Forty years later, survivors return to Iwo Jima, their painful memories in focus

I went out to KCET the other day for a preview screening of “Return to Iwo Jima,” a one-hour documentary that will be shown publicly on KCET at 10 tonight.

I was invited to the screening, I suppose, because I am a survivor of Iwo Jima, and this film is about survivors.

It is not about victory; it is not even about courage, though courage is always implied; it is about survivors, and how they have dealt with their memories of that obscenely bloody battle.

It focuses on four Americans and two Japanese survivors who took part, along with 300 others, in a return to Iwo Jima last February, on the 40th anniversary of the landing. The Japanese contingent included many widows, since there were so few Japanese survivors.


In case Iwo Jima has slipped your mind, it is a small island of volcanic rock and ash, only eight square miles in area, and shaped like a pork chop. It lies in the western Pacific halfway between Guam and Tokyo. Our high command decided we needed it as a haven for B-29s returning from Japan.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, the greatest armada of the Pacific War surrounded Iwo, about 500 ships, and at 9 a.m. the first assault wave landed on the beach, moving behind a rolling barrage laid down by cruisers and battleships.

In 36 days, the island was secured. Of its garrison of 22,000 Japanese, only 1,000 survived. There were 25,851 American casualties, including 6,821 dead--one-third of all the Marines killed in the Pacific. The landing was more costly than the landing at Normandy.

Throughout “Return to Iwo Jima” the battle is recalled through clips of colored film shot by Navy photographers on the scene; watching this carnage we can only guess at the emotions of the American and Japanese survivors as they step once again on Iwo’s inhospitable soil.


The film focuses on these men, as individuals, as they try to express themselves; the bitterness, the guilt, the enmity; and finally, the feeling of forgiveness and reconciliation.

One of the Americans was shot in the face, and is still cruelly scarred, despite many operations. He has had to deal with self-hatred, hatred of the war and hatred of the enemy; but in the end, even he sheds a tear and shakes hands.

Another remembers a buddy whose legs were shot off, and how guilty he felt because he couldn’t help him. Another remembers how he had wanted to give something to a friend of his who was killed, and all he had to give him, when he stood at his grave, was a pen the friend had lent him.

There was reason enough for bitterness on both sides. In the end, reluctantly, tearfully, choking as they try to say it, the survivors forgive--not only the enemy but themselves.


I think that is why so few men write well about their war experiences. The hard part is forgiving yourself.

Only the other day I received a letter from someone saying, “You were a Marine in the war, on Iwo Jima; why don’t you ever write about it?”

Well, I have written about it. Every now and then I throw it in--"I landed in the third wave on Iwo Jima”; that’s all I have to say; those are my credentials; I’ve paid my dues.

I have told some funny stories about it, and some poignant stories. But I haven’t told the story that bothers me the most, the one that gave me nightmares for many years.


We had just landed and three out of four of us were being hit.

The Japanese guns were making big shell holes in the beach, and we took shelter in these. Ironically, they saved our lives, since the Japanese guns were zeroed in on the beaches. Every square foot was covered.

I found myself in a hole with two other men. We were all scared and at the edge of panic. We didn’t know where our units were. Remembering that the plan had been to get off the beaches as soon as possible, and go forward, I said, “We’ve got to get out of this hole and move up. The Japs are zeroed in on this beach.”

The others agreed. I don’t know whether it was because they were privates and I was a sergeant. That shouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t a line sergeant and had no authority to be giving orders. I was just a specialist, a combat correspondent.


But they nodded and started to scramble up the side of the hole. One after the other they went over the top and out. I started to follow. Just as I neared the top I heard a terrible clang; it felt as if a sledgehammer had hit my helmet. It knocked me back down a foot or two. I realized that a shell had landed out in front of the hole. Well, then, now was the time to go--before the next one came.

I scrambled up out of the hole and started running. One of my comrades had vanished; maybe he had made it; maybe he had been blown away. The other was off to one side. He was kneeling, as if in prayer. His upper clothing had been blown off, so that his chest was partly naked. He had no head.

I ran on to the safety of the next hole, and one way or another, I survived.

So now that I’ve got that off my chest, maybe I can forgive the Japanese and me.