Iwo Jima veterans mark 75 years since legendary battle at final tribute ceremony at Camp Pendleton

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Twenty-eight Iwo Jima veterans and members of the Iwo Jima Commemorative Committee pose for a group photo after the 75th Commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 15, 2020. (Marine Corps photograph by Staff Sgt. Royce Dorman)
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On Feb. 19, 1945, more than 70,000 U.S. Marines conducted an amphibious assault to take the Island of Iwo Jima from fortified Japanese forces.

Over the next 36 days nearly 7,000 Marines would be killed during the battle, which is regarded as one of the bloodiest of World War II, as they faced hidden enemy artillery, machine guns, vast bunker systems and underground tunnels. Of the 82 Marines who earned the Medal of Honor during all of World War II, 22 medals were earned for actions on Iwo Jima.

Now, 75 years later, 28 Marines and Sailors who fought on Iwo Jima gathered to remember the battle at the 75th and final commemoration sunset ceremony Feb. 15, 2020, at the Pacific Views Event Center on Camp Pendleton, Calif.

In 1945, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions landed at Iwo Jima as part of V Amphibious Corps, a large type of composited unit which evolved over the decades since into units in today’s Marine Corps, such as I Marine Expeditionary Force.

“These Marines and Sailors who fought on Iwo Jima are made of grit, determination and a fighting spirit to succeed. This same eternal spirit is embodied by our Marines and Sailors serving today,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commanding general, I MEF. “Our force stands just as ready to fight and win in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific area, largely in part because of the sacrifices and lessons learned from those Marines and Sailors who fought in battles like Iwo Jima 75 years ago.”

Iwo Jima veterans, along with more than 100 others in attendance, stand and salute during the national anthem at the 75th Commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima sunset ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 15, 2020. (Marine Corps photograph by Staff Sgt. Royce Dorman)

“It’s very special to be a part of this ceremony. I get a real kick out of coming and seeing everyone and talking to the young Marines.” William “Bill” Wayne, an Iwo Jima veteran
The Iwo Jima Commemorative Committee, along with Marine Corps Installations – West, hosted the veterans on Feb. 13 for a tour of tour of Camp Pendleton’s facilities, where they had a chance to share their legacy with present day Marines while sharing a meal at a base dining facility. The Iwo Jima veterans also toured Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego on Feb. 14. The sunset commemoration ceremony is the signature event of their three-day visit, and has been hosted by Camp Pendleton for more than 30 years.

According to Jerry Blandford, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant and committee coordinator, the Iwo Jima veterans do a little bit of everything. They visit the Marine Memorial Garden, eat lunch with young Marines and on Saturday they attend the culminating ceremony.

The two-part ceremony began around sunset, and as the crowd grew still, all eyes were focused on the two uniformed Marines who slowly walked forward carrying a wreath and placed it in front of the Iwo Jima memorial here. The silence was broken by the tolling of the mission bell ringing for those who didn’t return from the island’s black sand beaches.

“It’s on their backs that our reputation as Marines stands,” said Blandford. “We owe them a debt of gratitude. The world would be a whole different place had it not been for them.”

Iwo Jima Marine veteran Thomas H. Begay, center, a Navajo Code Talker, shares his scrapbook of photos from his time as a Marine to Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, right, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, and Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi, left, commanding general of 1st Marine Division, before the start of the 75th Commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima sunset ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 15, 2020. (Marine Corps photograph by Staff Sgt. Royce Dorman)

As the group remembered the nearly 7,000 killed in the battle in rapt silence, a Marine artilleryman standing nearby raised and then sharply lowered his arm. “FIRE!” Instantly, the shaking boom of a ceremonial howitzer cannon fired, and the three cannons fired in time until all seven volleys from the each of the canons sounded the 21-gun salute.

“Normally the 21-gun salute is reserved for presidents and funerals. The Marine Corps has made an exception for the purpose of saying goodbye to their fallen brethren,” said Blandford.

As the noise from the guns faded and the smoke cleared, the shrill and somber notes of “Taps” were played by a pair of Marines from the 1st Marine Division Band and the storied faces of the Iwo Jima veterans could be seen with looks of reflection as many of them stood and saluted. Seventy-five years ago they were young men storming a beach. Today, they are the “Old Breed” being honored by the next generation of Marines who have taken up their mantle.

“If not for them, then who would we ever do it for? I think we [honor these veterans] because we can’t do any less, and I’m happy to be a part of this to pay it forward,” said Blandford.
 
 
 

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