Dec 25

Day 8- March 24- Iwo Jima

Tuesday, December 25, 2018 12:01 AM

By

Lieutenant Leroy Fadem recently revisited sites in the Pacific where he saw action in the Navy during the tumultuous years of the War in the Pacific over 70 years ago. This is a journal of that recent trip as kept by his son, Steven Fadem, who accompanied Lt. Fadem on that journey of rediscovery.

For me, the ability to share the experience of Guam with Dad was pretty unbeatable. But Iwo Jima is a once-in-a lifetime experience so today came in a close second.
Too many histories exist describing that battle and I cannot possibly do it justice.

On 19 February 1945 the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and the 3rd Marine Division (Reserve) went ashore on very sandy, sloped beaches and immediately came under withering fire. The Japanese made this a last stand and famously dug tunnels and caves into the volcanic rock with a vow that they would rather die fighting than surrender. They waged a suicide mission but were determined to take out as many Americans as they could in the process. Surrender meant dishonor.

The Americans “secured” the island on 26 March after a gruesome toll of 6,821 Americans dead and 26,038 wounded. The Japanese lost 21,570 dead. It is sad but meaningful that there were only about 200 Japanese wounded, and they only survived because they had been rendered unconscious during the battle and captured by the Americans. It was among the bloodiest battles in military history and the Japanese continued to surface from the caves to do battle for weeks afterwards.

In 1968 the U.S. gave Iwo Jima back to Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Alliance Agreement and the island is now only open to the outside civilian world one day a year. For 23 years the surviving American and Japanese veterans have gathered for a “Reunion of Honor” and this year we were in the select group invited to attend on this, the 73rd anniversary commemoration of the battle.

We arrived on a chartered United flight that touched down slightly after 9 in the morning and were greeted by an honor guard of United States Marines. Among the veterans in our group is Hershel “Woody” Williams, the only surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the 27 who earned the Medal at Iwo Jima, and one of only four surviving recipients from WWII. We had the pleasure of getting to spend some time with him on this trip and he is as gracious and unassuming as any hero can be.

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Dad and Woody (Courtesy of the Author)

I will admit I first got teary-eyed on the tarmac. I was overcome. Whether physical or psychological they all bear wounds that time has not healed. But they do it without complaint saying they were just doing their job. When I saw the phalanx of Marines greeting our vets as real heroes and objects of adulation, I felt very proud and emotional.

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Arriving on Iwo Jima (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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The original plan was for some of us to walk up to the top of Mount Suribachi and then go to the ceremony, but the plans changed and we were driven directly to the ceremony. It took place in a clearing on the site of a joint U.S.-Japan granite monument to the battle. The Americans were under a tent on one side and the Japanese delegation under a tent on the other. A joint U.S.-Japan band was on a bluff overlooking the monument. It was a requirement that men were to be in tie and jacket- and the Japanese delegation was uniformly in white shirts and black suits and ties.

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U.S.-Japan monument (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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Japanese delegation (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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U.S. delegation (Courtesy of the Author)

A Marine came over and knelt down to speak with Dad for over ten minutes. I was off speaking with Chad, Woody’s William’s grandson, with whom I had gotten friendly on the trip, and Dad called me over to meet his co-conversationalist. He turned out to be Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, who runs the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing out of Okinawa. He wanted to meet Dad and hear the story of his role in the War. The two of them were deeply engrossed in conversation and I almost felt like an interloper.

 

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Dad speaks with BGen Weidley (Courtesy of the Author)

While Dad and the General continued in conversation, I spoke with Colonel Hannigan, the Regimental Commander, who told me the highlight of the day for her was meeting all the American WWII veterans, and that all her troops had shared that excitement on the way over from Okinawa.

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Dad and Col Hannigan (Courtesy of the Author)

The American and Japanese honor guards approached the clearing from opposite sides, then, in the middle, turned to face the podium. It was psychologically dislocating to see the Japanese flag approach us on such hallowed ground; even more dislocating when the band played both national anthems. Each honor guard lowered its flag in respect when the other’s national anthem was played, and there was not a dry eye on our side of the ceremony when the Star Spangled Banner was played- nor was one person without voice in belting out the words. Dad told me afterwards he could not get through the whole song; he was so choked up with emotion, as was I.

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The Invocation was not just read by the American Chaplain. His prayer for peace and reconciliation was belted out as if at a political rally or revival meeting- we were all struck by the power of the words and in the intense forcefulness of the delivery. I am copying the text, below. His words were very powerful.

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Six representatives from Japan read remarks (in Japanese, with English printed translations provided to us.) The Japanese Minister of Defense; Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare; Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs; a representative of the “bereaved families” and several key members of their Parliament addressed the audience. Before each spoke, he approached the American delegation, bowed, turned to the monument in the middle of the clearing and bowed again, then turned and walked to the podium. The addresses were formal and each similar in tone. I had the impression that they had been carefully vetted for diplomatic purposes. After each address the speaker then walked to the front of the podium, turned and bowed towards the Americans, turned and bowed towards the monument, then strode back forcefully to the Japanese side where he once again bowed to his fellow-delegates. Between the black suits and the formal nature of the proceedings it seemed very ritualistic.

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A Japanese delegate bowing (Courtesy of the Author)

The representative of the “bereaved families,” himself a former Minister of the Japanese Government and currently a member of Parliament, is Mr. Yoshitaka Shindo, the grandson of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The General was the Commander of the Japanese troops at Iwo Jima and Mr. Shindo has made a concerted effort to bring about reconciliation between the peoples of the two countries, and especially the soldiers of each.

Lieutenant General Norman Smith- the former Commander of the Marines in the Western Pacific- and currently the head of the Iwo Jima Association of America, and Brigadier General Weidley gave the American addresses with equal solemnity but with more emotion. They too bowed to the Japanese delegation and the memorial monument.

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Three groups of Japanese, including the previous speakers and a litany of very senior military officials from each branch of the Japanese armed services then laid wreaths at the foot of the monument on the “Japanese” side.” The first group- the non-military group- performed an ancient water ceremony once performed by the Samurai where a ladle of water is poured over the monument to wash the souls of long-dead heroes.

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Japanese delegation perform an ancient water ceremony (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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The American Iwo Jima vets and the Generals then laid a wreath on the “American” side of the monument. It was beyond moving to see Woody and the other vets we have gotten to know so well this week, who all stormed the sandy beaches, that day 73 years ago, move in formation to the monument for a moment of prayer.

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U.S Veterans (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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One vet had poignantly told us all week about the constant mayhem, brutality, violence, flying bullets and shells during the battle. And all the bodies. I could not imagine what he was feeling at this moment. He constantly used humor to describe his experiences, but I suspect it hid deep pain and still-unresolved emotions. He said he did not really want to come back but felt he had to do so. A few of the vets have been sadly very quiet and in this moment one cannot plumb the depths of what must be very conflicting emotions.

When I was a kid I once asked Dad: “don’t you hate the Japanese for what they did to you during the War?” His answer always stayed with me. He said that he could not hate because then his life would be consumed with hatred and he would not enjoy the beauty around him. He said he needed to forgive and move on.

While this is a joint ceremony, one almost gets the sense of two events playing out simultaneously in parallel universes. The American speakers talked about the need for reconciliation and peaceful cooperation; the Japanese speakers talked about how the Japanese soldiers here died to honor their country and that surrender was implicitly not an option. They also spoke of the pain of the battle and the need for reconciliation and cooperation in strategic matters, but I got the sense of a much more scripted and carefully politically vetted presentation; one geared more for a home audience while the Americans’ was addressed to all present. Yet I later confirm that the American presentations were likewise carefully vetted at a political level.

As the flag formations then turned and parted to the beat of the military band, everyone was struck by how they stood at attention for 90 minutes; the flag-holder holding a heavy flag in a stiff breeze and never once faltering. We also note that the entire honor guard, the Regimental Commander and many other soldiers are women- a sign of immense progress since the day 73 years ago when the Iwo Jima force was almost exclusively, if not exclusively, men.

As the ceremony concluded, Dad walked over and started talking to several Japanese Naval officers. They spoke in halting English and they and Dad reviewed the ceremony. At one point Dad said “I was Navy.” One of the officers, who turned out to be an Admiral, said: “I am Navy too!”

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Dad with Japanese officers (Courtesy of the Author)

I was struck by a comment made by Mr. Ichiro Aisawa, a member of the House of Representatives of Japan and President of the Parliamentary League for Iwo-To (the Japanese name for the island.) He said, among other things, that “the world today is faced with new threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as international terrorism.” I used that as an excuse to go introduce myself, thank him for his comments and discuss his views with my hat on as a member of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. We exchanged cards and agreed to send some materials to each other.

Hopping in a van we made the ride to the top of Mount Suribachi in fifteen minutes. I really wanted to walk up but there was not enough time so I hitched a ride with Dad. Although the ride was bumpy, I could not help but think about how much blood and how many lives had been sacrificed to allow me the pleasure of riding in an air conditioned van to the top. Of the seven passengers, four were WWII vets- two were Iwo Jima vets, and I really felt honored to be riding with them. And I questioned how what I have done with my life has measured up against what they did over the course the war. Seventy three years ago it was a much harder climb to the top and it took much longer than our little ride with a few minor bumps. I tried to imagine that battle- how the foliage was obliterated by the advance bombing and how exposed those boys were to the constant rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. I just could not wrap my head around how horrible a hell it must have been. Yet the vets consistently minimize their personal contribution and proclaim they were just doing their jobs. Now matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine.

Near the top we got out and walked the last 50 yards. It was a tough walk up. Then we were in a clearing and on the instantly-recognizable summit where on 23 February 1945 an American flag was raised for the first time on Japanese soil.

The famous photo by Joe Rosenthal, an iconographic image in American history, actually portrays the second, staged flag-raising. The first was by a bunch of young men who had strapped an American flag to a piece of metal pipe found in the debris and hoisted it for everyone on the beach below to see. As one of the vets recounted in the van, seeing Old Glory raised on the mountain that day in 1945 was beyond exhilarating and inspirational.

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Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph from Iwo Jima flag raising (National Archive)

 

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The U.S. flag flying over Iwo Jima (National Archive)

We stood on that spot, now a small disc of iron to commemorate the event, and the view out over the beach 500 feet below is at the same time both very familiar and utterly breathtaking. Standing on a narrow ledge you can see how terribly exposed the troops were as they waded ashore. You also get a tremendous perspective of the strategic importance of coming ashore where they did and how the proximity to the airport was a critical factor. After securing that airport, the island served as the staging site for over 3,000 B-29 missions to bomb Japan and as a rescue location for almost 2,500 emergency landings by injured B-29s on the way back from one.

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The Iwo Jima beach as it appears today (Courtesy of the Author)

There is also a simple but elegant monument in front of the flag-raising spot. It sits in silent remembrance of one of the bloodiest battles in military history.

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American monument on the flag raising spot (Courtesy of the Author)

We were under the impression that per strict orders from the Japanese we were not supposed to unfurl an American flag on the summit, but some took the directions to mean “fly” as opposed to “unfurl,” so several people surreptitiously unwrapped American flags for pictures. In one, below, a woman had her Dad, a veteran of the landings, hold up six separate flags for a photo so she could give one to each of her siblings and say it had been unfurled on top of Mount Suribachi. They graciously allowed me to pose with one of those flags with that vet at exactly the spot of the flag raising and also in front of the monument.

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Then several Marines unfurled a flag they are giving to a retiring compatriot, with the message that it too had flown on top the mountain, and they likewise let Dad and me crash their beautiful flag moment.

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I was transfixed by the view. It is so engrained in every schoolchild’s memory that I could not register that I was seeing the real thing. The majesty of the moment; the import of that spot on our collective consciousness and the incredible view on this bright sunny day all held me.

Twenty five feet from the American flag monument there is a simple, elegant Japanese monument. It received less attention this day; in fact, I did not see any Japanese visitors to the summit. But its simplicity belies the terrible sacrifice so many young Japanese were ordered to make during that battle.

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Japanese monument (Courtesy of the Author)

On the way back to our aircraft I begged a really wonderful Marine escort to make a detour to the beach. Many of the others in the van were visibly and vocally annoyed; they just wanted to get back to the hangar. But I could not leave without visiting the beach. We detoured off the dirt road onto a bumpy, root-covered dirt path down a steep incline toward the water’s edge. We pulled up just before the dirt turned into volcanic ash.

I got out and walked down ten yards. My sneakers sank into the fine ash. It does not have the solidity of a sandy beach; it has a much finer grain and texture. Your feet sink in and walking is difficult. I tried to picture coming up from the beach-75 yards at a steep angle of maybe 45 degrees- wearing heavy boots and a uniform- both wet from jumping into the water off the Higgins boats hitting the beaches; carrying 50-60 pounds of gear plus a rifle or machine gun or flame thrower; all the while being under constant mortar attack and non-stop machine gun fire from Japanese troops hidden at the top of the bluff. Impossible to imagine. Bravery beyond my comprehension or experience. I stood and looked up Mount Suribachi and understood how those boys must have looked up with relief and joy to see Old Glory flying at the top. Today it was a peaceful location and painfully lonely. There was no place to hide or sleep or recharge or pray back in the winter of 1945. Only places to die or, if very lucky, to escape to higher ground with minimal injury. This week I have learned the power of serendipity and fate and luck and being in the right place at the right time, and of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All the great planning and strategy and care cannot replace damn good luck.

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Author on Iwo Jima beach (Courtesy of the Author)

I took a plastic container half the size of a bottle of water that the Museum gave us to collect ash, as well as Dad’s, and scooped up volcanic ash from the beach. For a van where nobody wanted to stop, I collected ash for five of the seven passengers and several got out to experience the beach first-hand.

In the meantime Dad got out of the van and we stood there silently together, lost in our thoughts, arms around each other, watching the sun and the sand and the ocean in the quiet breeze in the shadow of Mount Suribachi.

As we prepared to re-board the plane, BGen Weidley, Col Hannigan and all the other Marines, now in their fatigues, brightly greeted each of us. They especially thanked the vets. While still in the hangar, Dad was again, as he is constantly, asked for his autograph.

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Dad signing autographs (Courtesy of the Author)

The pilot took off and did a fly-by so that first those on the left could see the island and then after a figure-eight those of us on the right had an amazing view of this sacred island that few of us had ever visited and that few would likely return to in our lifetimes. About 300 civilians were there for this special occasion. Maybe a third made it to the top of the mountain. One of our historians commented that more people have been to the top of Mount Everest than have been to the top of Mount Suribachi. Whether true or not it had been a special day we will all cherish and remember forever.

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Iwo Jima from the air (Courtesy of the Author)

An especially beautiful sunset illuminated our path back to Guam.

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When we landed several special treats awaited us.

First, fire engines on the tarmac cross-fired they hoses on our plane as an honor salute.

Then, as we cleared customs, a Marine Honor Guard awaited us and maybe 30 people from the USO cheered and held up placards and balloons. The head of the USO contingent came over and greeted Dad by name and thanked him for helping liberate Guam 74 years ago this summer. The rest gathered around and wanted to know his story. One woman was almost in tears- she said she too is Navy and he made her really proud. They had a food station set up and offered us drinks and empanadas. They did not want us to leave the airport and all wanted a picture with Dad. He told me they were surely there for Woody, as the sole-surviving Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima, but I found out differently. The woman leading the USO contingent told me apparently word had gotten around the small Chamorro community that a WWII vet who had helped liberate Guam was in town and she said this reception was for Dad. While I think they were there for all the WWII vets on our trip, WOW WOW WOW for the special recognition for Dad.

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Marine Honor Guard waiting on Guam (Courtesy of the Author)

 

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When we got on the buses, several dozen vet bikers zoomed out of nowhere and, in honor of the vets, gave us a motorcade escort back to the hotel. They blocked off traffic at intersections and zoomed back and forth past us. What an amazing end to an unusually amazing, memorable and very emotional day for all of us.

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Motorcade escort (Courtesy of the Author)

Our new friends Warren and Chuck, DeeAnne and Rowland, Dad and I had a nightcap on the terrace-bar overlooking the ocean and had a wonderful time reliving the day. We have an amazing group of people on this trip and we are having a great time bonding with each other. After a 5am wake-up call this morning, it was a long but awesome day.

Enjoy Steve Fadem earlier post here.

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/07/24/day-2-march-17-2018-honolulu

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/08/21/day-3-march-1718-honolulu-to-saipan-via-guam

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/09/18/day-4-march-20-saipan

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/10/18/day-5-march-21-tinian

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/11/20/day-7-march-23-guam