It is unquestionably the most iconic image of World War II—the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima by U. S. Marines — and, quite possibly, the greatest war photo of all time. As photographer Joe Rosenthal himself has stated: “I took the picture, but the Marines took Iwo Jima.”
Yes, the Marines took Iwo Jima, though at a huge cost — nearly 7,000 Americans dead, another 20,000 wounded. It was far worse for the 21,000 Japanese soldiers who tried to hold on to what they thought of as Japanese land; over the course of 36 days of the fiercest, most brutal combat of the entire war, only 216 Japanese were taken prisoner. The rest either were killed or died hiding underground.
It was as appalling as war can get. As U.S. Marine Hershel “Woody” Williams, who wielded a flamethrower at Iwo Jima, recalls: “It (Iwo Jima) never goes away. It’s always there.”
Seeds of Hope and Peace
And yet out of this most horrific of encounters, seeds of hope and peace were sown.
Now, 70 years later, this island battlefield is home to the only “reunion” between men who once were enemies, commemorating it as the only former combat zone in the world that sees former combatants return as friends in a ceremony of peace and remembrance.
I was so struck by the story of Tsuriji Akikusa, the only Japanese survivor able to make the arduous trip to Iwo Jima this past March.
— Director Carol Fleisher
Iwo Jima: From Combat to Comrades, which premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday Nov. 10, 2015 (check local listings), as part of the network’s Veteran’s Day programming, documents the powerful and moving story of the American and Japanese servicemen who came together 70 years later for a historic reunion on March 21, 2015.
The film’s host is Ryan Phillippe. It’s not the actor’s first affiliation with a movie about the historic battle. Both of Phillippe’s grandfathers fought in World War II; his father served in Vietnam. And he portrayed John “Doc” Bradley, one of the young men in that famous flag-raising photograph, in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.
In addition to footage of the reunion, the film includes fascinating interviews with American and Japanese survivors, conducted by director Carol Fleisher. “I was so struck by the story of Tsuriji Akikusa, the only Japanese survivor able to make the arduous trip to Iwo Jima this past March,” she says. “He knew he’d be humiliated back home in Japan if it was known he was captured at Iwo Jima and became a prisoner of war, so for years he never told his family about his experience. He’s had to live with that all this time, and only now is he able to turn the page.”
The Only Way to Survive
The film will likely mark the last page turning for these veterans of Iwo Jima. Most are well into their 90s and it’s unlikely they’ll ever return to this tiny piece of vulcanized rock. Yet in this place where, as U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz once remarked, “uncommon valor was a common virtue,” former soldiers from the United States and Japan have found a way to reconcile and forgive.
“What unites all of us is our humanity,” an emotional Jerry Yellin told me last week. A former Army Air Corps fighter pilot, he was haunted by the deaths of 16 fellow fighter pilots and struggled with PTSD for decades.
“I thought about suicide just about every day for 30 years,” he said. “My long-suffering wife got damaged goods when she married me.”
But Yellin is a survivor who eventually decided to focus on spreading a message of peace and forgiveness. “I enlisted when I was barely 18, and I felt my purpose was to eliminate evil,” he says. “I feel differently now and that was reinforced by my return to Iwo Jima. We human beings, we must join together and love one another. There’s just no other way for us to survive.”
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