Getting to Iwo Jima proved to be a long, hard process. I write for a small aviation paper in Las Vegas and after putting in a formal request with Marine Corps Public Affairs in Tokyo, I was informed only the "biggies" would most likely be granted permission to attend, as space was tight on flights to the small island. This meant CNN, National Geographic, UPI, and the like.
Still, I persevered, sending a final plea to Washington, D.C. I don't know if that was what did it, but on March 14, 1995 at 5:30 in the morning, I was at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in Japan, waiting to board a KC-130 plane. I was on my way to Iwo Jima.
Once the plane was in the air, I roamed it, snapped photos and asked to enter the cockpit. The answer was yes! As we approached Iwo Jima, the co-pilot pointed to a blip on the radar and told me the island was just under a layer of clouds ahead of us. Headphones were placed on my head and I listened to the ground communicate with us. I held my breath as we descended through the white clouds. There it was. Iwo Jima. I'd seen it in photos, I'd seen it in movies, but now I was seeing it in person.
The pilot asked permission to circle over the island so that I could take some photos. The closer we got to Iwo Jima, the more chills ran down my spine. More than 6,000 Americans died here, I thought. Their blood is in this soil. As we flew over Mt. Suribachi, I wanted to salute -- the feeling of the moment was overpowering. And that was before we landed.
Spending the day on Iwo Jima with the veterans and their families was an experience of a lifetime. I realized halfway through the day I was now a part of the history these veterans first made fifty years ago.
The day began in the airport hangar on Iwo Jima, where everyone boarded five-ton trucks supplied by the U.S. Marine Corps headed for the site of the Reunion of Honor Ceremony near the invasion beach. After several speeches (including Ambassador Walter Mondale, Ambassador to Japan, General Carl Mundy, Jr., USMC Commandant of the Marine Corps, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, and Mrs. Yoshi Kuribayashi, widow of Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Commander, Imperial Army Garrison on Iwo Jima) wreaths of flowers were placed on the memorial by veterans and their modern day military counterparts.
Read the Reunion of Honor Commemorative Ceremony Schedule.
I had the fortunate opportunity to latch onto one veteran, William McIntosh, from Laredo, Texas. Now a honey exporter, he told me he was just fifteen-years-old when he joined the Marines and sixteen when he came to Iwo Jima to fight.
"There were 600 marines in my division when we landed here," he said. "When we left, only 200 of our remained alive. I guess I just had to come back here to see where so many of my friends died."
Watching McIntosh throughout the day was a moving experience. Walking with a slight limp he acquired during the Korean War, McIntosh roamed from place to place, taking photos, talking with other veterans and vainly looking for someone from his division -- 4th Marine Division, 24th Marines.
Although he had not been near Mt. Suribachi during the thirty-day battle, McIntosh was determined to make it to the top to see what "all the fuss had been about," as he put it.
"They said you could see the flag from where we were in the central part of the island, but there was so much smoke, we couldn't see a darned thing," he laughed.
The five-ton trucks slowly made their way up the surprisingly small Mt. Suribachi, a now-dormant volcano. Veterans carefully got off the trucks and walked to the site where Old Glory was raised, a memorial marking the spot. Speeches were made and "America the Beautiful" was played by the USMC III MEF band. McIntosh pulled his cap off, placed it over his chest and quietly sang the words. I saw a tear trickle down his cheek. I could only imagine what images played through his mind as he sang that song. I felt a tear fall down my cheek, too, for the emotions of that day affected everyone.
Another retired marine, Robert Maiden, recounted the battle and his feelings on returning to Iwo Jima. "We landed with 225 in our division and when it was over, we had 24 of the original unit and a few replacements with us. Not one officer remained. I'm amazed how I could recall the day by day progress and incidents that occurred as I toured the island today."
He and McIntosh said they were surprised at the heavy undergrowth now on the island and noted it had been barren and black from fires when they'd been there.
I listened to other veterans as they retold stories, both sad and humorous. I met interesting people and kept pinching myself to make sure I was really there. I was careful as I took my photos, knowing this was a very special day.
As the KC-130 lifted into the air that night, headed back to Okinawa, I thought to myself: I'll probably still be around when the 100th anniversary arrives on March 14, 2045. Who will come back to Iwo Jima to honor the survivors who came today?
Maybe I will.