Kadena airmen visit Iwo To
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- A clump of damp sand is gripped in the hands of an Airman on the coast of Iwo To island. He places it into a Ziploc bag for safekeeping. It will forever be a reminder of a historic battle fought on these grounds, once known as Iwo Jima.
About a dozen others are doing the same. They are Airmen from Kadena Air Base, Japan, and they scaled to the top of Mount Suribachi on Jan. 8, 2015, to relive a piece of history and share a team-building experience that will have a lasting impact.
The group's journey began before sunrise at the Kadena Air Base passenger terminal. Thirty-three Airmen boarded a KC-135R Stratotanker bound for Iwo To on a training mission.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," said Col. Paul Johnson, 18th Operations Group commander. "Not only is it very restrictive on who can visit, but there are a lot of logistics on our end to make it happen. More importantly, this event helped define America in so many ways. It helped define our strength in the world at that time; our tenacity in accomplishing the mission; and it provided so much pride and a sense of purpose for the American public at home."
As they began their march toward Mount Suribachi, scattered remains from the historic battle surrounded the group of Airmen. The hikers encountered abandoned Japanese bunkers, rusted weaponry and memorials every few minutes.
While the hike placed a high-physical demand on its venturers, it was marginal in comparison to the efforts of the U.S. Marines who stormed the island nearly 70 years ago. 30,000 Marines fought their way through the island facing cleverly concealed enemy weapons.
Hardships for the Japanese troops were even worse. They endured a low supply of food, water, reinforcements and weaponry.
The battle of Iwo Jima was the most violent battle in U.S. Marine Corps history, having a death toll of more than 6,800 U.S. troops during the 36-day assault. More than 26,000 others suffered casualties. Viewing the aftermath in person helped the Airmen to imagine the struggles undergone by World War II veterans.
"I hope they take away the sheer violence and despair that characterized the battle," said Johnson, "and from that, I hope they circle it back to their own resiliency. In some way, if they're able to compare it to their life, their daily routine, their ups/downs, they might be able to put things in context and realize that things could be a lot worse."
The tour moved at a quick pace, having only enough time to stop for short breaks. Every stop entailed a history lesson from either Johnson or Stephen Ove, 18th Wing historian. Each location provided the Airmen an opportunity to reflect on the past and evoked a multitude of feelings, unique from person-to-person.
"It can be quite emotional," said Ove, "The military is increasingly a family affair, meaning that many members who serve today followed generations before them. At every Battle of Okinawa or Iwo Jima briefing I give, I always meet at least one Airman whose father, grandfather or uncle served in those places."
As the trek neared completion, the tour guides pulled out a bag of colored glow-sticks and led the group through an underground tunnel. The Japanese troops burrowed more than seven miles of networked tunnels throughout the island. They used them as a place for shelter from the invading Americans.
As the Airmen crawled deeper into the labyrinth-like tunnel, the temperature climbed due to the island's natural volcanic activity.
While the trip was full of jaw-dropping experiences that sparked fascinations throughout the day, the intent was to make a lasting impression and expand the perspectives of the Airmen.
"I believe that understanding the extreme sacrifice of combatants-and the violence they endured-makes quiet, windswept Iwo Jima an ideal place for reflection," said Ove. "I think it energizes everyone who goes there. I contend that the kind of professional military education we accomplish in the field at Iwo Jima encourages our service members to think critically, act honorably and strive endlessly to do their own small part in service to our nation."
Most service members have only heard stories or cinematic depictions of the battle of Iwo Jima. By familiarizing themselves with history a deep level and actually seeing the war remains, Ove hopes that the Airmen can apply the same wisdom toward current events.
"For the members of the 18th Wing, we discuss the role of Airpower in giving rise to the conflict on Iwo Jima and ultimately bringing about the end of World War II--the largest conflict in human history. From the need for accurate intelligence to correctly gauging your enemy's resolve, military history is full of lessons today's leaders need, and there is always more to learn if we remain willing and able to look."
Many of the Airmen visitors will not have the opportunity to see the island again. Still, they brought home a small clump of sand that is denser than ordinary dirt. It contains memories, of their day trip to Iwo To and of the lives sacrificed on Iwo Jima.