We interrupt our regularly-scheduled Ask a Vet for a special report.
Although none of the actual anniversary dates lined up with this column, we look back 70 years this week to one of the most violent battles in all of recorded warfare.
On 19 February 1945, the United States Marines invaded the miserable island of Iwo Jima, in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. At the time, it was vitally important - it lies about halfway between the Marianas Islands and mainland Japan. In Japanese hands, fighters based there could harass the bomber stream, and conversely the Americans could use it as their own fighter base and emergency airstrip for damaged bombers returning from a raid.
Yesterday was the anniversary of perhaps the most famous photograph of all time.
In our era of "clean" war, it's sometimes difficult to grasp the magnitude of what happened at that place. Over the course of 36 days of active fighting, the US forces suffered 26,000 casualties...including 6,800 killed in action. Compare that to 32,021 casualties in Iraq (NOT including 4,493 killed in action). It's taken 14 years of war to reach those totals in the 21st Century.
27 Medals of Honour were awarded
during the action on Iwo Jima, including 5 on a single day. This is the most soldiers so honoured for any single action in the entirety of US History, and accounts for 25% of all medals awarded to members of the USMC during the conflict.
Of the many, we'll take a look at just one:
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to
PRIVATE GEORGE PHILLIPS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Second Battalion, Twenty-eight Marines, Fifth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the seizure of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, on 14 March 1945. Standing the fox-hole watch while other members of his squad rested after a night of bitter hand grenade fighting against infiltrating Japanese troops, Private Phillips was the only member of his unit alerted when an enemy hand grenade was tossed into their midst. Instantly shouting a warning, he unhesitatingly threw himself on the deadly missile, absorbing the shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body and protecting his comrades from serious injury. Stouthearted and indomitable, Private Phillips willingly yielded his own life that his fellow Marines might carry on the relentless battle against a fanatic enemy and his superb valor and unfaltering spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of certain death reflect the highest credit upon himself and upon the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
/S/ HARRY S. TRUMAN
In the end, Iwo Jima was the most important piece of real estate on Earth for a few months of battle. Its value to the United States was confirmed even before the island was fully secured, as the first B-29 in distress landed there on March 4. About 2,200 more would land there during the remaining 5 months of war, saving perhaps 25,000 airmen from a watery fate.
The United States retained ownership of the island until 1968, when it was returned to Japan. While there was a small pre-war civilian population, no one has lived there since the US abandoned the island. Every few years since 1985, the dwindling band of both United States and Japanese veterans return to the island to look over the invasion beaches, read the memorial plaque, and remember their comrades.
On the 40th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans met again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades, living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray together that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never be repeated.