“The raising of that flag on Suribachi means there will be a Marine Corps for the next 500,” quipped Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal after seeing the now iconic photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman planting the Stars and Stripes on the mountain that towered above the island battleground of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Only three of those who raised the flag survived the battle, which continued for another 30 days and took the lives of more than 28,000 American invaders and Japanese defenders. Seventy years after that brutal and bloody fight, four survivors of the battle – three from the United States and one from Japan – returned to the island to honor their fallen comrades and to participate in a ceremony of peace, Filmmaker Arnold Shapiro caught their return on camera and combined that with interviews and combat footage to produce a moving special for PBS. Fittingly, Iwo Jima: From Combat to Comrades debuts on November 10, the evening before Veterans Day.
Lt. Gen. Larry Snowden is one of the three American veterans featured in the film. Twenty years ago the retired Marine founded an organization to honor those who fought with and against him on that Pacific island in February and March 1945. He has made every one of the Reunion of Honor foundation’s annual ceremonies on Iwo Jima, but admits that, at 94, this was likely his last visit to the island, where he was wounded twice during the 36 days of fighting. Hershel “Woody” Williams is another of the American veterans who made the trip on the 70th anniversary of the battle. Williams was one of 27 men to win the Congressional Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima, and the last of those still alive. The third American, Jerry Yellin, was an Army Air Corps pilot who flew a P-51 fighter out of Iwo Jima after the Marines had secured the landing strip below Mt. Suribachi. Yellin has written four books about his war-time experience, and about how after decades of suffering from post-traumatic stress he finally made and found peace, largely thanks to his daughter-in-law, the child of a Japanese kamikaze pilot.
American audiences have seen and heard the stories of their men who fought at Iwo Jima, most recently in Clint Eastwood’s film, Flags of Our Fathers. Actor Ryan Phillipe, who played the Navy corpsman John “Doc” Bradley who helped raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi in Eastwood’s movie narrates the PBS special. Both of his grandfathers served in the war. Phillipe walks the audience through the history and horror of the battle as combat footage, much of it in color, depicts what Executive Producer Shapiro describes as the “hell and hatred that was the battle of Iwo Jima.”
Shapiro’s film, however, is not just or even primarily about the battle. It is more about the aftermath, especially how veterans like Snowden, Williams and Yellin helped reach across the Pacific to their former enemies to make peace. One of those former adversaries, Tsuriji Akikusa, is the fourth veteran featured in the film. As Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, entitled Letters from Iwo Jima, which told the story of the battle from the Japanese side, so graphically showed, very few of the defenders survived the battle. Most fought to the bitter end, were killed in desperate Banzai charges, or committed suicide rather than surrender. Akikusa was wounded and left for dead by his comrades, but was rescued by an American soldier or Marine, he doesn’t know which, for he never again saw the man who saved him, and doesn’t know if his rescuer survived the battle.
Iwo Jima: From Combat to Comrades is a moving tale not just of war but also of peace. It shows how men who were once deadly enemies have grown beyond the hatred of battleground foes to help bring peace to their families, their comrades, their countries and to themselves, It is a fitting Veterans Day tribute to all of those who fought in that battle, and in that and so many other wars.
Iwo Jima: From Combat to Comrades debuts on most PBS stations on Tuesday, November 10 at 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central.