“It’s a paradise,” former Marine commander Richard Rothwell said as he sat in a wheelchair overlooking invasion beach.
“I see no resemblance at all. Even the beach seems different.” Rothwell was among nearly a dozen aging veterans able to make the 65th anniversary trip to the tiny Japanese island thanks to last-minute intervention by US Marines, who flew the stranded group here after their charter flight was diverted to Haiti to help with quake aid. Rothwell was commander of a 4th Marines Division battalion when the invasion began on February 19, 1945.
“I was here for the entire mission, start to finish,” said Rothwell, from Maryland.
“I had people killed next to me and around me and I was just very fortunate I made it out alive.” The US flag was raised above Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, but fighting continued for more than a month and nearly 28,000 troops were killed in one of the war’s most iconic battles. Though scenic, Iwo Jima is still dangerous. It is inhabited only by about 300 Japanese troops because it is believed to be covered with too much unexploded ordnance to be habitable.
The volcanic island the size of Manhattan is a maze of tunnels, caves and dense brush, and has been largely untouched since the war.
The 11 veterans, most in their 80s or 90s, had only three hours on Iwo Jima – now officially called Iwo To but Robert White, of Denver, said he was happy for the opportunity to return.
“I saw a lot of Suribachi from the flatlands but this is the first time I’ve seen what it looks like from the top.”
About two dozen veterans who arrived earlier in the day attended a memorial with US and Japanese dignitaries and the families of Japanese who were killed.
Attesting to how deeply dug in its Japanese defenders were, the island is still giving up the dead. The battle claimed 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese lives. Dozens of remains are recovered every year, but about 12,000 Japanese are still classified as missing in action and presumed killed on the island, along with 218 Americans. Only 40% of the remains of the Japanese troops have been recovered. In contrast to the Americans, who snapped photos and collected bags of sand – some even hit golf balls off the top of Suribachi – the several hundred Japanese who attended the anniversary split off on their own to offer prayers and flowers to the dead.
Iwo Jima was declared secured on March 26, 1945, but it was a hard-won fight.
Fewer than 1,000 of the Japanese who tried to defend Iwo – seen as a key to the US because it had three airfields that could be used to launch raids on Tokyo and Japan’s main islands – survived the battle.
Japan surrendered that August.