We have just passed the 62nd anniversary of the day the men raised the flag of the United States of America on the summit of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima island. The last surviving member of that event died thirteen years ago. Yet the moment is captured in a bronze monument that stands near Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D. C.
The flag-raising depicted in the statue was actually the second flag to be erected on top of the volcano. The first was a smaller flag hoisted in the early morning hours. The commanders decided it was too small to be seen by the fighting men, so a second flag was retrieved from LST-779. It was a flag that was rescued from a sinking ship on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, and had been in a locker at Pearl until it was loaded with other supplies onto LST-779.
This little island, site of an ugly and bloody campaign, was little more than a bump on the surface of the ocean. But it was an important objective. It lay directly in the flight path between Guam and Japan, and the Japanese fighters stationed on Iwo were killing a bunch of American airmen on each flight to and from Japan. Iwo Jima was also the southern-most island of the Japanese homeland. The Japanese had vowed that Americans would never capture the island.
To defend the island, the Japanese tunneled through the lava rock with 16 miles of passageways, connecting hundreds of pillboxes and mortar pits. These caves were so well-concealed that two Japanese soldiers were able to live comfortably in them for nearly five years after the battle of Iwo Jima had ended.
The battle was the bloodiest of the Pacific Theatre. The Americans were prepared to send 100,000 fighting men onto the little island of just eight square miles. After a month of battle, when the last foot of island was under American control, the number of dead Japanese was calculated at 21,000. American casualties numbered 26,000.
The cemeteries on Iwo were the largest in the Pacific during the war. Men died so quickly that individual graves could not be dug; instead, trenches were scooped out by bulldozer and bodies laid side by side, with records kept to determine where they were buried. Near the entrance to one of these mass graveyards were chiseled these words: