From this most unlikely spot I am inspired to write you for reasons I can’t fully explain. Certainly you have received no other letters from here I would wager, and you may find this interesting. It’s the middle of the night—cold, windy, uncomfortable & profoundly moving. I’m looking down on a tiny island three miles wide and five miles long. Down there, and here where I’m writing by flashlight, over 7,000 Marines died. The mountain is Suribachi, the island, Iwo Jima. Of the hundreds of thousands of words written about this place, nothing comes close to describing its starkness, its inestimable cost and now, sadly, the poverty of its abandonment.
The entire island is a shrine, mostly Japanese, but a few American—only a few. Americans don’t seem to care about such things when, as is the case here, it’s inconvenient. And yet this island, its name and most especially this very spot where I sit—where the flag was raised—are immortalized in our national consciousness for as long as there is an America.
The debris and detritus of war remain even after nearly 43 years. Rusty vehicle hulks, wrecked boats, sunken ships, canteens, mess kits, thousands of rounds of corroded ammunition, blockhouses, pillboxes, trenches, abandoned airfields, large naval shore guns, artillery, etc. And beneath my feet remains of 22,000 Japanese defenders, brave men who died at their posts; hated then, respected now.
Rupert Brooke said it perfectly: “Here, in some small corner of a forgotten field, will be forever England.” And this brutally stinking sulfuric rock, depressing to see, demoralizing as it has lost its once vital importance and our nation’s once great concern, will be forever America. It will be forever in the memory of those 75,000 Marines who fought here, the 25,000 who suffered wounds here and the 7,000 who gave their blood and lives to its black soil. Again Rupert Brooke: “In that rich earth, a richer dust concealed.” Their hopes, their happiness, their dreams ended here. And if we fail to honor them in our memory and our prayers, we should be damned to hell for such a failure.
I brought a small team here to survey the island for future exercise use. The Japanese would prefer we did not exercise here, but that will be over my dead body. I find it hard to believe (and impossible to accept) that our government gave the island back to them. It’s as if we gave them Gettysburg or Arlington National Cemetery. Americans died in such numbers here that in 9-1/2 months, had the battle lasted that long, it would have equaled our losses of 10 years in Vietnam.
The Marine Corps must never lose its right to exercise here and I’m damned proud of having something to do with assuring that it will be so.
Colonel Ripley served for 35 years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is Director, Marine Corps History and Museums.