The men of Iwo did it. So can we.
In the universal scheme of things, it’s a speck of insignificance that if not for a few seconds on the timeline of human history would still be unknown to the outside world.
Its first European encounter was in 1543, when it was charted by Spanish explorer Bernardo de la Torre, who called it Sufre — Sulphur in old Spanish. And except for a survey crew of the third voyage of the Captain James Cook expedition in 1779, it would sit in peace for more than 400 years before another Western contact.
And why not? At just 8 square miles and 5,000 acres, consisting of volcanic rock, shifting sands and jungle, it was hardly hospitable.
That peace was shattered in the early days of 1945 when it became the epicenter of the Pacific theater of operations during World War II — a point on a map to generals and admirals but the center of the universe to the thousands of men fighting to just stay alive.
Restored to its prewar name in 2007, locals know it as Iwo To. The rest of the world knows it as Iwo Jima.
Today the name is forever matched to Joe Rosenthal’s picture of U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. American bravery, resolve and patriotism were encapsulated in one iconic image.
But to the Marines on the ground those 75 years ago, the last thing on their minds was a picture of a flag. They had been told taking Iwo would be basically a mop-up operation against old men and young boys, that the Japanese Imperial Army wouldn’t waste what forces it had left defending a piece of rock over 650 miles away from the home islands.
When that flag was raised four days into the battle, the Marines already knew that the fight was only just beginning, that they were not up against a few old men and boys but an entrenched, determined enemy willing to fight to the death. They knew that the tons upon tons of naval and air bombardment had not penetrated the Japanese tunnels dug into the volcanic rock. They knew from Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam and Tinian that the idea of Japanese troops surrendering was beyond wishful thinking. And they knew that no matter what was to come, there was no way they were withdrawing from the island without full and final victory over whatever force it was they were facing.
What they didn’t know was exactly how long the battle would last, and how fierce it would be. And most importantly, they didn’t know how many of them would leave under their own will versus how many would join their brothers in the battlefield cemetery growing larger with each passing day.
The Marines landed on Feb. 19 and the flag was raised Feb. 23, but the island was not declared formally secured until March 26, the day after a final Japanese banzai attack was defeated.
Of the approximately 70,000 U.S. Marines who took part in the battle, some 20,000 were wounded and nearly 7,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. Of the more than 20,000 Japanese defenders, history records only 216 being captured alive.
There were 27 Medals of Honor awarded, more than any other battle in U.S. history, and of the six men who raised that flag, three died in the fighting still to come.
Considering that the U.S. Army was never able to use the island as a staging area and its unsuitability for a naval base as well, the debate over whether the sacrifice was worth the cost in American life still rages today.
Yet in the short months left in the war, the National World War II Museum notes: After the battle, Iwo Jima served as an emergency landing site for more than 2,200 B-29 bombers, saving the lives of 24,000 U.S. airmen. Securing Iwo Jima prepared the way for the last and largest battle in the Pacific: the invasion of Okinawa.
Those who died on that Godforsaken rock had no way of knowing the future lives they were saving. They did not plan to die, they did not chase medals. All they knew was that it was their job to do their part, and they delivered with honor above and beyond.
Mere words can never pay the debt owed the men of Iwo, but the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, came as close as possible:
“Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
While there is no doubt COVID-19 is a serious issue, it’s worth noting that there was a time not so long ago when things were far, far worse. We were victorious then, and so shall we be again.
GEOFF CALDWELL lives in Joplin. He can be reached at email@example.com.