Return To The ‘Japanese Alamo’

Wednesday - April 27, 2005

IWO JIMA — Sixty years has done little to diminish the memories of both the Japanese and U.S. Marine survivors of perhaps the bloodiest fighting of World War II.

The result was incomprehensible losses to both sides. More than 40,000 casualties were suffered, including 28,000 killed in action. Of the 82 Medals of Honor awarded in WWII, 27 were earned on Iwo Jima alone.

How bad was it? One Marine said, “Not getting hit was like running through rain and trying to stay dry.”

I recently joined a total of 84 Iwo Jima veterans for the 60th anniversary of the battle, members of a declining list of living survivors. Ranging in age from 77 to 92, these aging Leathernecks are all here for a last visit — some for the first and only time since 1945, these men — to this hallowed island, now a shrine to both sides.

What they found was a volcanic island that has not changed much since 1945. The rusted detritus of violence — tanks, cannons, mortars, bayonets and personal effects still stand silent sentinels, untouched by time to one of war’s most horrific battle sites.

The presence of Gen. Mike Hagee, the Marine Commandant, typifies 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.”

The author points to the beach where Marines landed
60 years ago

One MoH was awarded to Pfc. Jack Lucas, who had conned Marine recruiters into an enlistment at the age of 14. 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, he replied: “to save my buddies.” Jack was honored at the ceremony at Iwo Jima.

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 United States was attacking their homeland. Just like the Texans, Gen. Todamuchi Kuribayashi had been ordered to hold off the invaders of his homeland as long as possible. As at 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.

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 seven out of 22,000 Japanese troops were killed in attacks prior to “D” day. The Japanese were not on Iwo — 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 could descend upon the Marines throughout these horrific battles.

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

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

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, Feb. 23, 1945, in 1/400 of a second, Joe Rosenthal captured the combat picture of all time. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Five Marines and a Navy corpsman from the 28th Marine regiment raised an oversized U.S. flag on a 100-pound rusted plumbing pole. The flag was recovered from a ship damaged at Pearl Harbor on December 7. 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 (with a replica just outside Marine Corps base Hawaii’s main gate). The Corps icon was established for all time. In a Navy dark room on Guam, a photo technician was the first to see the image and wrote on the envelope, “Here’s one for all time.”

Mt. Suribachi is the highest point on Iwo Jima,
where the Pulitzer-winning photo (top) was taken

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 —The Marines of Iwo Jima

A personal reflection

My mom and I had just exited the Strand Theater in Chicago one warm summer night, having just seen The Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne. My mom, with quiet pride, asked if I knew Robert Brent, the man she was about to marry, was a Marine.

I asked if he had been on Iwo with John Wayne, and walked home thinking what an incredible and brave man this future stepfather must be. Perhaps he was even cooler than the “Duke.”

The film left a lasting impression on then Patrick Monaghan, and I vowed to follow in Robert Brent’s footsteps after I outgrew my Buster Brown shoes.

Japanese Gen. Kuribayashi’s grandson greets
Gen. Chip Gregson

Years later as a Marine at Little Creek, Va., with the Second Battalion, 24th Marines, I remember climbing down a cargo net, laden with military paraphernalia into a Higgins boat, which was smashing against the side of a Navy 558- foot LSD. It was intimidating, and unlike in The Sands of Iwo Jima, there was no patriotic Marine’s Hymn being played in the background, as there was for Sgt. John Stryker. (John Wayne). Military adventures in real life are a far cry from the silver screen.

During my Marine career, I taught Marine Corps history classes at a reserve center. Iwo was always a major study. A few days ago I stepped off a private charter 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 rest heavily on any visitor’s mind, perhaps a little more, for a Marine type.

These memories from third grade onward called and demanded my efforts to record this historic anniversary. I hope I’ve done the brave men on both sides justice.

an Iwo Jima vet and grandson
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