This coming Sunday, March 26, 2023, marks the last day of the Battle of Iwo Jima, fought 78 years ago. The fight for Iwo Jima lasted 36 days, from February 19 to March 26, 1945. Each year at this time, I am mindful of my uncle, Archie H. Starnes, husband of my Aunt Doris Smith, who was one of the U.S. Marines in that fight for Iwo Jima. When I was a kid in grade school here in Sioux Falls, my Uncle Archie gave me some of his U.S. Marine Corps insignia, small treasures shared with me, personal objects given to me by one of the kindest and most honorable men I have ever known.
During World War II, my uncle Archie Starnes of Sioux Falls, South Dakota was a 19 year old U.S. Marine who fought in one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. Corporal Archie Starnes was a squad leader of mud marines, young American men fighting to live, locked in a death struggle against young Japanese men expecting to die. The fight was for the first of the Japanese home islands in a five week battle fought in a place called Sulphur Island — ‘Iwo Jima’ in Japanese.
Corporal Archie Starnes and most of his fellow marines were all wounded in the fight. They patched each other up, took care of each other, and pressed ahead with their treacherously dangerous, inch by inch push into harm’s way. With grenades, satchel charges, flame throwers, superior firepower, and dogged determination, they fought nose to nose with a stubborn and tenacious enemy.
The Japanese soldiers fought fiercely and bravely, with equal determination, from hidden spider holes, pillboxes, blockhouses, and caves. The arena of battle was a very clever, unpredictable, sophisticated tunnel system under the ground beneath their feet. The fighting was simultaneously in front of them, behind them, all around them, day and night, against an enemy they could not see.
Ancient Japanese samurai warriors expected to fight, and often die, in combat, and be honored for their sacrifice. Sometimes they felt the need to atone for a moral error of judgment or a momentary failure of courage, but the moral imperative for automatic suicide as a final display of honor was not a traditional samurai value.
During the Pacific War, the expectation of Japanese soldiers to die for the honor of the emperor was a cynical perversion of Bushido, the ancient samurai code of the warrior, pressed upon them by the military high command in Tokyo to extract the maximum possible sacrifice. Japanese soldiers knew their lives were worth no more than “issen goren” — “one yen, five rin,” — the cost of the draft notification postcard each had received in the mail.
Their commanding officer was Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He knew the Americans well. From 1928 to 1930, he was an exchange officer in the United States. One of his alma maters was Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he repeatedly told his family, “America is the last country in the world Japan should fight.” General Kuribayashi wrote his last letter from Iwo Jima to his wife, Joshii, son Taro, and daughter Takako, telling them plainly, “Do not expect my return.”
More was demanded from Japanese soldiers than from any other soldiers in World War II. Japanese soldiers were expected to fight to the death, with no hope of survival, and every Japanese soldier on Iwo Jima knew the island would be his grave. The self annihilation expected of Japanese soldiers originated in the twisted interpretation of Bushido, the ancient samurai code of the warrior, by the malignant military machine then in power in Japan.
Today, many years after the battle, I imagine myself standing on the summit of the 554 foot extinct volcano called Suribachi that lies on the southernmost tip of the small, eight square mile island of Iwo Jima. From this highest part of the island, I see all around me the endless expanse of rolling Pacific . . . a blue immensity of ocean, sparkling in the bright sunlight, stretching for seemingly endless miles in every direction to the far horizon.
With effort, I lean into the strong, powerful wind that pushes hard against me, as it has for millions of years on Suribachi. In my thoughts, I look up to see the large American flag that once flew on this spot from the fifth day of the battle, February 23, 1945. I see Old Glory snapping and cracking and popping in the forceful torrent of ocean wind, straining to remain attached to the long length of iron pipe that six marines have just pushed into the ground, anchoring it with a pile of large stones at the top of the volcano.
On that day, February 23, 1945, something unusual happened, something amazing was done, by six young marines on Iwo Jima. The eyes of the world . . . in the flash of 1/400th of a second . . . were suddenly focused on those six marines. They have been kept reverently in that special moment ever since. In one specific instant of time, the Speed Graphic camera lens of an Associated Press combat photographer named Joe Rosenthal captured the image of those six marines on the summit of Mount Suribachi as they struggled in the whipping wind to raise the American flag attached to a Japanese iron drainage pipe that weighed more than a hundred pounds. The flag flew there for three weeks before it was eventually shredded by the fierce Pacific wind.
The image of those six marines became unforgettable, immortal. It became the most recognized and perhaps the most reproduced image in the history of photography. The flag raising that day by those six marines on Iwo Jima symbolizes the spirit of devotion and faithfulness of the men and women of the United States Marine Corps, a reflection of their highest ideals of honor . . . “Semper Fidelis” . . . “Always Faithful” . . . remembered by the people of a grateful nation. When John Bodkin, the AP photo editor who developed the negative in his darkroom, saw the image, he said, “Here’s one for all time!”
The six marines of the famous flag raising were young men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. They were Sergeant Michael Strank, 25, born in Jarabina, Czechoslovakia, Corporal Harlon Block, 20, from Yorktown, Texas, PFC Franklin Sousley, 19, from Hill Top, Kentucky, PFC Harold Keller, 20, from Brooklyn, Iowa, PFC Ira Hayes, 22, a Pima Native American from Sacaton, Arizona on the Gila River Indian Reservation, and Corporal Harold Schultz, 19, from Detroit, Michigan. Before the battle was over, three of those six marines (Mike Strank, Harlon Block, and Frank Sousley) were killed and one (Harold Schultz) was wounded in the fight for Iwo Jima.
The day after the battle ended, my uncle, Corporal Archie Starnes of Sioux Falls, South Dakota celebrated his twentieth birthday on Iwo Jima in the company of his mud marines.
On Iwo Jima, American marines killed about 21,000 Japanese soldiers, and lost more than 26,000 marines killed, wounded, and missing. Two out of every three U.S. Marines who fought on Iwo Jima were either killed or wounded in the battle. Iwo Jima was the first battle for the Japanese home islands.
Iwo Jima was the only battle of the Pacific War in which U.S. Marines suffered higher casualties than Japanese soldiers. The dreadful thought of having to fight inch by inch through the Japanese home islands was an impossible nightmare to contemplate, and surely, without a doubt, influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons to end the war as soon as possible.
U.S. Marines fought in the Pacific War for 43 months. In just 36 days on Iwo Jima, one third of all U.S. Marines killed, wounded, or missing in action during all of World War II occurred on Iwo Jima.
After the marine flag raising on Mount Suribachi, a group picture of the 18 marines who were present was taken by Associated Press combat photographer Joe Rosenthal. Of the 18 marines in the picture, 14 of those marines were either killed or wounded before the fight was over.
The Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded by the United States of America, was awarded to 82 U.S. Marines during World War II. Twenty-seven of those 82 Medals of Honor were awarded to U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy Pharmacist Mates (medics) attached to marine infantry units on Iwo Jima, more than any other battle in the history of the United States Marine Corps.
Iwo Jima was an island of heroes. One marine said, “If you got a medal, your citation read that you did something ‘above and beyond the call of duty.’ Well, I saw plenty of heroes on that island, and I figure if you spent just 24 hours there, you were doing something ‘above and beyond’ just to survive.”
“Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue” — Admiral Chester Nimitz
“Some people wonder all their lives if they’ve made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem.” — Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States
“When a man dies, he is not dead. He has merely changed his world instead.” — from Poems by Nancy Wood, in Spirit Walker, Santa Fe, New Mexico