IWO JIMA, Japan, March 10 -- Of the landing beach, William Manchester wrote, 'You tripped over strings of viscera fifteen feet long, over bodies which had been cut in half at the waist. Legs and arms, and heads bearing only necks, lay fifty feet from the closest torsos. As night fell the beachhead reeked with the stench of burning flesh.' John Toland referred to the battle as 'like hell with the fire out'. And to Lieutenant General Holland M. 'Howlin' Mad' Smith, commanding general of the expeditionary troops, it was the toughest battle the Marines had fought in 168 years. The Battle of Iwo Jima. A 36-day bloodbath that began on February 19, 1945, and ended with more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6, 800 killed, and nearly all of the 21,500 Japanese defenders on the island wiped out. On Tuesday, Americans and Japanese are returning to the island to commemorate the event's 50th anniversary. But don't expect a victory celebration by the Americans -- there's too much controversy for that. The basically private event is being organized by The America-Japan Society, U.S. veterans and the Iwo Jima Association in Japan. Some logistical support is coming from the U.S. and Japanese governments, who also will send representatives, including U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale and Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, and on the Japanese side someone from the Foreign Ministry. The day's events will include a memorial service, visits to places of private interest and a party at the end of the day.
'It's all for the veterans,' a U.S. military spokesman said on a research trip to the island last month. Iwo Jima, which means 'sulfur island' in Japanese, was treasured by the United States as a stepping stone on the way to the Japanese mainland. Located 750 miles (1,210 km) south of Tokyo, the U.S. military viewed the island as a place where B-29s on long-range bombing missions could land and also as a place where fighter escorts could be located. The horrendous opposition the Americans faced was partly the result of the Japanese having dug themselves into tunnels from which they could withstand bombing attacks and launch ferocious attacks of their own. Among the places that the veterans can revisit are theinvasion beach, Mount Suribachi and the cave of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Japanese forces. From the top of 568-foot (173 meter) Mount Suribachi where the famous photograph was taken by Joe Rosenthal of the flag-raising by U.S. Marines, there is a spectacular view of the volcanic black sand invasion beach, along with the rest of the eight-square-mile (12.8 km) island. (more)
The island, which now serves as a Japanese military base, is a solemn place. The bodies of Americans buried in several cemeteries have all been returned to the United States but there are still as many as 12,500 Japanese still missing. Many are believed to be sealed in caves, where some were incinerated by U.S. flame throwers. Some soldiers are known to have committed suicide. World War II is still a controversial topic in Japan, and the Japanese government has anguished over how to deal with the event. While around 850 Americans are planning to attend the commemoration ceremonies, only about 100 Japanese will come, even though as many as 500 wanted to attend. Part of the reason for the low Japanese turnout is the tragic fact that only 1,017 survived the battle. Of those, only about 90 are still living, three of whom will attend the day's events along with relatives, widows and orphans. But organizers say the Japanese government has made things difficult as well, vetoing a plan to charter private aircraft. Instead the Japanese participants will come from a military base in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo on two Self- Defense Force planes. 'There's a limited number of planes available for this purpose,' said Makoto Hinei, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry. The American participants will fly in from Guam and Saipan on three chartered Continental DC-10s. Observers and informed sources say it's not surprising the Japanese government is not more enthusiastic about the event given the fact it lost the war. 'How many American GIs would you expect to go to the Tet anniversary (of the Vietnam War)?,' one observer said. Others note that the Japanese government wants to project an image of a democratic and civilian-controlled military and may be afraid about a large participation of former soldiers who were members of the Japanese Imperial Army. The 50th anniversary of the end of the war is also a very sensitive issue. While some Japanese see themselves as the aggressors in the war, others see themselves as the victims. A debate is now raging within the halls of power over whether the government should issue an apology for its actions during the war. 'The 50th brings a lot of emotions on both sides,' one person said. 'The commemoration gets people to think about where they're at, where they've been and where they are going. It's both good and bad.'