Battleground revisited

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am

The slivers of metal catch the sunlight and move slightly in the breeze. Carter, L, Cpl has left one behind, hanging on its chain over the peeling white monument. So too have Chavez, K, Sgt, and Harmer, G, Pfc. Each of the dogtags may have a different name, rank and number, but all are punched with the letters USMC.

To the men of the US Marine Corps, this place is the holy of holies. Hundreds of marines have left their unique calling cards draped over a memorial that is at the peak of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima and marks the spot where their predecessors in the corps raised the Stars and Stripes on February 23, 1945, a moment captured most famously by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

The 169-metre peak dominates the island and, most importantly for the Japanese defenders of 61 years ago, the invasion beach where more than 71,000 US troops came ashore.

The US commanders expected Japanese resistance to end within four days. Instead, it took the marines almost four weeks - and 28,000 casualties, including 6,821 dead - before the fanatical defenders were overcome.

Of the 21,000 Japanese fighters, only 1,023 were taken alive.

However, after the second world war, Iwo Jima returned to being an unimportant volcanic rock in the Pacific, 1,250km from Tokyo and on the way to nowhere.

Former residents did not return because of the unexploded ordinance still littering the battlefield and the only presence was the military of Japan and the US, as well as occasional parties of returning veterans.

And because the victor in the Pacific theatre had primarily been America, the history of what happened on Iwo Jima was told from the American side.

Until the man synonymous with the spaghetti western decided he wanted to retell the tale.

Initially, Clint Eastwood only planned to make one movie, based on the best-selling book Flags of Our Fathers which was written by James Bradley and told the story of his father, John, and five other US soldiers who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi.

But once on the island, Eastwood realised that he would only be telling half of the story.

'It's not about winning or losing, but mostly about the interrupted lives of young people, and losing their lives before their prime,' the director said at a Tokyo press conference announcing the project.

'These men deserve to be seen and heard from. Those soldiers deserve a certain amount of respect.'

With the blessing of Japanese veterans' groups, who consider the 12 sq km island to be sacred ground because the bodies of many of their comrades could never be recovered, Eastwood cast Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha) as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and set about filming Letters from Iwo Jima as the companion piece to Flags.

'It was a very moving experience, to walk around Iwo Jima,' Eastwood said, adding that he wanted the movies to be tributes to the thousands who did battle in what one US veteran recalls as a 'sulphurous, crater-filled hellhole'.

Released in the US this week, Letters has surpassed expectations - and Flags two months after that film was first screened - by being selected as the best movie of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association. It has also been ranked in the top 10 titles of the year by the American Film Institute and, with the Oscars approaching on February 25, there are growing expectations that the industry is going to reward Eastwood for a movie that is all in Japanese.

Released in Japan earlier this month, it took more than US$935,000 on its opening day and is eventually expected to earn some US$23.4 million.

Whatever Hollywood thinks of the movie, Iwo Jima remains a sulphurous, crater-filled island where many places remain off-limits because of the debris of war. In a small museum close to the Maritime Self-Defence Force's runway, a rusted Japanese machine-gun stands on its tripod beside the skeleton of a flame-thrower's rig that was only found in the low jungle that covers much of the island earlier this month. A helmet with entry and exit holes is beside a warped record, scorched documents, china bowls and corroded bayonets and bugles.

Beyond the perimeter of the air base, much of the rest of the island is similarly a museum. The northeast of the tear-shaped island was where the remnants of the Imperial Japanese Army made their last stand, fighting from well-concealed bunkers that resisted artillery and naval bombardment and required the American troops to take them one by one.

Tenzan Cave was the final foothold for organised Japanese resistance and the complex incorporated two large-calibre naval guns. A few hundred metres to the north - a distance traversed in minutes today but in days and at huge cost 60 years ago - is the Japanese navy's underground headquarters and the Imuka-gou hospital cave.

The entrance to the cave is overgrown and a clutch of bottles of offerings of sake and water stand inside the mouth. Ceramic bowls, canisters and fragments of glass and metal stand against one wall. Holes drilled into the ceiling to let in air are choked with undergrowth. It extends a mere 50 metres into the ground, but the temperature rises steadily due to the superheated gases beneath our feet.

The cave was only opened in 1984; it contained the mummified remains of 54 Japanese service personnel.

Past a monument to the 82 residents of the island who died fighting alongside the military during the invasion are the remains of half-a-dozen reinforced concrete ships that were towed to the island to be sunk off Chidoriga Beach and provide an artificial breakwater. Inland, the nose of a crashed Japanese bomber has been encased in concrete and served as a strongpoint for a machine gunner.

But it is Suribachi that will forever be the symbol of this particular battle. At its base is a 14cm artillery piece in the remains of a bunker, one of dozens that protected the strategic key to the island and had to be overcome by the marines as they inched up the mountain.

The mountain was riddled with 20km of underground tunnels with 1,500 well-concealed firing points. The Japanese plan was not to fire on the American forces as they came ashore but to wait for them to lay completely exposed on the beach below and to the east.

Grainy television images show the first marines jogging ashore unopposed and officers indicating with flags the route for open-topped Jeeps. Precisely one hour after the landing began, the Japanese defenders opened fire from positions that the American commanders assumed had been destroyed in the preliminary three-day barrage.

Gunfire raked the exposed beaches and 2,420 marines never even got off the grey volcanic sand.

The story of the raising of the flag on the top of Suribachi is a legend within the Marine Corps. The shot that Rosenthal took was later turned into the monument to the regiment in Washington, DC, even though it was not the first flag to go up that morning. The previous Stars and Stripes was considered too small, so a party of five marines and a navy corpsman were dispatched to replace it. As it caught the breeze, troops still on the beach cheered and warships off the coast sounded their klaxons.

It had taken four days to get the flag flying and there were weeks of fierce, often hand-to-hand fighting ahead that would claim three of the men in Rosenthal's picture. The fall of Suribachi did, however, make the outcome inevitable.

The remains of concrete block-houses are still visible amid the undergrowth surrounding the peak, cracked and pockmarked. As well as the marines' monument, there are memorials to Japan's dead. The south side of the mountain slopes away steeply into a smouldering crater, tinged yellow by emissions of sulphur.

'The role I played was very hard,' Watanabe said. 'When I saw the island from the plane for the first time, I remembered what it had been like when we had been filming the battle scenes earlier and I only stopped crying when we finally landed.

'It has left an amazing impression on me. It's a terribly sad place.'

After reading correspondence from General Kuribayashi on the island to his family on the mainland, Watanabe made numerous suggestions to Eastwood and the scriptwriters in order to better capture the emotions of the military commander. The result, he believes, shows the general to have been thinking of his family and steeled to fight despite a good understanding of his adversaries earned as a military attache in the US in the 1920s.

'Eastwood wanted to show the struggles of this man,' Watanabe said.