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Forty Years After the Battle, 200 Marines Make a Return Trip to the Sands of Iwo Jima

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Carrying more weight and less hair, the old soldiers flew from California to Tokyo aboard three Japan Air Lines jets, an irony that for them was particularly sharp. Some of them wore Marine Corps rings or Marine Corps belt buckles, and some carried faded photographs or yellowed newspaper clippings or archaic yen notes they’d stripped from the corpses of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima 40 years ago. They were 200 aging warriors returning to the scene of the bitter, bloody and now legendary World War II battle they’d fought in their youth. They gathered in the aisles of the jets, fueling their memories with alcohol and swapping war stories that four decades of retelling had polished into something closer to myth than history. “We killed a million Japs on the plane,” Claude Duval said with a wry smile. Now they were winging to a second rendezvous on Iwo—a meeting with some 100 Japanese survivors and relatives of those slain in the battle.

Duval, 70, is a lawyer, a former Louisiana state senator and the chairman of a bank. He was returning to Iwo for a good reason that defied explanation, although he tried to explain it anyway: “To see what the hell is the meaning of the whole damn thing. To find out if there’s any meaning to war, which is really the most horrible, vicious thing that can ever take place.”

Duval knows something about war. Forty years ago he was a lieutenant on Iwo Jima, a 30-year-old “old man” with the 4th Marine Division. He and his brother Stanwood, both married men at the time, had joined the Marines after watching patriotic war movies. “They showed these guys living a great life in the Marines, all dressed up in beautiful blue uniforms with red stripes,” he recalls. “Hell, I never got to wear a set of dress blues in my life.” Instead Duval found himself on the islands of the Pacific, fighting for his life on Saipan and the Marshalls and, worst of all, on Iwo Jima. He remembers Hill 382, which saw some of Iwo’s worst combat. “The Japanese were on top of 382, and we were on another hill. I could see one of them looking at us through field glasses. We watched them while they watched us. They were firing at us. We were firing at them until we landed a mortar round right in the middle of them. But they made us pay for that damn place.”

They certainly did. Iwo’s more than 20,000 Japanese defenders put up a desperate fight for the island, an eight-square-mile speck of volcanic debris strategically situated 660 miles south of Tokyo. Starting on Feb. 19, 1945, 70,000 Marines invaded Iwo’s black sand beaches, aided by 40,000 other forces and an armada of more than 800 vessels. They found the Japanese soldiers dug into a honeycomb of caves and tunnels, determined to fight to the death. Casualties in the amphibious assault shocked American commanders, who found losses even greater than anticipated. For five weeks the fierce close-range combat continued day and night. The Marines raised that famous victory flag over 550-foot Mount Suribachi, which dominates the island, on February 23, but by the time the battle ended a month later, the Corps had lost 6,000 men, and three times that many were wounded. Only 1,000 Japanese defenders survived to be taken prisoner. The sulfurous island was denuded, its vegetation blasted away in the furious bombardments.

“I didn’t think anything would ever grow again. The earth was just pulverized,” recalls Charles Early, 58, now a Sarasota, Fla. tax attorney. “Every foot of the island was pocked with bullet holes. Every time you moved—if you went far enough—you got shot at. On parts of the island, shell holes would be running into shell holes. I’m not sure I ever saw a live Japanese during the battle, but I was personally shot at about 200 times. The Japanese could see you all the time. We used to say they could see what we were eating for breakfast—and the truth was, they could. We fought well but they did a number on us. They slaughtered us.”

About 10 days after the start of the battle of Iwo Jima, Early saw long slender objects stacked in a neat row about four feet high and some 200 feet long. At first he thought they were shells or bombs. Then, as he watched them being loaded into a convoy of trucks, he noticed that each buckled in the middle when lifted. Then it hit him: They were dead Marines.

Ten days later, Early was hit by two bullets simultaneously, one in the gut, one in the hip. He spent 16 months in the hospital and he still walks with a painful limp. And he remains awed by the tenacity of the man who shot him. “I was the 16th guy he shot. We knew where he was. We shot at him with everything we had. He was surrounded, cut off. He had no water, didn’t have a chance in the world of doing anything else but dying.”

Forty years later, Early and the other veterans spent two days exchanging war stories at their ultramodern hotel in Tokyo before mounting their second invasion of Iwo. The return trip by air proved almost as uncomfortable as the original by sea. The vets were cramped into three American C-130 military airplanes. (Their wives rode a fourth, the only one with toilet facilities.) The seats were canvas benches with webbed backrests, four rows running the length of each plane’s belly, rows so close together that the men butted knees with their neighbors. The government-issue earplugs barely filtered out the roaring din of the engines. But it could have been worse: It could have cost $200 a seat. That was the original plan, until the Marines agreed to pick up the tab. “The Corps didn’t charge you the first time you went to Iwo,” announced Lt. Gen. Charles G. Cooper, the highest-ranking officer to attend the anniversary, “and we’re sure as hell not going to charge you the second time.”

The long-awaited return proved almost anticlimactic. The day was sunny and warm, and birds glided gracefully over the neatly trimmed lawns of the island’s Japanese military base. (The U.S. returned ownership of Iwo to Japan in 1968.) Many of the vets seemed shocked, even disappointed. It was unreal—too bucolic, too pacific, too beautiful. Over and over again they told their wives and their children and each other that this wasn’t the Iwo they remembered—that barren, hellish symbol of the horrors of war.

The vets attended a formal ceremony. A monument was dedicated, the dead were honored, and Japanese-American friendship was saluted. When the ceremony ended Esther Gordon, whose brother, Solomon A. Goldberg, was killed on Iwo Jima, gave roses to the Japanese widows who attended, and they shed tears together. Still, she admits, “I couldn’t shake hands with the Japanese men.”

For the next several hours, the vets rode Army trucks around the island, snapping pictures, filling bottles with Iwo’s famous black sand and mailing postcards at the island’s U.S.-operated navigation station. Then there was a buffet and plenty of draft beer, and soon the old enemies were socializing as Marine and Japanese bands played nearly identical fox-trots. Before dusk the vets climbed aboard the planes for the flight back to Tokyo.

The next day Ed Harloff, 62, a Minnesota farm boy who was wounded on Iwo but survived to open a Chevrolet-BMW dealership near San Diego, made one final stop before his trip home. He visited a BMW dealership in Tokyo and talked shop with his Japanese colleagues. Harloff liked the way they served coffee to prospective customers. He decided to try that himself when he got back home.