It was, first and foremost, a forbidding, otherworldly place to fight - eight square miles of lava, ash and cinders belched up by the still-roiling volcanic violence of the west Pacific Ocean floor. It exuded, one correspondent wrote, “a sullen sense of evil.”
It was honeycombed with caves and tunnels, walled by scarred stone cliffs and slashed by boulder-strewn ravines. The enemy was usually invisible underground.
Wrapped in the rain and fog that marked some of the invasion’s earliest days, the island steamed eerily in places, and if the nights were chilly above ground, digging in could yield a nightmare oven of a foxhole that stank of sulfur and sweat even without the scent of fear.
Every battleground of the Pacific war was its own particular hell - the rain-washed mountains of New Guinea; the rotting, Stygian jungle of Guadalcanal; the naked corpsecluttered reef at Tarawa; the malariaridden thickets of Bataan.
But Iwo Jima, where American Marines landed 50 years ago today, remains the iconic battleground of World War II, its image burned on the American soul by the famous, flag-waving photograph and the horror in the eyes of the men who fought there.
“Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was,” said Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine in dedicating the Marine Corps Cemetery on the island in 1945. “What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left … at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner.”
Iwo Jima remains the most costly battle in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps (one-third of all Marines killed in World War II died there), and one of the costliest for American servicemen since Gettysburg. More troops died assaulting it than died on the beaches of Normandy, and if the 6,821 total dead paled beside such carnage as the 60,000 British killed in a single day on the Somme in World War I, Americans were nonetheless stunned by the toll.
With the wounded, there were more than 28,000 U.S. casualties, and though all but about 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders died in the battle, it was the first and last time American casualties exceeded Japanese deaths in the Pacific offensive. Reinforced by even greater casualties in the Army-dominated battle for Okinawa the following month, the Iwo Jima toll would figure heavily in the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan.
“Please, for God’s sake,” one mourning mother protested to the White House, “stop sending our finest youth to be murdered on places like Iwo Jima.”
This morning at 8, President Clinton was scheduled to lay a wreath at the Iwo Jima Monument in Arlington, Va., to commemorate those long-ago dead. He’ll be joined by some 4,000 people, including about 1,800 veterans from among the 75,000 who landed on the island in 1945.
They’ve been here all week attending reunions and seminars, memorial services and banquets.
There is no getting away from what Iwo Jima means to them. It is not glory, for as they now can and will tell you, in some detail after half a century, there is precious little glory in seeing your best friend decapitated or disemboweled by an artillery shell, or witnessing floating corpses revolving in the propeller of a landing craft, or shivering all night listening to the screaming of a gut-shot 19 year old taking a long time to die.
More than 2,600 men went crazy, most of them permanently, experiencing the particular horror of Iwo Jima, and those who survived the battle mentally intact tend to view their lives since with a kind of wonder, and with a profound sense of obligation to those who died there so that they could live.
“If anybody had told me on Iwo that I’d be sitting here 50 years later talking to you, I’d have marked him down for `battle fatigue,”’ says retired Col. Fred Caldwell. As commander of Fox Company of the 26th Marines, “I landed on Iwo February 19 with 257 men and walked off March 26 with 44.”