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On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Thurman, a member of the 5th Marine Division, 27th Regiment, landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima with tens of thousands of other Americans. Iwo Jima is a small volcanic island, but it stood as one of the final lines of defense for the Japanese empire. It was strategically important because warning systems on the island and Japanese planes positioned there threatened U.S. B-29s as they flew toward the Japanese mainland.

The U.S. Navy had been bombing the island for weeks in advance of the beach landing, but it had little impact on the Japanese who were below ground on the island in caves and tunnels. When Thurman and the Marines landed on the beaches beneath Mount Suribachi, the Japanese emerged and rained death onto the shores.

Thurman was carried to Iwo Jima in a steel amtrac landing vehicle.

"Then the gate, the door opens up and the first thing I saw right straight in front of me was funnels of water where the Japenese artillery was riping the ocean apart," Thurman said. "We had a lot of hell that broke loose around that area. The whole island was hell."

He made to to shore. Many Marines did not as they were killed by artillery and a hail of bullets. At least 70,000 Americans landed on the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima - 6,812 died there and more than 19,000 were wounded.

"Terrible blood stains everywhere and I thought to myself, 'Those blood stains are Marine blood stains because the Japanese were not here like we were.' We had to expose ourselves to get through that island," Thurman said, referring to caves and tunnels that provided cover to the Japanese.

It wasn't until March 26 that the fighting ended on Iwo Jima. In the end, the Japanese paid a heavy price to defend the island - 21,844 Japanese died on the island. Only 216 Japanese soldiers surrendered.

While the fighting was the among the most fierce recorded during World War II, on the morning of Feb. 23, there was a moment that helped define this war and this generation. High on Mount Suribachi five U.S. Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised the stars and stripes. The moment was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and the image would soon be on the front page of most every newspaper in the United States.

For all of the troops on the island at the time it was a glorious moment. Thurman had a better view than most to this moment in history. He was assigned to provide cover to the flag raisers on Mount Suribachi from sniper fire.

"I choked. When I turned to look over my shoulder, I was in the firing position on the front line and I looked up and, like I say, I saw the flag going up and when the flag was going up we all choked. We really did," Thurman said.

While the flag raising photo received world wide attention, Joe Rosenthal also took another photo. That photo included all of the flag raisers and the men who provided cover from sniper fire. Included in the photo, on the far left side with his helmet raised in celebration is a 19-year-old Thurman.

"To see the flag going up and it was a thrill I'll never forget," Thurman said.

Thurman and eleven other World War II veterans had the opportunity to return to Iwo Jima on the 67th anniversary of the island battle. They traveled there with the Greatest Generations Foundation, an organization commited to giving veterans the opportunity to return to their battle fields and preserving their history.

In partnership with The Greatest Generations Foundation, 9NEWS reporters Chris Vanderveen and Dave Delozier bring us the stories of the survivors of Iwo Jima. For more information on supporting The Greatest Generations Foundation, or learning more about our programs please visit www.tggf.org or, call 303.331.1944

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