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Iwo Jima is more than an iconic photograph

Survivors gather to mark 75th anniversary, as journalists look to tell their stories with increasing urgency

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.” (Joe Rosenthal/AP)

When U.S. Marines landed on the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February 1945, some had never heard of it. 

“Most of us couldn’t figure out why we were attacking that wee little place, and why we needed so many Marines to do it,” says one veteran in a new Fox News documentary.

What followed — five weeks of combat, as 70,000 Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers fought for control of the strategic location — became a turning point in World War II’s Pacific theater. 

Survivors of that historic battle will gather in the D.C. area starting Wednesday to mark its 75th anniversary, as journalists look to tell their stories with increasing urgency. 

The four-day event in Arlington, Virginia, is hosted by the nonprofit Iwo Jima Association of America, which also organizes an annual reunion tour of the island billed as a “bucket list” trip.

Among the guests speaking at the symposium this week will be Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, who interviewed several survivors in their 90s for the network’s hour-long documentary.

“There was an odor of death on the island,” one told her. More than 500 Americans died in the first 24 hours of combat, and by the end of the battle, few Japanese soldiers were left alive. 

The project is tied to MacCallum’s newly released book, “Unknown Valor,” which follows Marines, including MacCallum’s own uncle Harry Gray, from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.

For MacCallum and other journalists marking the anniversary, the challenge is to put a detailed human face to a battle that has come to be defined by a single stark photograph. That photograph, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press, inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.

A renovation of the memorial was completed in time for the battle’s anniversary, with the statue cleaned and parts of it regilded. MacCallum’s project is another kind of renovation, framed as a highly personal quest to know the grisly realities of a fight that claimed the lives of about 7,000 Marines, including her uncle.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to honor more than 50 veterans of Iwo Jima, who will join the Iwo Jima Association of America’s Symposium and Gala,” said MacCallum in a statement. “These men turned the tide of the battle in the Pacific. They paved the way for over 2400 B-29s to land safely on the airstrips of Iwo Jima and ultimately bring the war to an end. We thank them and their lost brothers of Iwo, for their enormous valor and sacrifices.”

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