Rees Lloyd’s Liberty Milestones: February 23: Remembering Iwo Jima

by lewwaters

On February 23, 1945, the valor of Americans at war in defense of freedom became immortalized by a photograph, almost accidentally taken, which captured the historic moment when five U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman raised the Flag of the United States of America over Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iowa Jima, the bloodiest battle of World War II.

From that day to this, that photo strikes the hearts of Americans. It inspires awe, admiration, wonder at the courage it reflects, and, at the same time, it is so overwhelming that it evokes a solemnity, a kind of sadness, a deep respect, and a sense that this is America, this is the best of America, these Marines, these ordinary Americans of extraordinary dedication to their country, to freedom, to their buddies; they are, their essential goodness is, what America is at its best, and we, often by an unearned and indescribable grace, are a part of that America.

U.S. Marines landed at Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. The bombing and shelling of the tiny island was so intense that a young Marine from Portland, OR., James Buchanan, 18, who, inspired by the book “Guadalcanal Diary,” had joined the Marines as soon as he was old enough, turned to a buddy on the landing craft taking them to the beach and said: “Do you think there will be any Japanese left for us.”

There were—tens of thousands of Japanese. They were deeply dug in, had elevation above the beach, and were zeroed in on the landing area. When the Marines landed, it was nothing less than a slaughter; 3,650 Marines were dead, wounded, or missing in the first two days of the battle. Every inch of purchase on the black sand of Iwo Jima was bought with American blood, Marine blood. The nation was stunned when information on the battle of Iwo Jima reached home.

It was on the fifth day, February 23, 1945, that the U.S. Flag was raised on Mt. Suribachi, and the famous photograph was taken. Jim Buchanan of Portland was there, on Mt. Suribachi. He recalled that from there the Japanese had “an amazing view of the beaches. They could see our every move.” When the photograph reached home, it electrified the nation, thrilled Americans with pride in their country and in their Marines, symbolized by those Americans raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi.

Although February 23, 1945, was a day of victory and elation, and many Americans still believe that was the end of the battle at Iwo Jima, it was not. Heavy fighting continued for more than a month. Jim Buchanan, who wondered on February 19 at the time of the landing whether there would be “any Japanese left for us,” recalled by mid-March, “We were trapped. Getting shot at constantly. I was a private, and replacements were reporting to me. There was no one else.”

In all, the Marines would suffer 26,000 casualties. Of those, 6,800 Marines gave their lives for our freedom. Although almost 22,000 Japanese were killed, they had fewer overall casualties. It was the only battle in WWII in which the American invading force suffered more casualties than the defenders.

One third of all the Marines who died in World War II died in thirty days on Iwo Jima. The Medal of Honor was awarded to only 353 Americans in WWII Of those, a remarkable 84 were awarded to Marines. Of those, an even more remarkable 27 were awarded for valor at Iwo Jima.

Was it worth it? Those who gave their lives at Iwo Jima saved the lives of so many more, millions more, including we Americans of today, as Iwo Jima became a base of operations against Japan which saved lives and shortened the war, making ultimate victory possible over a Japan that had vowed never to surrender, and ingrained that in their soldiers, which accounts for the fact that all of the Japanese casualties on Iwo Jima, almost 22,000, died there rather than surrender. (The last two Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima did surrender — in 1949, four years after Japan’s surrender in WWII.)

The American victory at Iwo Jima was won by the extraordinary valor of ordinary Americans, serving as U.S. Marines, the immortal symbol of which is the photograph of the Flag being raised at Mt. Suribachi, which is regarded as the most viewed photograph in history. That scene is now a mighty sculpture constituting the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial which was dedicated in 1954, during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in WW II.

There were six Americans in that famous photograph, but they were representative of the millions who served; all of whom gave some, some of which gave all. The six were (alphabetically) Marines Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, Franklin Sousley, Mike Strank, and Navy corpsman John (“Doc”) Bradley (since Navy corpsman serve as medics for the Marine Corps). Three of the six were killed in action on Iwo Jima as the battle continued: Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Mike Strank.

The story of their lives, and the lives of the three survivors, as well as the story of Iwo Jima, is beautifully and movingly told in the book “Flags Of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, the son of Navy Corpsman Jack “Doc” Bradley, who never told his sons of his service in WWII, deflecting all celebrity and questions, declining the designation of hero, and telling his sons, and all who asked, that “the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.” His son did even know his father had been awarded the Navy Cross until, after “Doc” Bradley’s death, his son discovered that medal and other memorabilia hidden away in the attic of the family home.

If your love for America ever begins to wane, or if it never existed, take a challenge: read James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” from which I have taken many facts and in particular the quotes of James Buchanan of Portland. Read of those Americans, those Marines, many kids, like him, who served on Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood made two films based on the book, using the same title, “Flags of Our Fathers”– one telling the story of Americans at war on Iwo Jima; the other telling that of Japanese. But the book is more intimate, brings home with more immediacy the nobility of these ordinary Americans called to war to defend their country, the Marines of Iwo Jima, and the nobility of the country which they defended.

Indeed, remember the ordinary Americans who fought and died and suffered in the battle of Iwo Jima on this and every February 23, including the words one of them left to us, anonymously, chiseled outside the American cemetery on Iwo Jima, containing the graves of 6,800 Marines:

“When you go home,
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.”

[Rees Lloyd is a longtime civil rights attorney, a veteran, and an activist member of The American Legion.]

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