main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Once Enemies, Now Friends

70th Anniversary of Iwo Jima Brings Survivors Back to the Island

The Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II absorbed tens of thousands of lives. Nearly 7,000 Americans and 22,000 Japanese died in the 36 days of fighting. Although the island currently has no permanent residents, the remains of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers still inhabit the Island.

Seventy years later, war stories are traded, battle sites are visited, and men who once tried their hardest to kill each other, stand united.

Marine Lt. Gen. (Ret) Lawrence Snowden, the founder of the Joint Reunion of Honor, spoke during the 20th annual Joint Reunion of Honor event at Iwo Jima.

"We are former enemies, and now we're friends," said Lt. Gen. Snowden, who led the company of 230 Marines who landed on the island Feb. 19, 1945. "The transition from being enemies to being friends has taken time for some, but the widow of Lt. Gen (Tadamichi) Kuribayashi, who manned the forces here when we landed, expressed it very succinctly for us in 1995 ... she said, 'Former enemies, now friends and together we must not let the cycle of warfare happen again.'"

Those who visit the island are only allowed to do so for one day - between sunup and sundown - and Snowden makes sure to remind the American contingent that it is not a victory tour, but a way to honor the dead from both sides.

"Just recently Gen. Snowden read an article out of my book, which is very significant about what I'm going to do when I go to Iwo Jima ... I am going to make an attempt to honor the Japanese and shake their hand," said former PFC James Skinner, a Purple Heart vet who served from 1942-1945. "Up till then, till he read that article in my book, I was very upset about even attempting to do anything like that."

The reunion has become an alliance-building event, although Snowden admits it took time and a major attitude change to get where he is today. That change came during the Korean War in 1953 when Snowden was sent to Japan for meetings. At the time the Japanese were helping the Americans win against Korea.

"During (WWII), they (the Japanese) didn't want to be there any more than we did," said Snowden. "They were just like I was."

The reunions have become important to the families on both sides whose family members were killed and whose remains are still on the island.

"When we walked off the island, 99 of us remained," said Snowden, who retired from the Marines as a lieutenant general in 1979. "That's a pretty high casualty rate."
Navy Photo

"I came in 2010 for the 65th anniversary but this ... may be the last time that I'll be on Iwo Jima," said Former Marine Capt. Jerry Yellin, one of 16 million who served their nation during WWII. "It's a long trip. I'm 91 years old - I don't know how much time I have left, but it's a day of memories for me, great memories and sad memories. In 1988, my youngest son married the daughter of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, which took me from hatred to love of family. I have three Japanese grandchildren. I'd like their contemporaries to know that my grandchildren's grandparents served their countries with honor; no matter what we learned about the Japanese or what they learned about us - that war is an atrocity - evil has to be wiped out. We are all human beings. Exactly the same, and there is evil in the world today and we have to fight that evil to make sure that there is freedom for free loving people in our world."

U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has hailed the relationship the nations now share.

"Rising from the inferno of Iwo Jima, our partnership developed in the wake of war and has grown ever stronger in the years since," he said. "Today, the United States and Japan are interdependent cooperating on everything from international security to free trade. We depend on one another so that each nation may live in peace and prosperity."

See how one image impacted a nation.
Navy Photo