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Raising Two Flags

At the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, two former enemies met in peace on Iwo Jima.

By Maura Sullivan
Spring 2005

The island of Iwo Jima, nestled in the Western Pacific and back in the hands of Japan, rarely sees an American visitor. I am one of the lucky few to have visited this sacred place.

As an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. John F. Goodman, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, I had the good fortune to be invited to the 59th anniversary commemoration of the landing at Iwo Jima. The activities in March 2004 included a U.S. Marine Corps re-enlistment ceremony atop Mount Suribachi, a tour of the east side of the island and a ceremony with both U.S. and Japanese Iwo Jima veterans at the Reunion of Honor Memorial.

Iwo Jima was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II — permanently etched in the history books by Joseph Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi and then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal’s proclamation that the “flag raising on Iwo Jima means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” Six thousand Marines died and another 21,000 were wounded before capturing the island. Of the estimated 22,000 Japanese military defenders, only 1,000 were captured. The remaining 21,000 fought to their deaths. Twenty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to U.S. Marines, accounting for more than a quarter of all such medals awarded to Marines in World War II.

Prior to the ceremonies, two fellow Marine officers and I walked down to the beach to collect a few handfuls of the infamous black sand, treasured by Marines young and old. Those who possess some of this sand often give it to a fellow Marine as a gift at a significant career milestone, such as a promotion or re-enlistment, for Iwo Jima is “sacred ground” to the Marine Corps.

maura sullivan at mount suribachi on iwo jima

Maura Sullivan at the historic marker of the flag raising atop Mount Suribachi

After collecting the sand we started back up the beach, which is quite wide — about 300 meters from the water’s edge to the road. And, as the history books will tell you, the beach is an uphill trek from the water to the middle of the island. The black sand was loose and our boots sank in about a foot with each step. By the time we neared the road, each of us could hear the breathing of the others — three physically fit, well-rested, well-fed Marines walking up a beach carrying no more than 10 pounds of gear each. We were in stark contrast to the Marines who trudged up this beach 59 years ago under heavy fire.

Four of us — a corporal who was driving, my captain, the general and I — ascended Mount Suribachi in a tactical Humvee. No one spoke during the 10-minute ascent, yet we knew exactly what the others were thinking. We felt the steep grade in the road and noted the cliff-like drop to our left. This same path we drove, our predecessors had fought and died for inch by inch.

The view from Suribachi is breathtaking. The sky was blue that day, and the water crystal as it crashed against the deep black sand. Twenty Marines stationed in Okinawa, Japan, re-enlisted under Gen. William L. Nyland, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Overlooking the sight of the famous battle, each raised his or her right hand and promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, "so help me God." For a Marine, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The following Reunion of Honor ceremony, which brought U.S. and Japanese Iwo Jima veterans together, was unlike anything I’d ever seen — two former enemies reunited that day in peace. Both the U.S. and Japanese veterans took turns laying wreaths on the monument dedicated to the battle. The Japanese went first, and when the U.S. veterans followed, the display of emotion was profound. They started to lay the wreath, then pulled back a little. One veteran clutched the arm of the other, as if to provide some sort of mutual consolation. It seemed like they were burying their buddies all over again. The same veteran started to set the wreath down but pulled it back toward his heart, his hands and lips trembling, shaking with raw human emotion. He didn’t want to let go.

There was a color guard made up of four military members — two Japanese and two American. One of each was dressed in the uniforms of 1945, while the other two were dressed in the uniforms of today. The two center officers held their country’s respective flags high in the sky. Today those two flags are hoisted far above the ground in front of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing’s headquarters in Okinawa, and I drive by them every morning on my way to work. It was during the ceremony that I realized I had taken for granted the peaceful co-existence of those flags. I thought of where I was standing, and how it was by the grace of God and the sacrifices of thousands that those flags were standing side by side in peace on soil that was watered by the blood of our forefathers.

Next came the gun salute — the crack of the M-16s faded into a minute of peaceful silence — save for the whistle of a slight breeze and the sound of the waves caressing the shore as the sun shone warmly on my face.

My most lingering thought was of my grandparents. Both of my grandfathers had fought in World War II, and both of my grandmothers bore them sons in their absence, clinging faithfully to one letter a month and the hope that they would some day see their beloveds again. My grandparents certainly would never take for granted the color guard that stood before them. I vowed not to either.

My thoughts then turned to what my generation could never take for granted — the Pearl Harbor of today — 9/11 and the war on terror and its aftermath. Suddenly I could empathize a little more. And then, as I stood and observed the color guard, my thoughts turned to my own future granddaughter — that maybe someday she will be able to stand in the Wake, Midway, Tarawa and Iwo Jima of today — that of Kabul, An Nasiriyah, Ramadi and Al Fallujah. And maybe she’ll be able to stand there in that same minute of silence for the present peace, in remembrance of the heroes who fell to make it possible, and hear none of the improvised explosive devices, mortars and car bombings of today. No, the only sound she’ll hear will be the whistle of the breeze as it blows sand against her skin while the same sun warms the side of her face. And maybe she will be able to take for granted the peaceful co-existence of nations, religions and ethnicities but yet remember those who gave of themselves to bring it about.

Maura Sullivan ’01 of Portsmouth, N.H., is a senior fellow at New Politics, where she mentors military veterans running for office. Northwestern Magazine first published her essay on the 2004 commemoration of the U.S. landing at Iwo Jima in the spring 2005 issue. Sullivan served for more than five years in the U.S. Marine Corps; in Fallujah, Iraq, with Combat Logistics Battalion 8, and spent two years stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in support of joint military exercises throughout Southeast Asia. In 2014 she was appointed by President Barack Obama ’06 H as an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she helped ensure that more than 9 million veterans had better access to quality health care.

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