Walking in the steps of heroes _lowres

 

Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific during World War II. In 1944, Joe Rosenthal snapped the famous picture of the second raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, shortly after the U.S. Marines captured that portion of the island. The photo caught the attention and emotions of war-weary America. It’s a photo that will forever be famous.

In March, 2014, I traveled to Iwo Jima, climbed Mount Suribachi and stood where this famous flag raising took place.

I watched as the waves of the ocean slowly rolled onto the black sands of beaches where the Marines landed without any protection. While 7,000 Marines died taking the island, I had to wonder how any of them survived given the strategic advantage held by the Japanese.

After hiking down the mountain, I attended the “Reunion of Honor,” where each year the ceremony is held near the base of Mount Suribachi to honor both American and Japanese troops who fell during the battle. This solemn occasion is attended by American and Japanese dignitaries, high-ranking military personnel, WWII veterans who fought on the island (only seven were able to make the trip), and descendants of those who didn’t make it through the battle.

A visit to this island is very restricted by Japan, and the number of guests invited is very limited.

As the number of American veterans continues to diminish, some suspect that in the near future Americans will not be allowed to visit. The Japanese consider this hallowed ground, as so many of them died here, many still not accounted for. To this day, the Japanese government is searching for remains of their fallen soldiers.

Modern-day Americans are probably more familiar with the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor. As I leaned over the rail of the USS Arizona Memorial, I watched drops of fuel oil gradually float to the top of the water’s surface as they have done since the Arizona came to rest on the bottom of the harbor. The great battleship was sunk, killing over 1,100 sailors and Marines and now serves as an eternal tomb for those who did not survive.

In the Northern Mariana Islands lies Guam, Saipan and Tinian. During the war, the Japanese occupied and heavily fortified these islands that protected the Japanese homeland as the American war machine invaded island after island across the Pacific.

I walked along these narrow, quiet beaches trying to visualize thousands of Marines, tanks and artillery charging forward. Now, the tide gradually rolls onto these pristine beaches that were once soaked with blood and littered with bodies and only a few Japanese pillboxes (concrete, dug-in gun emplacements) remain to remind us of the carnage.

Guam was taken 21 days after the Marines landed. While the cost of lives for both sides was incredible, securing the island allowed the Americans to establish one of the largest naval bases in the Pacific, which paved the way to reducing Japan’s ability to wage war.

As the battle for Guam raged, Tinian was also being taken by the Marines. Tinian is where the B-29 bombers that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan were launched. At one time, it was the most active airport in the world due to the number of B-29 Superfortress bombers departing for bombing raids on mainland Japan.

Today, visitors have to negotiate a thick growth of trees and weeds to find what’s left of the war. Remnants are fading from this historic island as interest and infrastructure are not in place for its preservation. In years to come, the jungle may hide what the “Greatest Generation” accomplished on Tinian.

This once-in-a-lifetime trip was long awaited and a moving experience.

To walk where these American heroes fought and died to save the world from tyranny can only be described in the mind and heart.

There are no words that would lead the reader to understanding the feeling of actually being there.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to this group of Americans. It is up to us to remember those who gave so much so that we could have our freedom and the ability to pursue life to the fullest.

In a few short years, none will be left as the cycle of life continues. Don’t miss the opportunity to show your appreciation to any you have the honor of meeting.

— Fisher lives in Zachary

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