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Remembering the battle of Iwo Jima

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Six Marines raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Front row, left to right: Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block Back row, left to right: Michael Strank (behind Sousley), Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley) (Joe Rosenthal/AP)

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Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes (ret.), 84, fought on Iwo Jima as a 24-year-old Captain. (Sara Blask/CNS)

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Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes (ret.), 84, points to the area on the map where he landed on Feb. 19, 1945. (Sara Blask/CNS)

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American military vehicles smashed by Japanese mortar and shellfire, lie trapped in the black sands of Iwo Jima. (Robert M. Warren)

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Two U.S. Marines attack a Japanese pillbox with flamethrowers. (Courtesy of the Norman Hatch Collection)

It takes a few moments for William J. Finnerty to summon up the memories of Iwo Jima. Now 80 and living in Staten Island, N.Y., Finnerty was 20 when he fought in the ferocious battle for that tiny sliver of an island in the Pacific, directing waves of landing craft ashore as a coxswain in the Navy. He used to tell the stories clearly, but now he trips over the details. The number of units and platoons is blurred, and the names of friends have slowly begun to fade. “Twenty years old,” he says to himself. “It was a long time ago.”

Feb. 19 will mark 60 years since Finnerty and more than 70,000 other U.S. troops set foot on Iwo Jima to fight the bloodiest battle of World War II in the Pacific. In 36 days, 6,825 American soldiers were killed and 19,026 more were injured. Of the 22,000 Japanese forces, only a few hundred survived.

Like Finnerty’s memories, veterans of the battle are disappearing at an increasing rate. Experts believe that barely a quarter are still alive. “Even the youngest soldier will now be at least in his 80s,” says Charles Melson, chief historian in the Marines Corps history and museums division in Washington. “We won’t see many more major commemorations. This anniversary may well be the last of note.”

To mark the occasion, several events will take place around the country. For the first time, some 500 veterans will look on as the National Museum of the Pacific War hosts two live reenactments of the battle in Fredericksburg, Texas, using more than 300 actors, tanks, aircraft and artillery; in Washington, the Marines Corps will hold a series of seminars, banquets and memorial services; and at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, and in Canton, Ohio, smaller ceremonies for local veterans are scheduled.

The frailty of the veterans of the battle stands in stark contrast to the immortal photograph that has made Iwo Jima so famous. Taken on the fourth day of the battle, the image of six Marines planting an American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi is one of the most-reproduced images in history. On millions of magazine covers, book sleeves and postcards, the six men stand huddled together, bracing themselves under the weight of the pole as the flag flutters overhead.

The same image hangs on the wall of retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes’ living room in Manhattan. Now 84, Haynes remembers his time on Iwo Jima as a captain in the 5th Marine Division perfectly. As his eyes wander over the photo, he describes witnessing the landing craft crashing into the beaches in the early morning light. He recalls the body of a dead Marine lying face down in the black sand. “Images like that you can never forget,” Haynes says slowly. “They have been with me my whole life.”

Located halfway between Allied-controlled Guam and the Japanese mainland, the island was a crucial aeronautic hub providing the Japanese with a site from which to intercept American bombers on their way to Tokyo and Osaka. Its capture turned the tide, giving the Allies a base to launch air attacks and to land damaged planes. The lives of some 27,000 U.S. airmen were saved through crash landings on the island.

Iwo Jima was also a crucial turning point in two other respects. As an outpost of the Tokyo Prefecture, Iwo Jima was part of the Japanese mainland and as such the invasion marked the first U.S. assault on Japanese soil. For the American public, the flag raising and the capture of the island served as a psychological tipping point. For the U.S. military, however, the horrendous cost of victory was one of the factors that led to the use of the atomic bomb seven months later.

In February 1945, the Japanese, expecting an attack, had built a formidable series of defenses, and the 22,000 troops were dug deep into the rock and rubble of the 10-square-mile island. Tunnels laced the island, allowing the Japanese to withstand bombardment and to pop up and harass the Marines at will. On the first day alone, nearly 500 Marines were killed as they poured ashore.

And the landing was by no means the worst of it. Capt. Charles Modrell, 84, a retired realtor in Mount Vernon, Va., was in the thick of it as the commander of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. At one point, Modrell said he saw a Japanese soldier charge a flamethrower tank with a samurai sword. “He was on fire but he kept going,” Modrell recalls. By the end of the campaign only 44 of Modrell's 258-man unit were left standing.

In Fredericksburg, Jeff Hunt, curator of the Museum of the Pacific War, hopes to re-enact the battle as faithfully as possible. A mountain in the Texas hill country, dressed with 130 pillboxes, trenches, foxholes, command posts and artillery placements, will stand in for Mt. Suribachi; authentic World War II tanks, hellcat aircraft, flamethrowers and $10,000 worth of pyrotechnics will provide the explosions; and 40 volunteers from Japan, Taiwan and Korea will graciously act out the parts of the defeated Imperial Army.

For Haynes, reenactments hold no attraction. On March 7, a month after attending the commemorative services in Washington, he will return with 500 of his comrades to Iwo Jima. It is the fifth time he has been back, drawn by the memories that marked him so deeply 60 years ago. He plans to snap a few photos, reminisce with old comrades and take his leave of the island for the last time.