Old Foes Mark Bloody Battle for Iwo Jima

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. Marine band struck up "The Marines' Hymn" here Tuesday but the little crowd at first stood silent. "From the halls of Montezuma . . . ," the band played, but no one sang.

The Marine musicians played the hymn almost mournfully--not at all in the usual rousing, uplifting style.

But then a few scattered voices arose from among the 280 aging ex-Marines and their wives as they sang " . . . to the shores of Tripoli."

Then, more voices joined from among the group of men who survived one of history's bloodiest battles, which began here 40 years ago Tuesday. Before the hymn ended, all of the ex-Marines had joined in the singing. So had most of their wives.

Wiping Away Tears

When they sat down, many were wiping away tears.

Frank Pokrop of Milwaukee was one of them. Before he left home to join the largest joint American-Japanese commemoration of the battle, someone had asked him what he intended to do on Iwo Jima. "I said I just might go off and cry," he said.

About 50 Japanese survivors of the battle, and about 60 widows, children and relatives of Japanese soldiers killed here, flew from the mainland to take part in the anniversary reunion.

The memories here Tuesday were of the horror of the 35-day battle for control of this tiny volcanic island measuring only 4.7 miles by 2.5 miles and bubbling with sulfur springs--of how each day's U.S. advances against Japanese positions were measured in yards, not miles; of how Japanese bodies were bulldozed under the earth to combat the stench of rotting flesh; of how companies of Marines were cut to platoon size by casualties, and of how 6,821 Americans and 22,305 Japanese were killed.

Frank G. Donofrio of Memphis, Tenn., said his roommate at a Tokyo hotel Monday night, an ex-Marine, had awakened at midnight, three hours before they were scheduled to get up to take American C-130 transport planes for the 660-mile flight here from a base outside Tokyo.

Donofrio said his roommate had told him: "I'm having nightmares. Now, I wish I hadn't come."

But the new experiences on Tuesday were mostly warm ones.

Donofrio said he was glad he could fulfill a desire "I have had for the last 40 years" to visit Iwo Jima because it was where one of his two Marine brothers had been killed. "I felt I had to come," he said.

Joe Clary, 67, a retired 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, said he "had a marvelous time." But the island is now so overgrown with gnarled, jungle-like trees that "I had a hard time recognizing points today," he said.

Annual Reunions Proposed

Shiro Ishiwatari of Yokohama, who was wounded in the arm and captured near the end of the battle in March, 1945, said he was pleased that so many Americans came here for the reunion. "We should use this spirit to hold reunions every year," he said.

The highlight of the day was the unveiling of a new memorial financed jointly by Michael Wayne, son of the late John Wayne, who starred in the 1949 movie, "The Sands of Iwo Jima," and the Assn. of Iwo Jima, the Japanese survivors' association.

It recorded the fact of the reunion and, in granite, declared:

"We commemorate our comrades, living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray together that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never be repeated."

A memorial bearing Adm. Chester W. Nimitz's famous words, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue" among Americans who fought on Iwo Jima, remains implanted atop the 550-foot Mt. Suribachi where it was placed 20 years ago. But the American flag--the raising of which on Feb. 23, 1945, was recorded in a famous picture by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal--now flies there beside a Japanese flag.

Among those attending Tuesday's observance here were Jacklyn Lucas, 57, of Bowie, Md., and Joseph McCarthy, 72, a retired colonel, of Chicago, both winners of the Medal of Honor, and Col. Charles Waterhouse, 60, of Edison, N.J., the only Marine to participate in the Iwo Jima battle still on active duty.

The new memorial was dedicated on a hillside in the middle of the area where about 30,000 Marines of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions invaded the island Feb. 19, 1945.

As the national anthems of the United States and Japan were played, a strong breeze blew in from the sea and over the dark sand beaches to stir tall grass on the hillside.

The ex-Marines remembered the area--indeed, the whole island--as completely barren in 1945. U.S. Air Force planes had bombed it for 74 days, and naval forces bombarded the island for the three days before the invasion.

The battle, second in World War II bloodshed only to that for Okinawa, where about 260,000 Japanese (including more than 150,000 civilians) and 12,283 Americans died, eventually involved nearly 60,000 American invaders and another 40,000 Americans on ships. The invasion forces had to fight until March 25, 1945, before resistance from more than 23,000 Japanese soldiers--who received no resupply--could be declared ended.

Only 1,083 of the Japanese defenders survived.

Iwo Jima (which means Sulfur Island) was sought by the Americans as a refueling stop for B-29 bombers flying from Saipan, 625 miles to the south, to attack Japanese cities and as a base for fighter planes to escort the bombers. Until Aug. 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered, 2,251 American bombers stopped at Iwo Jima.

Vice Adm. Kenichiro Koga, 52, commander of air units of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, said here Tuesday that "those who are the happiest to know" that "Japan and the United States are now closely united" are "the souls of the dead officers and men of Iwo Jima."

Lt. Gen. Charles G. Cooper, 57, commander of the U.S. Fleet Marine Force in the Pacific, said Marines today have come to regard Nimitz's words that "uncommon valor was a common virtue" as also applying to the Japanese who fought on Iwo Jima.

"The significance of this occasion, and the inspiration it offers to all mankind," Cooper said, "is found in the fact that seated here together are men who, on this same soil on an earlier day, were the most mortal of enemies. . . . If peace and friendship is possible among these men, then peace and friendship is possible among all men, everywhere."

The Rev. Tsunezo Wachi, president of the Assn. of Iwo Jima, who who became a Buddhist priest after serving with the Japanese forces here, offered a prayer and his assistants threw good luck charms to the American audience.

Cooper also read a message from President Reagan, who said the battle "had a direct impact in bringing (the United States and Japan) to the high level of peace and cooperation we enjoy today."

After the ceremony, the American and Japanese survivors and relatives shook hands. Many of the Americans sought out Taro Kuribayashi, 60, an architect who is a son of Lt. Gen. Tadaichi Kuribayashi, the commander of Japanese troops on the island. The general died in the battle but his body was never identified.

Coast Guard Unit

A U.S. Coast Guard contingent of 28 men who run a long-range aid-to-navigation station here provided special postal facilities so the visiting ex-Marines could send letters to loved ones with an Iwo Jima postmark. Along with some 300 Japanese military personnel, who operate an airfield here, they are now the only inhabitants of the island.

John Pasamen, 58, of Woodland, Calif., said he had sent a letter to his 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter.

"I wanted to be sure to let her know when she grows up that I would do anything to prevent her sons being subjected to what we were subjected to on this island," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World