On February 19, 1945, Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions landed on a volcanic island in the Bonin Island chain of Japan called Iwo Jima. The strategic importance of the island was self evident and the Marines had no doubt of the ferocity of the battle that they were about to commence. But of even stronger importance was that to its defenders, Iwo was Japanese Home Islands. This was not a far off possession on the outer fringes of the Japanese defensive ring. This was Japan, a village of Tokyo itself. The 22,060 Sendai would sell it dearly.
The landings were unnervingly calm. No torrents of enemy fire mowed down the Marines of the first wave. Or the second. Perhaps finally, after all of the Navy’s boasting, they had actually succeeded in killing all of the defenders with the pre-invasion bombardment. But war-wise vets remembered that the reconnaissance photos had showed a striking absence of any permanent structures on Iwo. They would soon learn that this was because the Japs were not on Iwo, they were in Iwo.
On cue the entire island erupted in a sustained and deadly fire from rifle pits, machine gun nests, AA guns and heavy artillery, all burrowed deep under Iwo’s volcanic rock. Every square yard of the island was covered with preregistered fire. The slaughter had begun, and it would continue for 36 more days until March 26th when the island was finally declared “secure”, a term that only meant the battle was officially over. Three thousand Japanese remained unaccounted for, the last not surrendering until January 6th, 1949. Of the 22,000 defenders, only 216 were captured alive and to this day Iwo Jima remains sacred ground to the Japanese.
And it is sacred to the Marine Corps as well, for here 6,821 American’s died, and 19,217 were wounded, the only battle in the Pacific Theater where Marine casualties were more than the Japanese. It was also where the image of the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi entered the pantheon of military legend and forever seared the ethos of the United States Marine on the soul of the American spirit.
A dispirited and war weary American public saw Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo of February 23rd and glimpsed the final victory. But to the Marines on Iwo the flag raising was only the opening act, and of the six flag raisers three would be dead and one wounded before the battle was over.
During the night of March 25th, 300 Japanese led by General Kuribayashi launched a banzai attack on the airmen and depot Marines at Motoyama #2. By morning they all lay dead in and around the tents of the airfield. The last of 28 Medals of Honor was awarded that night, and the last American had given his life taking the scab of volcanic ash that lay only 650 miles from mainland Japan.
At the dedication of the 5th Marine Division cemetery Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Roland B. Gittelsohn said of the dead;
“Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the side with us as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth to their memory.
It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places; Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because the men who lie here beneath us had the courage and the strength to give their lives, for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them too it can be said with utter truth: ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.’
No, our power of speech can add nothing more to what these men and the other dead of our Division have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price for freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is we the living who are to be dedicated and consecrated.
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way we fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors’ generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores.
Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich and poor together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudices, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest Democracy…
…Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: This shall not be in vain!
Out of this, from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn, this will come we promise the birth of a new freedom from the sons of men everywhere. AMEN.”
They went to war for their country, they fought for an ideal larger than themselves, but they died for their brothers. We are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice.