Surviving veterans of Iwo Jima reunite for WWII battle’s 74th anniversary
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 25, 2019
IWO JIMA, Japan – Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Van Camp carried a small American flag in his pocket as he led a 4th Marine Division mortar section inland from Blue Beach during the February 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima.
Van Camp was wounded in the legs by shrapnel but survived the fighting. Afterward, he never discussed what happened during the bloody fight for the Japanese island fortress. His family had only the letters he sent home to offer any insight.
His son, retired Marine Capt. Robert W. Van Camp carried that same faded flag back to the island, now called Iwo To, with his three adult children on Saturday for the 74th Reunion of Honor ceremony to find the understanding that had eluded him while his father was alive.
The elder Van Camp died of prostate cancer in 1976. His son, now 87 and living in San Juan Islands, Wash., offered a slice of his father’s experience.
“He was in a foxhole with four other men when a mortar [landed next to him] and it was a dud; it did not explode, and his letter back to my mother was, ‘had that gone off I wouldn’t be here today,’” the younger Van Camp said.
The elder Van Camp also killed two Japanese soldiers who jumped into the foxhole at night while he was on guard duty.
“I’m here in remembrance,” the younger Van Camp said. “He was a marvelous man.”
Van Camp was among several hundred people allowed onto the island, now a Japanese military base, Saturday for the annual remembrance ceremony.
Also present were a dozen of the dwindling number of U.S. veterans of the battle.
The ‘lucky’ ones
The Marine and Navy veterans in attendance were emotional as they recalled the battle’s carnage as well as the friends they lost.
“I just lasted nine days here,” said Thiele Harvey Jr., who, as a private first class, rescued a fellow Marine under withering fire from an ambush and was awarded the Silver Star. “It was hell. I was lucky I guess; hand grenades got me.”
For Bruce Heilman, who crash landed on the island as a sergeant with the 2nd Marine Air Wing, coming back to Iwo Jima was bittersweet.
“I had a lot of Marine buddies killed here,” he said. “For 74 years these guys have been dead, and I’ve been having family and marriages and success; you think about that. Why me?”
The Battle of Iwo Jima began with an amphibious assault by Marines on Feb. 19, 1945, following months of aerial and naval bombardment. The Japanese had dug deep into the volcanic rock of the island, connected by a labyrinth of tunnels.
Seventy-thousand Marines took part in the 36-day battle, suffering more casualties than the Japanese with more than 6,800 killed and 19,000 wounded. On the Japanese side, approximately 18,000 were killed. Only 216 Japanese were captured alive.
The island was declared secure on March 16, 1945.
The ceremony Saturday morning was held under an unrelenting sun — another reminder of the island’s challenging conditions. The Americans and Japanese took seats on opposite sides of the Reunion of Honor obelisk monument, overlooking the invasion beach, and in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, but they were united in friendship and sorrow.
“To see the hatred between the Marines and the Japanese we had when we were fighting here gone away; it’s a transition of the world into new dimensions,” Heilman said. “But having had a lot of friends killed here; it’s sad.”
While bands from the III Marine Expeditionary Force and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force played, dignitaries made speeches and laid wreaths for those who lost their lives, thousands of whom never made it off the island, whose name in Japanese translates to sulfur island, east of Okinawa and south of Tokyo.
“I am proud of and deeply moved by the fact that [Iwo Jima] is the only place in the world where former adversaries come together to co-host a memorial service,” said Japanese House of Representatives member Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was garrison commander of there during the battle.
“We remember and honor those who fought for their country and families, and we, with the thoughts that the peace and prosperity we now enjoy were built upon their sacrifice, must pass down their history to future generations so that their sacrifice will not be forgotten.”
‘Carry that mission’
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller also spoke at the ceremony.
“Few places mean as much to the United States Marines and few battles bond us so tightly to our heritage as Iwo Jima,” he said. “More than 26,000 men died here. And to those living, it is proper that every year Marines and our Japanese allies return to this hallowed ground to honor the sacrifices of those who made their last stand on these black sands.”
Speeches by other officials from the Japanese government and U.S. military were followed by a moment of silence. The veterans, often referred to as “the old breed,” then posed for pictures and chatted with Marines of today.
“Being able to just walk on the sand out here is an honor,” said Lance Cpl. Danikamarie Lester, 21, a water support technician with the 3rd Marine Logistics Group from DeRidder, La.
“All the Marines that lost their lives, and the sailors; it means something to you, so you feel it,” she said. “Once you get out here, your whole perspective of everything just changes.”
Bob Persichitti let out a sigh when asked to recall the flag raisings on the 554-foot Suribachi that loomed over him once again like a moss-covered sleeping giant.
The former radioman second class on the command ship USS Eldorado witnessed them both, including the second flag raising that was captured by The Associated Press’ Joe Rosenthal in his iconic photograph.
“I was on the deck,” the 96-year-old said, his voice wavering. “When I got on the island today, I just broke down.”
Persichitti recalled some of the grievous injuries he saw on Marines brought aboard his ship. He witnessed several burials at sea.
“When they made the landing, they started losing all these guys,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good sight.”
Barney Leone, then a machinist mate second class on the fuel ship USS Nemasket, was also parked offshore in the shadow of the mountain. He vividly remembers the Marines moments before they entered a hornet’s nest of hot metal and death, all looking forward, holding their rifles straight ahead in front of them.
“My ship was anchored close enough to the beach that on the landing, [our] ship would be the last ship they would pass before hitting the beach,” Leone said. “We were topside; we gave them [a thumbs up]. Not one Marine looked at us. They looked frightened … When I tell that story, I tear up because many of them that I saw never came back.”
Leone has taken these mental pictures to schools over the years to teach young people about freedom and civic responsibility.
“They died for each one of you,” he said. “The freedom that you’re enjoying, myself included, somebody paid for with their life. Appreciate the freedom you have, try to get along with each other. I’m 94 years of age now. I think I’m here to carry that mission out for those that are not able to be here to do that.”
Veterans of the Iwo Jima campaign pose for a photo on Saturday, March 23, 2019, on Iwo Jima, Japan, with Japanese House of Representatives member Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was garrision commander of Iwo Jima during the 1945 battle.
MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES