|Iwo Jima Reunion
||[Mar. 12th, 2009|02:39 pm]
On Friday, February 20, I attended a 3-day reunion of survivor's from the battle of Iwo Jima, a reunion that also included survivors of the USS Indianapolis and members of the "Lost Battalion", along with a scattering of other WWII veterans. It was a remarkable weekend, and it has taken some time for me to gather the perspective necessary to write about it.|
I was there because my father-in-law was a pilot in VMTB 242, a Marine Air squadron of TBM Avengers which took part in the preliminary bombing of the island before the invasion. After the airfield was taken and Mt. Suribachi cleared, half of his squadron--his half--were moved to the island to fly close ground support missions for the attacking Marines--the Avenger being heavily armored against light arms fire and capable of delivering a wide variety of munitions (considering what was available at the time). The primary weapon that they wanted to use were 5" rockets, 8 of which could be mounted under the wings of a TBM. In the event, these rockets proved to be to inaccurate to be too useful against the tunnels occupied by the Japanese defenders. but the four .50 caliber machine guns and other capabilities of the aircraft were put to good use. Three of the squadron's airplanes were destroyed by Japanese artillery; a number of the squadron members were killed by artillery fire or infiltrators.
A total of 31 Iwo Jima survivors attended, along with 6 or 8 survivors from the USS Indianapolis. I never got a count of "Lost Battalion" members, and I think none may have come this year.
There may not be many Lost Battalion members left; there weren't a lot of them in the first place, and a number of people from the other groups who had attended the previous year were unable to attend because of poor health, and a number were memorialized.
There are any number of attitudes a person can take toward a veteran; in this venue there was a pretty small range. Love, respect, honor, and pride... mixed with grief, sorrow, and an unavoidable sense of mortality.
One of the most remarkable moments for me was on Saturday morning. Roughly 250 or 300 members of the Patriot Guard, joined by a Boy Scout Troop and others came to the, lining the corridors leading from the lobby to the meeting hall, shoulder to shoulder, standing at attention, holding full sized American flags.
The first stretch of the corridor was about 40 yards long, and it was an impressive sight. I accompanied my father-in law down the line, and I watched him straighten his arthritic spine, compressed by dive bombing and a near miss by a 14-inch shell. Head up, shoulders back, he walked down the line not so much for himself but for the other members of his squadron; he is one of two left alive.
All around me I saw the fierce, protective love and pride of veterans for each other; the men against the wall from both Gulf Wars, from Viet Nam, Korea... and each old vet pulled himself erect as he approached the corridor, determined to honor those who could not be there.
As we neared the corner I saw the corridor was sill lined, and could see that it extended beyond the next turn as well--in all about 120 yards of corridor lined by men and women standing silently, respectfully, shoulder-to-shoulder. Weekend bikers in fancy expensive leathers next to scruffy riders in denim colors and worn boots, all standing to attention, all silent as a sentry.
Tears streaked many of the faces, and my own eyes filled and overflowed; it was, simply, overwhelming.
I stood outside with one of the Indianapolis survivors and listened to his story--5 days in the water seeing and hearing his shipmates taken by sharks and wondering when his turn would come... and later, why they left him alone. He found out when he was rescued; he was covered head to toe with a thick layer of fuel oil. He also told me about his post war life, words tumbling out like a landslide. Nothing in life was worse than those 5 days, but nothing in life ever brought him a sense of peace or ease at being alive. And in his age, he wondered why he was left alive, even now, when so many had gone before.
On Saturday night we heard from a Japanese who had been training to become a Kamikaze; his life was saved because the war ended two weeks before he was scheduled to take off in his flying bomb. At the end of his speech he sang the Imperial Japanese Army's dirge for all the dead, ending with a sharp military bow, holding it to thunderous applause from men whose hatred long since turned to sorrow enough to share with even the most fearsome of former enemies.
Memorials abounded--a general service for all who died on the Island; a general service for the survivors who died in the last year, and a special service for the family of a Medal of Honor Recipient who died recently.
I watched a pair of 84 year old buglers playing taps. One of them had to stop; both had tears streaming down their lined and weary faces.
I watched aging children and mature grandchildren watching over their fathers and grandfathers, the young hawks soaring protectively over the old eagles.
I was proud to be there, in the presence of men who endured what only other veterans can understand.