July 2012: Sound Off Letter of the Month

I believe that the Battle of Iwo Jima is one of the greatest accomplishments in military history, and I am beyond fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to visit the island. Although I was just a private first class at the time of my visit, I would like to share with you my experience there and why it changed me.

I found out about the trip at the last minute and—only by sheer luck—I managed to get the last seat on the flight. It was an all-Provost Marshal’s Office, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler, Okinawa, trip and about 30 MPs were allowed to go. We all understood that what we were about to experience was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity. 

About 20 minutes before we landed, we all began peering out the windows, looking for the notorious pork-chop-shaped “Island of Sulfur.” One of the gunnery sergeants saw it first. “There it is,” he said, and we all shifted to the right side of the plane—and fell completely silent. As soon as I saw Mount Suribachi, with its crater still steaming, I became overwhelmed with emotion. Unexpectedly, tears began to fill my eyes. Somehow, I managed to keep my bearing. 

The plane remained silent until we landed. From the landing strip, we began our hump to the top of the mountain. I believe the distance is about eight kilometers. We humped through the tall grass and stopped periodically to take pictures. Throughout the hike, the smell of sulfur was overpowering, and the horror that occurred all around was all I could think about. I was the last to reach the top. Just as I reached the top, the sun set, and it began to drizzle. I looked to my left and saw the Marine Corps memorial and burst into tears. 

A few of the other Marines were tearful as well. Behind the monument were two small wooden stakes that marked where the flag raisings had actually taken place. Next to the stakes was a small monument in memory of Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley, one of the flag raisers. The wooden stakes were covered with hundreds of dog tags, unit patches and chevrons. I found a small spot on top of an Army patch and placed a PFC chevron. I was still unable to stop crying. 

That night, we had meals, ready to eat for dinner and talked about the battle. I shared the stories of the flag raisers (as I had just read “Flags of Our Fathers”). A few people had brought some Jack Daniel’s [whiskey] and did shots in honor of those who served on Iwo. I didn’t participate because, knowing that alcohol had killed PFC Ira H. Hayes [another flag raiser], I didn’t think it was appropriate. 

It had stopped raining, so I went to my sleeping bag, pulled out my iPod and lay down. I put on my headphones and listened to Johnny Cash’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” in honor of the fallen. As the music was playing, I saw several shooting stars and couldn’t help but think that the souls of the fallen were saying hello from heaven. I finally went to sleep with the sound of the wind blowing through the dog tags. 

I woke shortly before dawn to raindrops on my face. Everyone else was still asleep, so I decided to take some pictures as the sun was rising. It was the most breathtaking sunrise I had ever witnessed.

After everyone awoke, we did a proper flag raising at the flagstaff and then lowered and folded the colors to present to our Provost Marshal. I walked to the edge of the steaming crater and then over to where I could look down to the beach. I was stunned by the sheer magnitude of Suribachi. Not only at the fact that the Marines had to climb straight up the side of the mountain, but also at the absolute advantage the Japanese would have had. 

Exposed to direct fire from hidden positions dug into the high ground, the Marines didn’t stand a chance. Yet they took the island. They went through pure hell for more than a month so that countless generations of Americans and others could live in freedom. 

We packed up and headed back down the mountain and went to the beach. As I looked out at the ocean, I felt a great pain in my chest as I thought of how many good men’s lives came to an end in the black, volcanic sand on which I was standing. The wind picked up, and as I looked at the surf relentlessly beating the shoreline, I imagined how the ocean foam must have turned red with American blood. A friend standing there with me took my picture. 

As we made our way back to the flight line, we stopped to silently take in the monuments that had been placed by Iwo Jima veterans and by the Japanese. We saw the wreckages of planes that had been shot down. A few Marines decided to explore some of the tunnels, but after reading how many Marine lives had ended in those tunnels, I chose not to follow them. I was simply too emotionally drained. 

I left Iwo Jima with a newfound sense of pride for our country and pride for the Corps. My short stay there also changed me in another way. I stopped complaining about petty things and even became angry when others griped about trivial inconveniences or setbacks. 

Iwo Jima was and always will be my most humbling experience. It made me grateful for every day that I have in the Corps. Sadly, as the last of our Iwo Jima veterans leave us, there are fewer and fewer people who are knowledgeable and appreciative of what they endured there. I will never feel that I was worthy enough to have set foot on Iwo Jima, but I can at least rest knowing that I got a chance to pay my respects. 

Sgt Bridgette M. Ross

MCRD San Diego