Wednesday, December 15, 2010

They Were Soldiers

It is over 700 miles from Japan and yet is still today considered a part of Tokyo. Surrounded by the deep Pacific Ocean, from the air it looks like a bone-in pork chop with one of the vertebrae still in at the southern end. That round vertebra is Mt. Suribachi, the extinct volcano that came to symbolize the ultimate sacrifice of thousands of men and women during the island hopping campaign of the Second World War. It was only the fourth day of the fighting in February of 1945 that one of the most iconic photographs of all time was taken, capturing a signature moment pride and entirely by accident.

There had already been one flag raising on the island much to the outrage of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned to defend the island and support the airbases there protecting the southern air approaches to Japan. As with all things related to politics and propaganda the first raising was staged and the flag was smaller although certainly no less patriotic. To the men who were there it remains the only raising that really counts.

The second was to raise a larger flag to give to a government bureaucrat observing from the beaches that day so six guys at random were tapped to do the honors. A photographer named Joe Rosenthal who happened to be nearby turned around at the last possible second, saw what was happening and captured the image that almost literally saved the war in the Pacific. By then Americans were grown weary of death and telegrams and war budgets were getting precariously low. Washington brought three of the flag raisers home for a war bond tour - the other three were killed on the island - boosting morale and the national coffers to see the fighting through to the end later that year.

Nine years later the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, more popularly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, was dedicated outside of Washington, D.C. on a hill in Rosslyn, Virginia overlooking capital city. It is a particular favorite place of mine to go and relax, reflect, enjoy the views of the city and consider all things unique to this monument in the annals of American and world history. I simply love being there and took Mom this time as part of a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to pay our respects to Senator Ted Kennedy.

As we walked around the memorial several busloads of tourists arrived shortly after we did. These were not just any tourists. These were actual veterans of World War II, some from the Pacific Theater, and all participating in Honor Flight. This volunteer network is across the country and serves to honor and serve those who served our nation by taking them on tours to the capital to see how their efforts have been acknowledged through the various artworks around the city. Some in their nineties, some in wheelchairs, one guy from Tennessee as chatty as you please and all quite happy to be out and about on a glorious day in D.C. Mom made sure to thank as many as she could personally before they loaded up on the bus and we headed over to see Teddy. He's on the left in the picture below, Bobby on the right.

The country and the world have come a long way from that brutal and blustery day in 1945. For me it is always good to remember and for the veterans who just happened to be there it simply became priceless. No longer merely statues, names etched in marble or photos from other events; each and every one of them for the first time in my life were alive that day. They were soldiers.

Gotta go.

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