Iwojima Island still shows war yet to end

COMMENTARY: Iwojima Island still shows war yet to end

IWOJIMA, Japan, Dec. 28 Kyodo


I had thought that World War II ended 61 years ago when I survived a night attack by more than a hundred B-29 bombers on the city of Fukui, but that was until I visited Iwojima Island earlier this month.

Numerous war relics and remains of the war dead still remain on the southern Japanese island, where fierce fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces took place during the closing days of World War II, showing that the war is yet to end.

On Dec. 13, I visited Iwojima as one of a 15-member study tour organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in the wake of the release of two films directed by Clint Eastwood about the island.

After arriving on the island by a Japan Air Self-Defense Force transport aircraft, we were first taken to a display by the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

We found on the floor a rusted iron tube, which turned out to be a tank for inflammable substances used in flamethrowers carried by U.S. soldiers.

”We found this just 10 days before. Plenty of these kinds of relics can be found,” an SDF official said.

In February 1945, after a fierce bombing from sea and air, the U.S. forces of 70,000 landed on the island, facing a force of about 20,000 Japanese, commanded by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The fighting lasted about a month and a half.

The U.S. forces initially expected to occupy the island in five days, but ended up suffering 28,686 casualties, with 6,821 dead, while the Japanese forces suffered 20,933 casualties, with 19,900 dead, according to the National Institute for Defense Studies. The battle was the only case in World War II in which the number of U.S. casualties exceeded that of the Japanese.

During the last period of such a hard battle, it was the flamethrower, which I saw in the tour, that the United States used frequently.

In the battle, U.S. soldiers would aim the flamethrower at each underground position of Japanese forces, blow it up and bury it with a bulldozer — a ”civil engineering-like” strategy which led the United States to win the war.

As a result, still, surprisingly, about 13,600 remains are left uncollected. The retrieval work is held four times every year, but not much progress is seen because it starts from digging up the buried positions.

By the way, silk trees seen on the volcanic island are known to have been grown from seeds scattered from the sky by the U.S. forces after they occupied the island, hoping to erase the smell of the dead.

Talking about the Japanese commander Kuribayashi, he was one of the few Imperial Japanese Army members who knew about the United States well, having stayed in Washington and other places in the United States for two years from 1928.

Did his experience in the United States lead to his calm and collected command of his forces in which he did not allow any ”banzai” suicide attacks until the last moment?

Though the arrival of the U.S. ship ”Kurofune” opened Japan to the world and led to its modernization, the two countries ended up ”at cross-purposes” and war — an irony that reflects the relationship between the United States and Japan after the Meiji era which started from 1868.

At a memorial at the summit of Mt. Suribachi, famous for U.S. troops raising the Stars and Stripes flag in 1945 after the fierce fighting, a group from the National Defense Academy of Japan was receiving training as they looked down on the south coast of the island where the U.S. forces landed.

I felt that we must not allow their generation to experience such ”cross-purposes.”

Leaving the island in the sunset, I pondered on the relationship between Japan and the United States, the country which Japan fought and was defeated by.

Fumio Matsuo: Born in Tokyo in 1933, he was chief of the Washington and Bangkok bureaus of Kyodo News. He is a journalist focusing on the United States.

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