Veterans, active-duty servicemembers gather on Iwo Jima to mark anniversary
IWO JIMA, Japan — He scooped up a fistful of the black sand and squeezed it tight before slowly letting the dark grains pass through his fingers.
“This is the one time I get to be with him,” Seaman Joshua Langland said with his feet sunk a few inches into Invasion Beach, where his grandfather stormed the shore of Iwo Jima 62 years ago. “He’s got to be out here somewhere, you know? He’s got to be watching me.”
The anniversary of the fateful World War II battle, which claimed 22,000 Japanese lives and killed or wounded more than 26,000 U.S. troops, was commemorated Wednesday in a ceremony on the small island off the eastern coast of Japan.
Langland, assigned to USS Harpers Ferry out of Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, knows of his grandfather’s feats in that 36-day campaign only from what his dad has told him.
“My grandfather died when I was very young — not long after I was born,” he said. “I never heard firsthand stories.”
The 22-year-old sailor stood atop Mount Suribachi — where the American flag was famously raised on Feb. 23, 1945 as the battle raged — and squinting through the midday sun, tried to imagine what his grandfather went through as one of the first Marines to hit the beach in the bloodiest battle in the Corps’ history.
“This is so much to handle at once,” he said. “The best I can do is follow in his footsteps and try to see what he saw.”
Veterans from both countries attended the ceremony. Many of them were on the island for the first time since the war.
“I’ve thought of many things that I haven’t thought of in many years,” said 83-year-old George Alden, who was a 20-year-old sergeant with the 27th Marines at Iwo Jima. “This has been very emotional for me.”
He was injured on the beach and taken to a ship. A corpsman came in one day and told him: “ ‘Look out the port hole above your bed and tell me what you see,’ ” Alden said. “They had just raised the flag on Iwo Jima.”
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel said that after many years of holding back he just started to share those types of stories with his 57-year-old son, who was at the ceremony with him.
Veteran Maurice Richardson, who earned his first stripe on Iwo Jima, said it was hard to believe this was the island where “every rock I’d wonder what was behind it.”
Taking out a photograph of himself as a 19-year-old standing on a rock quarry 62 years ago, he smiled and tapped the image.
“I went back there today,” he said.
Hurb Thompson, who still has shrapnel in his body from the battle as a 19-year-old private first class, got a little teary-eyed talking about being back on the island.
He came alone to the ceremony, but he said he wished he had family with him to share the moment of seeing the rock quarry where he set up his machine gun or the place on the beach where he was wounded.
“I wish they could see what I’m seeing,” Thompson said. “They’ve seen it in the movies and they’ve seen it on The History Channel, but to see the actual thing it’s a whole different ball game. It can get to you.”
For Langland, exploring the island where his grandfather fought and was wounded — needing a cane for the rest of his life — was a “life changer,” he said.
“This is one of the stories I’ll later pass on to the next generation.”