David Greene was 20 when he landed on Red Beach in the shadow of the island's Mt. Suribachi.
The Waterloo, Iowa, resident traveled to the island with 11 other survivors of the American attack on Wednesday to help both the Japanese and American governments to mark yet another anniversary of the battle.
9NEWS reporter Dave Delozier and I were with them as they made their return.
There is so much to say about what we saw. I watched as Colorado resident Joseph Lanier pointed out the location where he lived in a foxhole for nearly two months. The Navy "Seabee" and African American was 19 when he served on Iwo.
I spent a few moments with Coloradan Jack Thurman as he walked to the location where the infamous second flag was raised on top of Suribachi. Thuman wasn't in Rosenthal's Pulitzer-winning photograph, but he was in the picture taken just a few moments later. The so-called "Gung-Ho" photograph shows him standing on the left side holding up his helmet.
The island still smells of sulfur. The beaches are still black, but most of the veterans told us the island is remarkably different from the one they conquered in March of 1945.
For one, there's a lot of vegetation.
That's what the veterans noticed right away. Back in '45, they will tell you, there was nowhere to hide. It was a hideous place.
Mt. Suribachi, for one, is covered in vegetation. The road to the top, however, has a number of large cracks in it. Some recent earthquakes, I suspect, are to blame.
Delozier and I will spend the next few weeks logging, writing and editing all of the video we've shot over the last few weeks. Sometime in May, we will air a special on this visit to Iwo.
I suspect we'll concentrate on something one of the Iwo survivors told us.
Why would you ever think about going back to a place that took so much not only from this country but from you yourself? It was a question I found myself asking a lot of the veterans.
"I'm going back for the people who couldn't come back," he told us. He paused for a moment, and then he started rattling off first names.
These were once close friends of his. So many died on the very first day of the attack. What was once presumed to be a weeklong battle at the most, turned into 36 days of the kind of hell no one should ever have to endure.
And yet, somehow, they endured.
3/12/12 - It's a little after 3 a.m. in Guam as I write this. In a few hours we'll be on a plane over the skies of Iwo Jima.
Once a year, the Japanese government allows a non-military American plane to land on the 8-square-mile hunk of volcanic rock and sand. This year there will be a dozen men on that plane that are here with the support of the Denver-based Greatest Generations Foundation.
I can't tell you how fortunate I feel to be with them. Four of them are from Colorado. All of them have the kind of stories that remind you why it's a darn good thing video cameras were invented in the first place.
This is going to be an emotional day, I have no doubt. Each one of them will arrive on that island with the images of a particular buddy in mind.
Joseph Lanier tells me he thinks he'll be able to identify the place where he hunkered down in a foxhole for weeks.
I've read a lot about what this battle meant for this country. This week I am gaining an intense appreciation of what that battle meant for men who were teenagers back then. Never before had this country fought a battle quite like Iwo Jima.
Hopefully this country will never have to fight one quite like it ever again.
Wish us luck. I hear it's going to be hot.
- Why would you ever want to go back? It's a question the dozen men traveling with us have heard over and over again during the last few weeks.Why would you ever want to go back to Iwo Jima?
I confess, I asked Jack Thurman that very question shortly after I met him while waiting for our flight inside Denver International Airport.
He looked at me right in my eyes, told me a little more about his past, and then proceeded to tell me about the men who never got the chance to "go back."
That's why he's here, he told me.
Fifteen hours inside a trio of planes later, we're now in Guam. In a few hours we'll meet with the island's Governor. On Wednesday, we'll hop on yet another plane, make our way north, and land on an island that is only accessible to people like me once a year.
Jack Thurman is here with eleven other survivors of Iwo. They're all incredibly modest. They're the kind of people who shy away from the word "hero."
In a day when the use of that word has become so tiresome, I find their humility incredibly refreshing. In my mind, true heroes are the kind of people who don't need to be called heroes.
I spent a good chunk of the last 48 hours reading as much as I could about the battle of Iwo Jima. How did they do it? How did they keep their sanity? How does one reconcile himself with the fact that survival had so much to do with nothing more than good fortune?
It's impossible for me to not think back to 1992. That's the year I graduated from high school. I was 18 and ready for the independence of college.
That year I traveled all of 45 minutes to get to my destination. CU-Boulder was where I spent the majority of my time between the ages of 18 and 22. It was fun.
In 1945, thousands of 18-year-old men found themselves fighting on a speck of an island in the Pacific. Jack Thurman was there with them. His stories will remind you that you had it pretty darn good.
I can't help but think what would have happened to me had I been asked to climb the black, sandy beaches of Iwo in February of 1945. I don't think I would have had the strength to continue on.
Yet somehow people like Thurman did it. They climbed and they fought and eventually they won. And now, 67 years later, a dozen of them are coming back to Iwo Jima.
I confess, I still don't fully understand it, but I suspect a few more conversations with Thuman will remind me why he's decided to come back.
Far too many friends, far too many brothers never got that chance. He's here to honor them. Hopefully, when we're all done with this, I'll get the chance to help honor them as well.
(9News reporter's Chris Vanderveen and Dave Delozier are traveling with the Denver-based Greatest Generations Foundation on the 67th anniversary of the battle on Iwo Jima.)
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