They traded war stories, visited battle sites and stood uneasily next to men they had tried their hardest to kill.
Half a century after the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the ghastliest of World War II, American and Japanese veterans returned Tuesday to commemorate the struggle for an island that once had seemed so important that it had absorbed tens of thousands of lives. These days, it has no permanent residents.
There are thousands of Japanese soldiers buried in the man-made caves and tunnels of Iwo Jima, and for both sides, the island still symbolizes the particular horror of World War II.
Even 50 years cannot heal war wounds completely, and many veterans refrained from coming face to face with their former enemies. But they cooperated to arrange the daylong ceremonies, and some even returned their spoils of war.
Kelly M. Sharbel, 72, who had fought on the front lines in the attack on the island, picked up four Japanese yen notes half a century ago - yen that some fallen Japanese soldier had no need for - and Tuesday gave them to a Japanese war veteran.
“I thought I’d give something back to them,” Sharbel said. “I looked at him and he looked at me, and I gave him the yen. He took it and thanked me with a bow.”
American military leaders wanted control of Iwo Jima because it had three air bases from which to send fighter cover for bombing Japan.
The Marines had expected to take the island in just 72 hours when they landed on Feb. 19, 1945, and the famous photo of the raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point, was taken on Feb. 23. But it was not until March 14 that the American commanders declared the island secure.
The price on both sides was high. The Americans suffered 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 killed; of 20,000 Japanese soldiers, only 1,083 survived.
The miles of tunnels dug by the Japanese, some sinking six levels deep, crisscrossed the island, making it hard for the Marines to pinpoint the enemy.
Yoshio Nakajima, 79, a Japanese veteran, was one of those infantrymen in the caves. His two comrades decided to commit suicide and urged Nakajima to do so as well.
His colleagues killed themselves with grenades, but Nakajima’s grenade failed to explode. Then he tried biting his tongue, hoping he would bleed to death, but he was too weak from not having eaten for days and could not muster the strength.
For two weeks, Nakajima drank his own urine and tried to swallow pieces of dry food, most of which he could not get down his throat. He says he couldn’t discern day from night in the cave but finally decided he would exit with his bayonet and perhaps kill himself. When he emerged, some American soldiers took him prisoner.
“Yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend,” he said.