives. Dozens of remains are recovered every year, but about 12,000 Japanese are still classified as missing in action and presumed killed on the island, along with 218 Americans.
“Only 40 per cent 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 contrast to the Americans, who snapped photos and collected bags of sand — some even hit golf balls off the top of Suribachi — the several hundred Japanese who attended the anniversary split off on their own to offer prayers and 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 — seen as a key to the U.S. because it had three airfields that could be used to launch raids on Tokyo and 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 U.S. is.”
Marines and Navy medics were out in force to make sure the veterans were safe under the hot afternoon sun during their visit. Some had to be helped into trucks for a rest and one collapsed on the beach, but there were no significant problems.
“A lot of these men will go to their graves without telling us their stories,” said Timothy Davis, the president of the Greatest Generations, who accompanied the 11 veterans who arrived late. “This is history. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.”
Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1968. In an effort to disassociate the island with World War II, 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.”
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