THE SIGHT OF IWO JIMA glowing in the early morning sun set off conversation in the passenger cabin of the United Airlines jet. “Hot Rocks!” a veteran exclaimed, pointing excitedly out the cabin window to the peak at the south ern end of the pork chop-shaped island.
Mount Suribachi, known as Hot Rocks because that was the code name for its highest point in the operations plan for the assault by the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, was immortalized in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s black and-white image of five Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima—perhaps the most the famous war photograph of all time.
Clyde Jackson, seated at the end of my row, was one of nine veterans on this trip who had stormed ashore February 19, 1945, in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. “The visit is a chance of a lifetime,” Clyde told me. We each were happy to be part of the 2012 Reunion of Honor, the 67th such annual pilgrimage at which representatives of the United States and Japan collaborate to honor the many thousands of men who fell here. The reunion is the only time non military visitors are welcome on Iwo Jima. U.S. Marines based on Okinawa provide transportation and medical support for the yearly event, which includes a tour of the island and culminates in a moving joint commemoration ceremony. This was my second trip to Iwo Jima, and I was anxious to visit locations I had not been able to get to before.
After landing, a guide led us to one of several modern hangars where Japanese officials cleared us through immigration; Japan has governed here since 1968, when the United States returned jurisdiction. I boarded a bus for the two-mile drive to Mount Suribachi and the landing beaches. The rough dirt perimeter road passed through dense scrub growth that conceals most of the caves, bunkers, and tunnels honeycombing the island.
The bus was halfway to the end of the island when, a few feet off the road maintaining their observation post until the Marines ripped it away. A pristine white monument dedicated to the 5th Marine Division, which raised the famous flag, sits on the forward edge of the peak, facing the landing beach. In tribute, visit ing service personnel have draped hun dreds of dog tags on the division insignia and the two Marine emblems that jut from the memorial’s face.
On February 20, 1945, the 28th Marine Regiment advanced to take the heavily for tified volcanic mountain. After a furious four-day assault, infantrymen supported by massive naval gunfire, artillery, and aerial bombardment finally subdued the Japanese garrison holed up inside. On February 23, a 38-man patrol worked its way to the summit and raised a small American flag. Hours later a second, larger flag went up. That was the moment Joe Rosenthal caught on film.
Tour participant Billie Griggs, who was a rifleman in the battle with the 28th Marines, told me tears came to his eyes at the sight of the flag being raised, while “horns and sirens all over the island erupted and even the ships offshore chimed in.” Of the six men in Rosenthal’s photo three were killed later during the 35- day battle, which cost the lives of 6,821 Americans. Another 19,189 were wounded, while over 20,000 Japanese soldiers died.
I caught a ride from the summit to the landing beaches. On the 10-minute drive along an asphalt road, which navy Seabees had carved into the mountain immediately after the battle, I spotted a half-concealed cave entry and noted it for future exploration. Two friends joined me for the walk along the beach. One had a cell phone app we used to figure exactly where the water’s edge was at the time of the battle; since then the landing beaches have widened by some 30 yards. Futatsu Rock, which in February 1945 separated Red Beach 1 from Red Beach 2, once stood several hundred yards off the beach but now is part of the island’s shoreline.
Much has been written about the difficulty of traversing these black sand beaches—and it’s true. With each step a thin crust gave way and we sank ankle deep into coarse BB-sized coral sand.“For every two steps forward, I fell one step back,” Clyde Jackson, who was in the first wave of Marines to land, told me.“I finally made it to the top of the last terrace completely exhausted.” Another vet said it was like trying to dig a foxhole in a barrel of wheat.
On the extreme left flank of the beach we passed a mound of .50-caliber rounds that had exploded after being struck by ordnance, then a deep trench, probably once a command post. We climbed up through heavy vegetation to a dirt path around Suribachi’s base. Within minutes we came to a machine gun position carved out of solid rock, its camouflaged embrasure lined up perfectly with the landing beach. Further along, we spotted the openings to three caves undoubtedly tied into Suribachi’s extensive tunnel system.
We wound up our examination of the vaunted defenses in time to leave for the commemoration ceremony, held at a site adjacent to the 5th Division landing beach, with Suribachi looming and, close by, a shattered concrete pillbox complete with a rusty heavy machine gun, mute testimony to the effectiveness of naval gunfire.
The location was perfect. Colorful tents sheltered us from the hot mid-afternoon sun. A formation of Marines in khaki shirts and green trousers stood alongside a rank of white-uniformed Japanese sailors. A joint color guard stood at attention while bands from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marine Corps played each national anthem. Dignitaries from both countries spoke of their soldiers’ valiant sacrifice and the countries’ efforts to overcome the past and become allies—as seen afterward when participants mingled amiably, caught up in an emotionally charged moment that no one wanted to end.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.