By P. T. Brent Dateline: Iwo Jima, Japan, Sunday, March 21, 2004
Chicago, one warm summer night. My mom and I had just exited the Strand Theater on Division Street. She said, with quiet pride, did you know that Robert Brent — the man I am about to marry — was a Marine?
I was 8 years old and asked, had he been on Iwo with John Wayne? The movie “Sands of Iwo Jima” left a lasting impression on me. I walked home thinking what an incredible and brave man this future stepfather must be. Perhaps he was even cooler than the “Duke.”
I vowed to follow in his footsteps after I outgrew my Buster Brown shoes.
Years later, in Little Creek, Va., with the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, I climbed down a cargo net laden with military paraphernalia into a Higgins boat that was smashing against the side of a Navy LSD. It was intimidating. Unlike “Sands of Iwo Jima,” there was no patriotic hymn being played in the background. Military adventures in real life are far-flung from the silver screen.
A few days ago I stepped off a private charter jet at Iwo Jima. The rush of getting there was no easy mission, and the energy all faded once I was on the island.
What was left were inner feelings impossible to describe. Never have two extraordinary warrior groups fought so bitterly for such a small bleak place. Their nobility and sacrifice rest heavily on any visitor’s mind, and more so for a Marine.
IWO JIMA, Japan >> Marine and Navy pilots, more than half a century ago, called it “a charred pork chop.” From the sky, this sulfuric volcanic island is dramatically different from what was experienced by Marine infantry on black coral beaches in February 1945. The 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions encountered horrific casualties when attacking this legendary rock. A miniscule island of only 7.5 square miles, it is smaller than Santa Monica, Calif. It is about twice the size of Honolulu Harbor and about two-thirds the size of Pearl Harbor. A task force of 495 ships — far more than our Navy now has — gathered offshore, awaiting orders to land.
Iwo Jima (“sulfur island” in Japanese) had another invasion this month. U.S. Marines based on Okinawa landed in full force on a training mission. Marines are long on training. Accompanying them were Marine veterans, some of whom had served on Iwo.
COURTESY B. LINDSEY
Marine veteran Bill Leverence, 85, and his son, Mike, look out over the landing beach on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where U.S. Marines and Japanese forces, entrenched in caves and tunnels, fought for three weeks in the bloodiest battle of World War II. The combined casualties numbered 40,000, with 28,000 killed.
Ranging from 77 to 85, these aging leathernecks are all here for a last visit, their only visit since 1945, pausing for a final moment to revisit this hallowed island, now a shrine to both sides.
This time, Green Beach, just below Mount Suribachi (556 tough feet from waterline to peak), was far less lethal to leathernecks. Iwo’s black coral sand swallowed men up to their knees, immobilizing them, exposing them to raking enemy fire.
The losses were incomprehensible for both Japanese and Americans. More than 40,000 casualties were sustained, including 28,000 killed in action. There were 82 Medals of Honor awarded in WWII; 27 were earned on Iwo Jima.
One was awarded to Pfc Jack Lucas, who had conned Marine recruiters so he could enlist at age 14. Lucas turned 17 while on Iwo and had been a stowaway on the troop transports. This baby Marine fell upon two grenades and survived to face 27 surgeries. When asked why he took such a risk, Lucas replied, “To save my buddies.”
Joe Fachet was back on Iwo for the first time in 59 years. When he arrived as a replacement, Fachet remembers seeing a man walking calmly among the Marine bodies as bullets flew all around. A corporal told him, “He’s Father Pat Lonergan, our chaplain, giving last rites to the men.”
Nearly six decades later, with tears running down his cheeks, Fachet said he saw a halo of safety around Father Lonergan.
These somber men speak softly and profoundly about their experiences so long ago.
“Not a day in my life goes by I do not think of Iwo,” said Fachet.
“A rough place to be,” said Jim Platt of Buffalo, N.Y.
“It was kill or be killed. I feel at times, maybe, I never should have left here alive,” said Charles Modrell of Kansas City.
“It made a better man out of me,” said Al Abbatiello who hails from the Bronx.
Bill Leverence, 85, went over the top brandishing a flame-thrower and was captured in a well-known photograph. Visiting from Chicago, Leverence and son Mike, 55, showed a copy of the photo. Like many Marines, the elder Leverence was wounded on Iwo.
As the fighting front moved closer to Japan, the Allies wanted an emergency base 660 miles from Tokyo, a haven for crippled planes. But Iwo Jima was considered homeland by the Japanese. Resistance would be tough.
For the Japanese, this was their Alamo. The mayor of Tokyo also was the mayor of this smoking pile of volcanic chips in the Pacific. Gen. Todamuchi Kuribayashi had been ordered to hold off invaders as long as possible, to fight to the last man. The Japanese hoped that the cost of this fight would be so dear that America might negotiate rather than invade Japan.
The Imperial Japanese Army fought until virtually every one of its 22,000 troops was killed. Their dead included 30 children, botany students stranded on the island when invasion loomed. Each child was issued two grenades; one to attack Marines, the other for self-destruction. A monument at Iwo honors these youngest casualties.
For the first time, U.S. Marines and soldiers had more casualties than the enemy, with 24,000 killed or wounded. Two of every three Marines who landed were killed or wounded. Transport ships that had been crowded upon arrival departed Iwo Jima with ample room.
COURTESY B. LINDSEY
Veteran Bill Leverence, 85, shown above with a Marine escort, stormed the Japanese island carrying a flame-thrower and became part of the Iwo Jima lore when he was captured.
Kuribayashi had spent a year building perhaps the most impenetrable fortress of all time, a series of caves from 30 to 75 feet below the island’s rocky surface and hundreds of miles of tunnels, complete with lighting systems and ventilation shafts; 400 beds carved into the rock walls constituted their hospital.
The Japanese were not on Iwo; they were inside it. Days of Allied naval fire and bombardment resulted in only seven casualties before this “D-day.” The tunnels were interlaced so that murderous artillery and mortar fire descended on the Marines. One Marine said, “not getting hit was like running through rain and trying to stay dry.”
Kuribayashi admonished his men to kill several Americans before dying for the emperor. During the last days of the campaign, the Japanese were completely out of water and food.
On Jan. 8, 1949, the last two Japanese soldiers came out of the caves and surrendered. They had read in a discarded paper that Americans were celebrating Christmas in Tokyo. The war had been over for more than three years.
Hated by Americans then and respected now, the Japanese soldiers were brave men who died at their posts.
Long after the battle, Kuribayashi received high accolades from Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, Marine Forces, who said the Japanese commander fought better than any foe Americans had faced. Kuribayashi, who was educated in America, had said, “The United States is the last country in the world that Japan should ever fight.”
Now back in Japanese custody, Iwo Jima is jointly used by U.S. Marines and Japan for military exercises.
It is maintained as a shrine by the Japanese to their war dead. Today these caves still have ghostly military accouterments, which have been mummified by their sulfuric heat. In 1984, an investigator with the Marine Historical Division discovered Kuribayashi’s journal and the body of his chief of staff, equally well preserved.
The enduring image of Iwo Jima, however, took place in 1/400 of a second.
Atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the most famous combat picture of all time. Five Marines and Navy corpsman from the 28th Marine regiment raised a second, oversized U.S. flag on a rusty 100-pound plumbing pole. The flag, borrowed from a LST 779 in the landing force, had been salvaged at Pearl Harbor following the 1941 Japanese attack.
When Rosenthal’s film was developed on Guam, a Navy darkroom technician labeled it simply and without description — Here’s one for all time.
A war-bond drive featuring the image set a never-broken record, more than $220 million. The 3-cent postage stamp reaped a record $20 million.
Three of the six flag raisers died before leaving the island. Of the 40 Marines on the Suribachi assault team, four survived.
On Iwo, Americans experienced a carnal and gruesome battle rarely witnessed since the bloody fields of the Civil War. “An ominous reminder to those who would wage war with the United States,” observed John Ripley, head of the Marine Corps history and traditions division.
Freedom is not cheap. After securing the island, a 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 U.S. postal service sold $20 million worth of the 3-cent stamps featuring Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the flag-raising at Mount Suribachi.
P. T. Brent is a Hawaii business man and former U.S. Marine infantry veteran.
© 2009 Hawaii Reporter, Inc