The Return to Hell – Iwo Jima (A Travelogue Special)
Posted by intellisg on May 3, 2007
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island 1,804 km south of the Japanese coastline, 1,130 km north of Guam, nearly halfway between Tokyo and Saipan. It’s approximately 20.3 square kilometers, with Mount Suribachi forming the most prominent feature, at its southern tip.
As the military transport lurches side ways for the final descend through the clouds. The pilot breaks out excitedly through the intercom,
“Look over to your left side folks! There she is, the big I.”
I strain to make out the island through the tiny porthole. A few Japanese begin their hushed chatters, one of them an old Japanese man begins to stir. His eyes well up with tears as he peers intently. The plane banks again, descending lower this time bopping against the thermals. Finally, the island shaped like a pork chop emerges through the clouds – it’s Iwo Jima.
Nearly 60 years ago on the 19th February 1945, 70,000 Americans landed on the Southern stretch of the island. For 22,000 Japanese defenders, Iwo Jima was the defense of their very hearths and homes as it was beginning of the Allied invasion into Japan soil. There for slightly more than a month the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions of the Fifth Marine Amphibious Corps fought hand to hand with the109th Infantry Division of the Imperial Japanese army under the command of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
At first the Japanese seemed to be inflicting devastating losses on the Americans who were pinned down firmly on the shoreline under a barrage of artillery and mortar fire. Kuribayashi had ordered each man to kill at least ten Marines. For the first few days he seem to be doing a good job of beating the odds. Iwo Jima was the only Marine beach landing where allied casualties, 25,850, exceeded the Japanese – most of the 22,000 defending the island. Over 6,500 American service men lost their life taking over the island.
Captain Dwight Pitcairn (Rtd), whose father once fought and died in the sands of Iwo Jima takes a sweep of the desolation overlooking a jutting promontory in the far distance, mount Suribachi. A combat veteran himself of theVietnam war in the 60’s, he turns to his daughter Kay and says softly:
“I’ve fought in the jungles in Vietnam, but this was different, there’s no cover here, nothing to hide from the bullets and shrapnel, it must have been hell on earth.” His voice trembles.
He walks a few paces scarring the black volcanic sands of the beach, staring out at the scene, muttering to himself.
“I just wanted to see for myself Dad died.”
He repeats the words again and again as if under a spell. His daughter Kay knows its time to fade out. I find myself watching a family spectacle unfolding. She confides to me latter,
“We’re from Nebraska. We never ever talk about it, but it’s always there at the back of our minds –Iwo Jima. Coming here today is important. It allows him to stand and see what Grandpa once saw and felt. It’s a way of closing a door and opening a new one…”
Americans have seen the pictures and some have even read about the famous “Sands of Iwo Jima.” But nothing prepares you for the feeling of sinking ankle-deep in the speckled black volcanic ash. It swallows the foot with every step. Trying to run on this beach with 40 kg back pack with a Springfield repeating rifle while under intense fire must have to been horrific.
In the distance, a roar of a solitary US F-18 Hornet jet punctures the silence, leaving a trail of vapor. It’s a fitting tribute.
On a nearby knoll crouched beneath a Shinto memorial 78 year old, Hiroshi Kondoh, KK Nagoya, who was served as a naval radio operator in Iwo Jima puts his hands to his ears,
“It’s deafening, I remember. I remember…”
He looks around as if seeing ghost from some distant past. I want to take a picture, but I can’t, the scene just paralyzes me, he looks at me, his face frozen in horror. His family tries to console him, but the old man is obviously reliving the horror of the past – he is inconsolable. I just feel it’s right to leave.
I spend hours wondering to myself latter what the old man meant.
“It’s deafening, I remember. I remember…” His voice rings out across the desolation of the beach.
On the second week of the beach landing 60 years ago, the Americans bombarded Iwo Jima throwing everything at the island, they called “the Crud.” The Navy lobbed shells the size of Volkswagens – the air force flew countless sorties pounding Mount Suribachi with a force to reshape it a few hundred times over.
A telling letter from a Japanese war diary reads,
“We are all going deaf. They (the Americans) are relentless.….the ground shakes, trails of sand fall from the ceiling every time a bomb explodes. Even the spiders are running away…..we are just waiting here to die….I am in hell.”
The tours winds its way eventually to the tunnels in Mount Surabachi. Only one side is open to the public another section is cordoned off. From our vantage to the North some 100 meters from the mount, hardly any trace of the complex labyrinths are visible. We are told not to wander by ourselves through the subterranean complex as many of the structures are prone to collapsing. Only a few token warrens are open, they don’t go very deep, but they serve to convey what it was like, the oppressing feeling of claustrophobia comes through the very moment we step into the twilight of the cave complex.
60 years ago Mount Surabachi was the high ground of Iwo Jima. On the morning of 23 February, elements of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, successfully stormed and took over summit, a small flag was raised. Some one said
“Get a bigger one so that every Marine on this cruddy island can see it.”
A larger flag was raised. That afternoon, with Japanese troops still active in the area, six men hauled up the oversized stars and stripes. War correspondent, Joe Rosenthal fired off a few shots with his camera and won a Pulitzer Prize for what is now among the most famous photographs in history – the raising of the flag of Iwo Jima.
Someone in the tour group reads the memoirs of Major Wright D. Carpenter recounting the fighting that once took place in Mount Surabachi.
“The enemy came at us from every where through the warrens, spider holes, caves, crevices and slips. Most of the time with just bayonets, because they had run out of bullets….I saw a man blow up just three feet from where I stood….and a second after that a Japanese soldier appeared from a trap door. I just emptied everything I had at him. It was crazy. I have never fought in such a narrow space before, you could move forward and end up smack in an ambush. The Japanese were not on Iwo Jima. They were in it! Buried deep like ants!”
Surveying the inside of the cave labyrinth, I follow the Vietnam veteran, he knows his way around the dark. In the 60’s he served in the special forces in Ben Binh, digging out the Vietcong from the tunnels.
“Yeap, they all smell the same.” He remarks and suddenly looks at me apologetically and continues, “Not you people, the tunnels.”
These days they don’t go very deep most of them have either cave in or disappeared all together. One of them leads to General Kuribayashi personal quarters next to the communication room. 60 years ago this was where he wrote letters to his wife explaining his broader strategy for the defense of Iwo Jima:
“If American casualties are high enough, Washington will think twice before launching an attack on Japan.”
“Yeap it was trench warfare all right” intones Dwight as he surveys the tunnels. “It would have been mighty dark down here and some of those passages are darn narrow which means chunky Americans like me would have got stuck in them.” He shines a maglite into one of the passages – the light is too weak to pierce through the darkness.
Finally, we make our way out only to hear the trail end of another recitation by another tourist. This time it’s from John Mahone, a post worker from NY who once lost an uncle in Iwo Jima.
“I left some good buddies there. It was a battle with no front, back or middle, it was just a whole lot of bodies all crammed into a tiny space. Hand to hand combat they called it. They call this place Iwo Jima today or sulfur island then or whatever. Well I just called it a place where I lost many buddies. Most of us were just boys when we landed on this cruddy beach. These were the most important days, moments, seconds in our lives….”
That evening as the plane pulled out of Iwo Jima, I peered out from the port hole, it looked small now as it probably did some 60 years ago. A stark reminder of the insignificance of the great practical necessities of the enterprise called war. The landscape is banal and the hues patchy seen through the last lingering rays of the setting sun.
As a tiny sliver of hell disappeared from sight, I leaned back into the webbing of the C-130 Hercules – a message of someone who had once chiseled the words in the cemetery in Iwo Jima cames to mind:
“When you go home
tell them for us and say
for your tomorrow
we gave our today”
From the book by James Bradley, “Flags Of Our Father.”
With these words, the whimpering sound of Mr Kondoh filters through – I look at him half expecting to see another 70 something of a wreck only to realize he was laughing to himself. We had after all left hell.
[Travel note: Iwo Jima is only accessible via US military approval. Please contact the Military Historical Tours 4600 Duke Street Suite 420 Alexandria, VA 22304
Phone 800-722-9501 Internet: http://www.miltours.com for more information. Flights to the island are conducted using a C-130 Hercules transport.]
(By Scholarboy & KOHO / Travelogue Special / Iwo Jima – EP 9920289 -2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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