Sixteen U.S. Marines and three Sailors were told to pack their bags and prepare for a journey very few will take during their military career. Could this really be? They had been selected to embark on a trip to a place many consider hallowed ground for the Marine Corps, a place they’d all heard of yet seemed to live only in history books. They would go to Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima is a tiny island that became immortalized in the history books by an iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a flag raising on top of a 554-foot extinct volcano called Mt. Suribachi. The image, captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, is arguably one of the most recognizable images to come out of World War II.
The Battle of Iwo Jima took place from Feb. 19, 1945 to March 26, 1945, and involved U.S. Marines and Japanese combatants. By the end of the battle, the U.S. suffered nearly 27,000 casualties, and only 216 Japanese soldiers were captured out of 21,000 troops. The rest were killed in action. This epic battle also yielded 27 Medals of Honor, more than any other battle in U.S. history.
The service members were ready to visit the place where so many Marines and Sailors had fought for their country, and to witness the place they had to endure so much hardship for more than a month. One could only imagine what they had gone through, and now the service members would get to step foot on the island for themselves.
Everyone departed Hawaii on the “Grey Ghost,” a military jet airliner. Each of the Marines and Sailors going on the visit to Iwo Jima were chosen because they’d earned Marine, Sailor or Noncommissioned Officers of the Year for their command.
First stop, Wake Island, a lesser known island where U.S. forces, mostly Marines, and Japan battled during the initial stages of America’s involvement in WWII, to refuel. Across the street from the airfield, a monument decorated with rank insignia, patches and medals by visitors to honor the gallant defenders of that island stood at the beachhead.
After refueling at Wake Island, they flew to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, after being diverted from their next destination, Okinawa, due to an impending storm. Once checked in to lodging on base, everyone gathered to discuss the importance of Iwo Jima and the battle. This provided the service members with an in depth background and good understanding of what happened on the island.
The next day, they left for Iwo Jima.
The pilots announced over the speaker they were circling the island before landing so we could take pictures with our smartphones. But the funny thing is, for that first moment or two, each of the individuals onboard that aircraft didn’t, they just stared at the island, not moving, not making a sound; just looking.
As the aircraft approached for landing, the rusted hulls of old ships that had washed up on one of the beaches could be seen, and several sulfur pits emitted gas into the air. This was it. The Marines and Sailors landed on Iwo Jima.
The sweat quickly started to streak across their faces, and everyone seemed to instantly know the island was going to physically challenge them. But that didn’t matter because they weren’t here for themselves, they were here to honor “The Greatest Generation.”
Four miles from the airfield loomed the infamous Mount Saribachi, so the service members had a long walk ahead of them. The barren fields were abundant with rusted debris left behind many years ago, but lacked life. The sun heated their camouflage utilities, slowly baking their skin, as their boots stirred the dusty haze that surrounded them.
Walking toward the 554-foot summit, a plethora of tunnels the enemy used to defend the island seemed everywhere. When one of the Marines stepped inside an entrance to one of the tunnels, the darkness almost immediately swallowed him whole. The tunnels spanned for miles across the island. Sgt. Maj. Justin Lehew, the Training and Education Command sergeant major, mentioned that studies showed the U.S. fought on Iwo Jima while the Japanese used the tunnel system to fight under Iwo Jima.
Halfway to Mt. Suribachi, they reached Invasion Beach. Walking from the dirt road through the shrubs and about 200 feet down to the beachhead was a steep decline. On the beach everyone began gathering sand to take back home, and they quickly noticed just how difficult it must have been moving forward under fire by the enemy. The waves broke against the shoreline, and each step they took sunk deep into the black, charcoal-colored sand.
“Gathering the black sand was amazing,” said Cpl. Corey Mount, an admin NCO with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force. “But I couldn’t help but keep looking out [along] the shore trying to imagine how it was when the Marines landed and what the Japanese thought when they saw all of our ships.”
Walking up from the beach they could see just how easy it must have been for the Japanese to hit the exposed Marines. The enemy had the high ground in the initial days of the invasion, firing from the bushes at the top of the beach. If that wasn’t enough, snipers and machine gunners along with artillery could perch from anywhere on Mt. Suribachi and the Marines had no cover against the incoming rounds.
When the Marines and Sailors returned to the dirt road, they marched to the base of Mt. Suribachi and rested before starting the winding climb to the summit. The sun was unrelenting and sweat had completely drenched their uniforms. They endured the tenacity of the heat by clinging to the shadows formed by the overhanging trees along the path to the top and stopped when they needed to drink water and catch their breath.
“The main thing that was going through my head is it doesn’t matter how long it takes,” said Cpl. Khiry Wrighthashim, a flight planner with Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. “I have to make it to the top because it’s not about me, it’s about honoring the Marines and Sailors that [fought] for [our] country.”
Every step sapped their energy, yet once they turned the corner and realized they made it, they seemed fully recharged. There they stood, atop Mt. Suribachi with a look of total amazement. They could see almost the entire island, and gained a new appreciation of the challenges the assault force overcame and just how important Mt. Suribachi was during the battle.
“Once I made it to the top I didn’t feel any pain,” Wrighthashim explained. “The only thing that I imagined was [seeing] those Marines and Sailors putting up that flag.”
On the summit, some of the service members honored the warriors that fought for the island by removing their rank and dog tags to place them on the memorials. After all, this is why they were here – to remember the Marines and Sailors who fought and died here.
“Being on this island gives you a whole new outlook and perspective,” Mount said. “[Visiting a place] like Iwo Jima really makes the phrase ‘protect what you earn’ hit home.”
All there that day agreed, it’s one thing to read about the battle for Iwo Jima. It’s an amazing thing to experience the island firsthand and stand where “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Story by Sgt. Matthew Bragg