The whine of the 737's engines fell suddenly quiet as we descended into the clouds. I sat alone, peering out my window, watching the plane's silver wing disappear until I could see only white. In those few moments I thought how strange this all was. It was as though these two sparkling airliners were taking us on a journey back in time to a lost world, a place of legend. The very name of Iwo Jima had itself taken on a life and meaning all its own, one with no synonym.
I counted the seconds, watching for a glimpse of land beneath us, lest we emerge from the clouds directly over the island. At last, after perhaps ten eternal seconds, I saw darkness through the clouds and quickly recognized the dark Pacific. I stooped my head to more quickly see underneath the cloud cover and, looking ahead to the horizon, I saw it, just off to starboard. My disbelief emerged in a whisper. "Iwo Jima."
We were approaching from due south of Mt. Suribachi. It was a dark, overcast morning and all around the southern approaches to the landing beaches the black ocean was pierced by small, distinct, almost blinding patches of silver sunlight. It was startling and to my eyes it may as well have been the Fleet lying off Iwo Jima, preparing for the landing.
Slowly we eased around the southern tip of Suribachi. The island was no longer a mere photograph. Our pilot hung the plane on its engines, flying more slowly than I believed a 737 could and yet remain in the air. For half an hour we strolled around the island in the air as he dipped the wing so we could all see this place. All the while I kept wondering what else in this world would possibly elicit such an emotional response from ordinary people. What was the lure? What was it about this place? I can still visualize our pass just above the crater of Suribachi. I could easily imagine the thousands of Marines on that island. These American Marines had come here some twenty years before I was born. Indeed, my father was merely five years old when this had all taken place. And yet it was real to me and to all who were on this plane. It was real to the Continental crew. The pilot carefully circled repeatedly so that people on both sides of the plane could see this thing. He knew the significance of this place. A friend who was already on the ground in the lead plane later told me, "I thought you guys were never going to land."
The island is now largely covered with green growth. No longer does it show the scarred and charred black face that it did in 1945 after 72 days of bombardment. But one can still see the incredibly broken terrain against which our boys threw themselves. The plateau running through the center of the island bows much more dramatically than I had imagined. What's left of the Meatgrinder is densely green in patches, and I could not help but wonder what lay beneath that scrub brush.
Then, as we continued to circle, I came close to all that had happened on this island, the unthinkable sacrifice of youth and innocence, the unimaginable selflessness and heroism, the tragic terror cast upon all those young boys. It can still be seen from the air. The tears came and would not leave. The ground came nearer. I came closer to touching down on Iwo Jima, and the tears would not stop. Then I felt the wheels touch lightly onto the runway and all at once I was back here with all those boys. I knew the names of so many of them, and yet so few of them. Jerry Gass, "John Q.", Ed Rickets, Bahnken, Willis, Thomas, Haddad. So many of my friends had been here when this was Hell. So many boys had ceased to exist after touching foot on this island. Now I was on Iwo Jima and I was afraid I might not be able to get off the plane, whispering to myself, "you blubbering fool."
I managed to compose myself long enough to gather my camera bag and move toward the center aisle, where Pamela Marvin, wife of the late Lee Marvin was waiting for me. She smiled at me and said, Congratulations." I couldn't utter a sound. I bit my lip, nodded, and turned away. I had not cried like that in years.
The Veterans exited the plane first, then family of the veterans, followed by us tag-alongs. The Outstanding Marines of the 31st MEU greeted us all with two welcome lines. The pride on the smiling faces of these young Americans was unmistakable. They were proud to be on Iwo Jima with the men who etched the name into History. So was I.
After a quick briefing near the hanger, we all mounted into the Marine vehicles to begin our day on Iwo Jima. I was already in one of the "5-Tons" watching the Marines help Cyril O'Brien, the tough ole' feisty, five-foot six-inch Veteran Marine Combat Correspondent, up the ladder and into the truck. After a few grunts and groans he found his seat and proclaimed as only a Marine can, "Gettin' old's a real pain in the ass!"
I ended up in a Marine Humvee with the Spielberg film crew. They were filming every step of my friend Danny Thomas' return to the island. Danny was a young Corpsman with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division at the time of Iwo Jima. He became a Navy Corpsman to stay out of field combat, visualizing instead a job in some clean, sterile Naval Hospital, but soon found himself assigned to the "Fleet Marine Force," whatever that was. He had no idea. He'd lived with horrific nightmares for fifty-six years, too terrible to describe here. Somehow he had mustered the courage to return to the island. They filmed every minute of it.
As we left the airfield, Pat Mooney, Executive Vice President of Military Historical Tours, soon pointed behind me. "There's the Amphitheater, Steve." I wanted badly to go there later, but we were off to the Ceremony Area. They had staggered our planes by 30 minutes to aid in logistics on the island. While we in the second plane were still in the air, the passengers from the first plane were transported up Mt. Suribachi for their early morning view. When our plane arrived, the mission was repeated so that everyone could visit that hallowed place before the Joint Commemorative Ceremony.
Both American and Japanese veterans of the battle were present and participated in the solemn ceremony. The remarks were brief and poignant. The ceremony was serene. Then came Taps. Those first three beautiful tones coming from my left sent chills through my body. But then the same tones were echoed by a bugler from somewhere off to the right. It was too much. As tears streamed down my cheeks I could only close my eyes and inhale their cry for the fallen. "I will never forget this," I thought.
Another friend on the tour was across from me, some fifty feet away. He later told me, "When he started playing Taps I was okay, but when the other Marine started echoing him, I lost it."
After a packed lunch handed out by the Marines, it was every man for himself. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based on Okinawa, had landed in advance, bringing all necessary facilities for the occasion including numerous heavy trucks and Humvees. They maintained a constant circuit around the island and we could catch a ride to any point we desired, get off where we wanted, and hitch another ride later. As for me, I wanted to get to the beach.
I struggled through the coarse black sand from Blue 2 to Yellow 2, where my friends in Fox Company, 23d Marines landed. I followed their advance toward Airfield No. 1 and headed for the "turntable" where they spent their first night. I was on the beach for two hours and saw not a soul in either direction. It was a strange encounter with Iwo Jima. I stood on the beaches once cluttered by the debris of War and 60,000 Marines, always with Surbachi looming in the background. Now, here I stood, alone with Suribachi. It were as though I was alone on Iwo Jima, one of the most infamous places on Earth. I had it all to myself. Negotiating one's way through the sands of Iwo Jima still requires a great deal of effort. Each step crunches loudly and leaves a large depression. The ash is actually more like very small black gravel than sand. Any of that in one's boondockers could cause a serious problem in short order. But the difficulty today is nothing close to that experienced by the Marines who struggled through it in 1945, carrying 60 to 70 pounds, or more, of gear, weapons, and ammunition.
Today the beach is packed tightly whereas in 1945 it had all been loosened by continuous bombardment. Naval gunfire, enemy mortars and artillery, and American bombs had all turned the beach into a loosened quagmire which served to "fix" the American forces in place for Japanese fire. As I slogged through this crunching sand I imagined how difficult it must have been to move inland, over the terraces and up the steep rise toward the airfield, all the while taking unrelenting fire from everywhere.
Meanwhile, near the base of Suribachi, a surprising discussion had developed. Phil Mongillo had been a Corpsman with the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines on Iwo Jima. Now in his mid to late Seventies, Phil is a marathon runner. I was told that a few years ago Phil had surgery for cancer. Two weeks later he ran the New York Marathon. That's the word. Just as a truck was about to carry a load of visitors to the top of Mt. Suribachi, Phil stopped the Colonel. "Colonel, I have my own way in which I would like to honor the Marines who died here. If you don't see a problem with it, I would like to run up Mt. Suribachi instead of riding." The Colonel replied that he didn't see a problem with it and immediately a young Marine stepped forward. "Sir, I would like to run up Mt. Suribachi with you." Another Marine stepped forward, "Sir, I would like to run with you as well." Another followed.
Phil was stunned but certainly pleased. It was fine with him. He suddenly had a group of several Marines, one of whom said, "Sir, I have another friend who would want to run with us as well." Moments later, the entire group of Marines and one old Marine Veteran in his Seventies were jogging up the steep switchback road to the top of Suribachi, he in his running shoes and shorts, they in their boots and BDU's. Once they reached the summit, they had a look around, made photographs, looked at each other and agreed, "well, let's run back down." This time the group was even larger. Semper Fidelis.
Bill Hudson was a BARman in the 4th Marine Division in March of 1945. On 14 March 2001 he met a Japanese Veteran who wore a red cap which read in Kanji, "Iwo Jima." The Japanese gentleman had manned a machinegun in a pillbox on Yellow Beach and was captured after being wounded. Bill met and spoke with him through an interpreter for a few moments. They made photographs together, shook hands, and exchanged hats, Bill's 4th Marine Division hat for the Japanese Veteran's Iwo Jima cap.
After our full day on the island the time came for us to leave. My friend Danny Thomas felt as though an enormous burden had been lifted from him. "I feel so much lighter," he grinned with a bound. That night back on Guam, he slept soundly without the usual nightmares. There have been no more of those horrible dreams since that night.
As we boarded the plane and taxied to the end of the runway, dusk had given way to darkness. Again, there was complete silence aboard the plane. I did not want to leave. As we roared along on our take-off run, I gazed out at the blue lights, waiting for the moment when I would leave Iwo Jima. We were off. It occurred to me that they had literally "opened" the island for us to come on that one day. As our wheels left the ground, the island was closed.