Gary Coulter: Iwo Jima reunion with honor

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The Battle of Iwo Jima was the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. On that 8 ½ square mile sulfurous volcanic island, 6,823 U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen and Coast Guardsmen were killed and another 19,189 were wounded in 36 days of the most savage fighting ever recorded.

On February 19, 1945 eight Marine Combat Teams landed on 3,500 yards of beach on Iwo's southeast side, just below the 546-ft dormant volcano called Mt. Suribachi,. Waiting for them were over 21,000 Japanese Army and Navy forces dug deeply into over 900 caves, pill boxes, block houses containing large caliber weapons supported by thousands of individual camouflaged firing positions, mortar pits, tank traps and machine gun emplacements.

On March 18, 2009, my daughter and I were privileged to travel from Guam to Iwo Jima with a 141-person group of American and Japanese veterans of the battle along with family members and others who, like us, wanted to pay respect to those Americans who gave their life to ensure our liberties. We participated in a joint "Reunion of Honor" ceremony honoring the thousands of Japanese and 64 Americans whose remains are still entombed there. Iwo Jima is hallowed ground to both countries.

One of our Iwo Jima veterans was 90 year-old Tom Hodge, a demolitions man in the 5th Pioneer Battalion, 5th Marine Division. Tom hit the beach carrying a 16-pound Browning Automatic Rifle with a full bandolier of ammunition, a 40-pound field pack and 20 pounds of explosives. Running in Iwo's black volcanic ash beach sand is difficult and exhausting. To do so with shells exploding and comrades dying all around you while lugging 90+ pounds of additional weight is nothing short of superhuman.

Our other nonagenarian, Cy O'Brien, was a Marine correspondent attached to the 3rd Marine Division who participated in the liberation of Guam as well as the battle for Iwo Jima. Cy was a favorite with everyone because of his sharp wit, outgoing personality and ever-present smile.

The "youngster" in our group was 83 year-old PFC Leighton Willhite (aka "Willy"), a retired insurance salesman from Rockville, Indiana. He was drafted at age 18 and was the driver of the first Sherman tank in his company from the 5th Tank Battalion, 28th Marines to assault the beach. In spite of 32 days of nearly constant front-line fighting in which his company lost a total of 54 tanks, he came through unscathed.

As our pilot flew a figure eight around Iwo, one could see Mt. Suribachi dominating the southern tip of the island. Immediately below Suribachi's towering shadow stretched the black volcanic ash landing beaches. As we flew our final approach, to our right was Bloody Gorge, near where Japanese commander General Tadamichi Kuribayashi's headquarters cave was located and from where the last desperate attack by Japanese forces originated on March 26, 1945.

After landing, we were taken by bus past knocked out tanks, destroyed gun emplacements and other artifacts of the horrors of mortal combat to the summit of Mt. Suribachi. To the north, all of Iwo Jima lay stretched out before us. Time flew by as we visited the 5th Marine Division memorial that sits at the site of the second flag raising.

My daughter and I unfurled Old Glory as well as the Marine Corps flag and saw the hundreds of dog tags left hanging on the memorial by kindred spirits from all branches of the U.S. armed forces. The indescribable feelings I experienced when I walked the fields and hills of Gettysburg, the beaches of Normandy and visited the fox holes of the Ardennes Forest just outside Bastogne, Belgium came flooding back. Greater love hath no man...

We visited the invasion beaches and my hands trembled as I scooped up black volcanic sand and put it into a plastic bag as a lasting memento. I glanced over my shoulder at Suribachi, wondering what it must have been like on that beach the morning of February 19, 1945. My mind could not grasp the enormity and brutality of it all as I remembered the images conjured by Flags of Our Fathers and the bloody realities portrayed in the first scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Unless you were there, you cannot imagine the terror and carnage.

We then joined with a contingent of active duty Marines and Japanese dignitaries to lay wreaths at a memorial to the fallen before returning to our aircraft for the trip back to Guam. As we took off and turned south paralleling the length of the island, every neck was craned to capture that precious last view of Iwo. Not a word was spoken. Not an eye was dry as each of us processed in our own way the events of the day and developed a renewed and deeper respect for what our fathers and grandfathers endured and accomplished there.

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