The Americans sank their combat boots deeply into the black volcanic sand that lined the coast of Iwo Jima.
For three days prior to the Feb. 19, 1945, invasion, U.S. naval ships in the surrounding waters shelled the tiny island from end to end in an attempt to eliminate most of their adversaries’ defensive positions. Judging by the eerie silence and stillness hanging over the grounds, the attack had been a great success.
But as the first 30,000 Marines advanced toward Mount Suribachi, machine gun nests and other cleverly concealed enemy weapons roared back to life from their presumed graves, breaking the unnerving, fraudulent peace in a rain of molten lead and mortar attacks.
When they first arrived, American forces expected small resistance and at most, a quick, week-long struggle with their enemies based on their intelligence reports.
Instead, the U.S. service members were confronted with one of the most heavily fortified Japanese defenses encountered thus far, and a 36-day assault with little to no cover for defensive positions or field hospitals. Despite frequent cover fire from Army Air Forces, the interconnected caves and tunnels used by the Japanese yielded no quick victory for the Americans.
The fighting raged on for more than a month, non-stop through day and night, but it was on the fourth day that the American flag was actually lifted into place and perched upon the mountain that stood like a sentry overlooking the entire island. Soon after, the first American flag was brought down as a battle trophy to the Marines and replaced with a second flag, which was captured in the iconic photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
In the end, American casualties had reached more than 26,000 – including approximately 6,800 deaths. Japanese fatalities reached more than 22,000 during the gruesome battle.
“We will never understand what they went through,” said James D’Angina, the 18th Wing historian at Kadena Air Base, Japan. “You would have to have been there.”
This is why the Kadena AB 18th Wing History Office, led by D’Angina and Casey Connell, gave Airmen from the 18th Maintenance Group an opportunity to tour the battle site known by its veterans as “Pork Chop Island” for its unique shape.
Though the trip was D’Angina’s fourth trip to the island, it was his second time guiding Airmen from the 18th Wing to the top of Suribachi to further their military education.
“Primary military education is important so that people don’t forget the past,” said D’Angina. “Knowing where we’re at today on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, we should have background in what took place here during World War II.”
Though the infamous battle site’s name has changed to Iwo To since the war ended, the island has shown little to no change since the invasion more than 67 years ago. The scars of war are evident in destroyed pillboxes and rusted weapons still lying around, some still dangerous, as well as monuments dedicated to the fallen heroes of both countries.
Some could argue which part of the journey was most memorable, whether it was visiting the memorial atop Suribachi or climbing through the caves used by the Japanese during the war. However, Senior Airman Tiffany Hughes, a 44th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, said it’s easy to pick out the experience she’ll never forget.
“The most memorable for me was the beaches,” she said. “I was trying to imagine how many lives were lost there within minutes after they arrived, especially after seeing how tough it was to walk through the black sand. I just tried to put myself in their shoes and imagine what they saw when they came up on the beach.”
The main objective of securing the island during the war was to provide Army Air Forces a midway point for bombers and eventually fighter escorts for raids on Honshu, Japan. It wasn’t long after fighting began that the objective seemed more and more essential.
A total of 2,251 B-29 Superfortress emergency landings on the island were recorded during the war. Similarly, 1,191 fighter escorts and 3,081 strike sorties were flown from Iwo Jima against Japan.
Because the strategically placed island had been such an invaluable asset to the Airmen during the war, Hughes said it means much more for today’s Airmen to pay their respects to those who gave their lives in battle for it.
“It shows our kinship to each of the other branches and how we work together to accomplish the same mission,” said Hughes. “It shows how we really are brothers and sisters in arms.”
Because the island remains off-limits to most civilian personnel due to dangers still hidden on the battle site, the trip truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
However, the history office has implemented plans to return as frequently as possible with a different group from the wing each time. Hughes said she encourages the trip to anyone who gets the chance to collect sand from the shores.
“I would recommend it to anybody who has a passion for history and anybody who is willing to make the trip up Mount Suribachi to see what we were up against,” said Hughes. “When you walk down on the beach, you can look up and see what they saw back then.”
Despite the grueling eight-mile hike to and from the top of the mountain, Hughes said the trip was worth the effort.
“You can go to a museum or different places like Pearl Harbor or anywhere where there were a lot of lives lost from battle, walk right up to any monument and look at it and take pictures,” Hughes said. “Whenever you go to Iwo Jima, you actually have to work for it. It’s a reward to see.”