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Posted: February 27, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Harwell: The few, the proud

Every once in a blue moon a television commercial will appear which actually causes me to stop and pay attention. One which does so features United States Marines in dress uniform, executing a rifle drill. As the recruiting message is heard, the line of Marines is shown extending through treasured, prominent American landmarks, from sea to shining sea. The commercial ends as the picture goes to black, with only the loud clack of rifles being handled continuing, thus signifying eternal vigilance by this proud Corps.

The commercial elicits powerful emotion within me these days, more so than it would normally, for I’m aware that 66 years ago the United States Marine Corps was engaged in the deadliest World War II encounter of the Pacific Theater on the tiny island of Iwo Jima.

From February 19 through what was officially termed the end of the encounter, March 26, 1945, Marines paid for a crucial piece of real estate with their blood. Iwo Jima was considered a "home island" by the Japanese; they had sworn to make America pay dearly for it.

The Marines made that payment, in full.

Iwo Jima remains the only Marine battle wherein American casualties exceeded those of the enemy. Some 70,000 Marines went ashore to wrest that volcanic rock from a little more than 18,000 Japanese. Nearly 7,000 Marines died, and over 19,000 were wounded. They took but 216 Japanese prisoners when all was said and done.

Two United States Navy task groups supported the invasion. Iwo Jima was shelled and bombed with more heavy ordinance prior to the landings than had ever been expended before, and Marines walked ashore unmolested. Initially it appeared that the battle for Iwo was over before it had even begun.

But the illusion was all part of a meticulous and fanatical defensive scheme put together by the Japanese. The island’s fortifications were dug out of solid volcanic rock, linked by 11 miles of underground tunnels anchored to the 545-foot Mount Suribachi.

After the Marines were ashore, bogged down in layer upon layer of loose volcanic ash, Japanese defenders who had been ordered to kill at least 10 Americans each popped out of hidden pillboxes and bunkers. The battle was ferocious. Advancement was measured in inches, and ground which was taken had to be retaken as Japanese defenders used the tunnel network to revive previously conquered fortifications.

Any words I might feebly offer to describe the bravery, the dedication, the sacrifice made by Marines on Iwo Jima would simply not do justice to what these men did.

For that, you need to see the famous picture taken by Joe Rosenthal, the only photograph to win a Pulitzer prize the same year in which it was taken, showing the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi by five Marines and a Navy corpsmen.

The photo captured the essence of America’s will to, in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "...win through in their righteous might."

The Medal of Honor constitutes our nation’s highest award for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the call of duty. A third of those medals awarded to Marines in World War II were given for service on Iwo Jima.

This week, and in the month which follows, I hope you’ll be mindful of the price which was paid for freedom by Marines who met the terrible swift sword on Iwo Jima.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of America’s Pacific Fleet, said it best: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue on Iwo."

The Army has the Rangers and Special Forces, and the Navy has the Seals. The Air Force rules the air and our Coast Guard patrols our nation’s sea boundaries. The men and women who comprise those vital and proud organizations have my abiding respect and admiration.

But when I fall asleep at night, secure in a free nation, every once in a while I think I hear the sound of rifles clacking in the distance. They’re being handled by the few, the proud, the Marines.

Ooh Rah! Semper Fi!

 

Nat Harwell is a Covington resident. His column apears Sundays.

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