Iwo Jima Vets Observe Battle’s 65th Anniversary
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
TRIANGLE, Va., Feb. 19, 2010 Dozens of veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima and their families gathered at the National Museum of the Marine Corps here today to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the iconic World War II battle. Video
Frank G. Willetto, an 84-year-old Navajo code talker, renders honors during the playing of the national anthem at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., Feb. 19, 2010. In February 1945, the United States launched its first assault against the Japanese at Iwo Jima, resulting in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Scott Schmidt
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The battle for Iwo Jima – the first U.S. attack on Japanese soil – is memorialized worldwide by the famous Joe Rosenthal photo of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. Three of the six later were killed in battle.
“Iwo Jima was not the bloodiest or the longest battle” of World War II and “it probably was not even the most successful in the Pacific Island campaign,” Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the audience. “All that said, Iwo Jima occupies a place in our history like no other battle.”
Conway said he believes that’s a result of the determination, courage and sacrifice of the men who fought there, noting the “savagery” of the battle. “It was kill or be killed,” he said.
And that was true of both sides of the fighting, Conway said, noting a comment a Japanese lieutenant colonel made about the Americans during the battle: “They are relentless, and they fight with a mentality like they are exterminating insects.”
George Alden of Fort Worth, Texas, was a 20-year-old sergeant with 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, when he stormed the volcanic ash beach in the first wave of U.S. troops onto Iwo Jima. The Japanese -- who with 21,000 troops had nearly three times more men than Alden and his unit expected -- had terraced the beach, making for an arduous climb for the troops who had no alternative but to move forward on the eight-square-mile island.
About 400 yards up the beach, Alden and his unit came upon a bunker. After demolishing the bunker, Alden was seriously wounded on his left side by rifle fire. “I laid out in the open until almost dark,” he recalled.
Finally, a litter bearer approached the injured Alden. “They said they’d passed me four times thinking I was dead,” he said. They could not evacuate him until the next morning, leaving Alden and three of his comrades in a fox hole overnight.
Three days later, on the fifth day of the battle, Alden was aboard a hospital ship when a medic told him to look out the port hole over his bed. “That was when I saw the flag rising up above the smoke and haze,” he said, remembering the scene of Rosenthal’s famous photo.
Like others, Alden said, the image of the U.S. flag on the mountaintop made him think the battle soon would be over. In fact, it would last 31 more days, claiming 6,820 Americans dead or missing, and 19,000 wounded.
“We could not have guessed that Feb. 19, 1945, would start 36 of the most deadly days in the history of the Marine Corps and probably the most savage fighting we have ever engaged in,” Conway said.
For today’s Marines, Iwo Jima is the “gold standard,” the commandant said. “It drives us, it inspires us, and it gives us confidence” in training and preparedness, he said.
In the Iraq war, Conway said, a young Marine was asked about the possibility of U.S. troops wresting control of Fallujah from insurgents. “Of course we can take Fallujah,” Conway said the Marine replied. “We took Iwo Jima.”
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, now President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, thanked the veterans for their service. “We honor your legacy for the lives you saved,” he said.
Jones said today’s Marines gain strength from the examples set by the veterans of Iwo Jima, and he asked the audience to keep today’s Marines in mind, especially those confronting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ron “Rondo” Scharfe, an Iwo Jima veteran from Missoula, Mont., was 16 when he hit the Japanese island’s shores. “Our knees were shaking so bad we could barely stand up,” he said. “We didn’t know where the hell we were going. We were tight as rubber bands.”
Scharfe said he and his comrades crawled onto the beach, which already was smoking and “smelling like a junkyard” on the first day of battle. The Japanese “waited ‘til we got on the beach, then they opened up on us,” he said.
Scharfe survived nine days of Iwo Jima without serious injuries, before being sent to Okinawa. Today, he said, he thinks about the Marines in Afghanistan and thinks Iwo Jima was easier in at least one way. “At least we knew who the enemy was,” he said.
Retired Marine Corps Col. Harvey Barnum, a Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in Vietnam, said the courage of those on Iwo Jima was proven by the number of Medal of Honor recipients the battle yielded: 22 Marines and five sailors.
The commemoration of the battle is important for the veterans who remain, Barnum said.
“They’ve gotten older, but nothing has changed in their heart,” he said. “These people are all in their 80s, and they’ve come from all over the country to be here. But this will be the last time for many of them.”