“We landed there,” Samuel “Lee” Anderson, a retired Marine corporal and veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima, told his sons while pointing to a spot on the beach. “We moved inland from there,” he recalled, swinging his hand as he motioned across the island’s horizon, “that took us 21 days.”
Listening on, I glanced over to where he was pointing and stood there lost in thought, imagining what that beach would have looked like with more than 70,000 Americans storming it from ships lined up on the coast as far as the eye could see.
As I stood on the crest of the most prestigious mountain in Marine Corps history, surrounded by veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima, I was lost in amazement listening to the stories of the men atop that mountain. Visions of this island had been with me since I was young.
I was nine years old, lying in an orange sleeping bag on the concrete floor of an unfinished basement watching “Flags of our Fathers” on a 12-inch box TV that my best friend and I carried down from his room. With military figurines surrounding me on the floor, I began to dream of what the battle would’ve been like.
Eleven years later, I stepped off a C-130 onto Iwo To, formerly known as Iwo Jima, wearing a Marine Corps uniform. My Marine Corps uniform.
I was there on an assignment to cover the 73rd Reunion of Honor, which is an annual ceremony held to commemorate those who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. When I learned I was going to Iwo To, I had no idea what to expect. This was what I had dreamed about. All the movies I watched, the books I had read, the war stories I had heard, so many were about this one island.
When I got there, it was like the entire island had this aura of solemnity. You could feel the weight of what happened there 73 years ago.
As I rode up Mount Suribachi in an all-terrain vehicle with other Marines there for the event, I looked up the side of it; a wall of scrubby grass and tangled bushes. I couldn’t imagine climbing it, it was almost straight up. I pictured Marines rushing up the mountain to take it, covered in sweat, horrified from what they had already seen, heard and experienced, but pushing past that fear for the sake of the men next to them.
When we got to the top of the mountain, that’s when the reality of being on this sacred island hit me. I was standing on the spot where the famous flag had been raised. I was speechless looking out onto the island where so many men had lost their lives fighting so I could be a Marine one day.
While I stood in front of the flag raising monument, I glanced down and saw a much smaller monument. “Sgt. William Homer Genaust, Marine Combat Cameraman,” the slab of metal read. The night previous I watched the footage he took of the flag raising and read how he gave his life for his country on this very island. That is the true expectation of my job.
As the veterans showed up at the mountain’s summit, several of them were transported in wheel chairs but even though I stand 6 foot 3 inches tall, I looked up to every single one of them. Many of the people atop the mountain were huddled around retired Marine Chief Warrant Officer 4 Hershel “Woody” Williams, the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima, and many of the other veterans had people with them.
There was one Marine veteran, George Bernstein, with only one Marine behind him pushing his wheel chair. I walked up to them and listened to what Bernstein was saying. He was talking to the young Marine about how he landed on the beach and how every time they would make a push inland they would get forced back to cover and re-clear areas because the Japanese would show up behind them. The Japanese used intricate tunnel systems to backfill the already cleared positions, making it hard for the Marines to advance.
Listening to his stories of how his unit fought brought tears to my eyes. After he finished his story, I introduced myself and thanked him for what he did. He looked at me and said, “Well yeah, it’s what we had to do.” That response will never leave me. To him, it seemed like everything he endured wasn’t anything special, just another day doing what he was told to.
After the veterans slowly loaded back into the vehicles, we headed to the landing beach for one last stop before heading to the planes. We stepped out on the black coastline, and I looked upon the island from a new perspective.
“This is what they saw 73 years ago,” I said to myself looking up at the massive sand walls that were between me and the line of trees.
As I knelt down to collect some of the sand, I ran my fingers through it and couldn’t help but feel the presence of every Marine who stepped foot on that sand before me. The once blood-stained, gun-fire filled beach was now serene and beautiful with nothing but waves breaking the stillness of the moment.
As the veterans left and we started to pack up and leave, it saddened me a bit to see them go. I felt like a piece of history was leaving with them, like there was something in one of their stories that I had not heard, but needed to hear.
The entire flight home, I thought about everything that happened and how I could continue the tradition set in place by the men who wore this uniform before I did.
When I finally returned to my room, I looked through the photographs and was suddenly heartbroken. I began to realize the experience I had and emotions I felt on that island could not be captured in any photograph, but only through the legacy left by those who had fought.