Westberg at memorial on Suribachi. I encounter one memorial under construction which honors a  Japanese officer famous during the war even to Americans — Colonel Takeichi Nishi. An Olympic gold-medalist,  international playboy, and photographed with Hollywood stars.
  • Westberg at memorial on Suribachi. I encounter one memorial under construction which honors a Japanese officer famous during the war even to Americans — Colonel Takeichi Nishi. An Olympic gold-medalist, international playboy, and photographed with Hollywood stars.
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Harnessed to the inside wall of the cargo plane by nylon webbing. I note the absence of an M-16 between my knees. If not for that. I'd think we were circling Da Nang. Loosening my safety belt. I twist around to peer out a window. I take in a breath and hold it. Then. Iwo Jima appears — eight square miles of pear-shaped volcanic rock. At its southern tip. Mount Suribachi clings, barely, a crater gaping to the sea; from its northern base begins an isthmus hardly 700 yards across, gradually widening to three miles and a total length of five. Destination reached. As I emerge into thick heat, my first full sniff confirms why the Japanese named Iwo after the island's malodorous resource — sulfur.

Workers prepare newly discovered Japanese remains for cremation. Iwo Jima was the killing ground for 28,000 human beings, including the entire Japanese garrison and 6800 U.S. Marines.

Workers prepare newly discovered Japanese remains for cremation. Iwo Jima was the killing ground for 28,000 human beings, including the entire Japanese garrison and 6800 U.S. Marines.

It had taken seven years of letters and phone calls before I could step onto these black sands, where two U.S. Marine divisions landed on February 19. 1945 (followed later by a third), to capture the western Pacific island and its two airstrips from the Japanese during World War II. From the time I was ten. when I saw John Wayne play Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. I’d been fascinated with the battle. In the movie, when the Japanese soldier shot Stryker and the flag was planted on Mount Suribachi.

Mt. Suribachi from above Red Beach II. Red Beach I and Red Beach II, hardly as dramatic as Normandy’s Omaha and Utah — but the Japanese had designed their defenses to be, and in the end were, much bloodier.

Mt. Suribachi from above Red Beach II. Red Beach I and Red Beach II, hardly as dramatic as Normandy’s Omaha and Utah — but the Japanese had designed their defenses to be, and in the end were, much bloodier.

I turned to my father and said. “I hope there's a war when I grow up."

Dad, who had been in war, said, "I hope not.”

Guess I lucked out. Eight years later, I was in Vietnam, a Marine rifleman. War was not like the old movies. For one thing, it was in color; for another, people died in a different way. The first guy I saw get killed was six steps in front of me when an AK-47 slug smashed through his forehead. The back of his head blew out; his blood and brains spattered across my face. When Stryker died, I don't think he even bled.

Cave entrance on Iwo Jima. Through the darkness and spin of my head, I hear, tunk, tunk, tunk. My other flashlight is rolling down the stairway.

Cave entrance on Iwo Jima. Through the darkness and spin of my head, I hear, tunk, tunk, tunk. My other flashlight is rolling down the stairway.

Years later, as a high school football and wrestling coach and an English teacher. I taught the

combative sports and tried to interpret the great classics of literature. The latter always seemed to emphasize the heroic and sick sides of humanity. “Probably nothing symbolizes more,” I lectured, ‘‘this duality of man than do the bodies of dead soldiers." I attempted to relate episodes from my war experience; unfortunately, looking into my students' vapid eyes, the only light I saw came from the window behind them.

And I faced my own ambivalence: the uneasy feeling that I’d never really experienced anything. Not compared to Iwo. If dead soldiers represent all the good and evil within the human race, then Iwo must be the shrine upon which they lay. I needed to go to Iwo not to wallow in war's grotesqueries but to shudder at its remnants.


Iwo Jima is the only World War II battlefield closed to the public, open only to retired military personnel. There are no commercial flights to the island, and getting there requires special permission. Whether this trip is worth the price of such hassle depends on one’s point of view. If the objective sought is a relic island, tranquil and haunted — the scars of epic violence scarcely disturbed in 44 years — then it’s a bargain.

The usual visit to Iwo Jima takes place all in one day. Each Wednesday, a single C-130 Hercules transport makes a round-trip flight from Yokote, Japan — a U.S. air base located four hours by bus from Narita International Airport — bringing mail and supplies to 26 United States Coast Guardsmen operating a LORAN station, a military navigation beacon. The five or six visitors on the passenger list get a free lunch and a three-hour tour, courtesy of the USCG. Visitors with small knowledge of Iwo’s history are most impressed by its beauty and serenity. Iwo today is, among other things, a bird sanctuary.

The island is two-thirds covered by a tangled, low-level jungle almost impenetrable without a machete. Nonetheless, nothing is far from the narrow asphalt road that encircles the island and branches off in numerous locations. The most notable branch — built by Seabees during the heat of battle in 1945 — extends upward in a series of switchbacks to the 556-foot summit of Suribachi, where Joe Rosenthal snapped what is perhaps the most memorable photograph taken during World War II.

Standing near the spot of the famous flag-raising, I have a perfect view, as had the doomed defenders of decades past, overlooking the entire island. Spread out below me was the killing ground for 28,000 human beings, including the entire Japanese garrison and 6800 U.S. Marines. It took almost ten years of fighting in Vietnam to kill that many Marines. On Iwo it took 36 days.

I’ve come to this island thinking that I know it. Since Vietnam. I have sought out every scrap of information I could find about Iwo Jima. My head is filled with infamous landmarks — Hill 382, Turkey Knob, the Quarry, the Amphitheater, and Bloody Gorge — names given by the Marines who fought, killed, and died around them; I know where each division and even certain regiments and battalions fought; I know names of now-forgotten heroes — like Jack Lummus and “Manila John” Basilone. I know where and how they died.

And I notice what has to be pointed out to others: the pit-marks scarring every exposed escarpment and boulder were created by bullets and artillery, not nature; the scattered mounds of rock and dirt, which can be seen in every direction, are remnants of exploded bunkers. And beneath me, in Iwo’s 12 miles of largely undiscovered tunnels, are still entombed the remains of an estimated 17,000 Japanese, burned or buried alive over four decades ago. For me the three-hour tour only extended a personal torment: my seeming inability to comprehend what happened here.

I had requested and received the rare opportunity to stay on Iwo Jima for one week. I was given an air-cooled room with shower and toilet, bed. chair, desk. lamp, and reading material — a book of prayers and a Japanese porno magazine.

“You’ll like the Coasties," a previous visitor predicted. “They’re a great bunch o’ guys."

And so they were. They were also lonely and bored.

All of the Coasties, whose lot it is to endure one full year here, work strenuously throughout the hot, sticky days. There is no natural water, no town, and no outside recreation. There are no women. Work centers around collecting rain and generating electricity with four diesel-powered engines. They are here to ensure that the navigational beam from the 350-foot LORAN tower keeps pulsing out to sea.


Sunrise and a gecko's staccato calls end my fitful first night on Iwo. I am ready to get on with the day and away from the elusive lizard that has pestered me most of the night with his mating call.

“Good morning." says Chief Willmott, the cook. It is 5:30. “Sleep good?" When I explain about the lizard, he laughs and says. "Be happy, they eat the bugs.”

To that I reply. “I hope so," and tell him about the thumb-sized cockroach by the drain in the shower.

He laughs again. “Keep the lizard.”

After breakfast I borrow canteens, two flashlights, and a dilapidated mountain bicycle. I wear an old camouflage jungle jacket and make a sweat band out of a green battle dressing. I feel the need to look the part. My intention is to pedal around the entire island; that, as I was to find out. is more easily thought than done. Leaving the Coast Guard Station — which is located at Kitano Point, Iwo’s northernmost tip — I turn right and coast south. After 100 meters, I look west into a small, heavily jungled canyon, spilling and widening to the sea. I have no intention of heading into that vegetated nightmare, but I know what it is: Bloody Gorge. During the last ten days of the battle for Iwo, the Fifth Division Marines sustained 1800 casualties in that canyon below me, putting an end to the last pocket of organized Japanese resistance.

As I move on, I look east at an extended series of jagged escarpments known as Nishi Ridge. Somewhere along here had been a village, and somewhere near it, 29-year-old Jack Lummus earned his Medal of Honor. Attacking a rat-maze complex of bunkers and pillboxes, dodging machine-gun fire, mortars, and grenades. Lummus was twice smashed by shrapnel. He kept moving, destroying enemy installations and leading his men. Then an explosion. Lummus disappeared from sight. Peering into the cloud of dust, his men saw him pop up; he was yelling at them — "Keep moving! Keep moving!" — and it looked for a second as if he was standing in a depression. There was no depression. Both his legs had been blown off — and he was trying to walk on his tangled stumps. He died there.

I pedal on. hearing my own breathing, the distant sea-shell echo of the western surf, and the jungle-like cries of a thousand birds.

Iwo is a sacred place to the Japanese. Around the island are at least 100 obelisks and concrete memorials, all in honor of Japanese soldiers who died near the sites. I encounter one presently under construction, halfway down the island, just up from the western beach. It looks much like a church and honors one Japanese officer, famous during the war even to Americans — Colonel Takeichi Nishi. An Olympic gold-medalist in equestrian competition, Nishi was a baron who had spent a great deal of time in the United States before the war. The nobleman was known as an international playboy and had been photographed with Hollywood stars. When war became imminent, he returned to Japan and eventually found himself on Iwo. A soldier of fanatical ferocity, he died here, his body never found.

South of Nishi’s memorial, I come across a mammoth bunker that has actually been blasted off its foundation. Inside is the rusting entirety of a large gun, magazine still in place, its barrel pointing out to sea. Outside the bunker, I can reach down almost anywhere and pick up spent cartridges, bullets, and twisted pieces of rusting shrapnel. Here I literally walk upon remnants of horrific battle.

Nearby is the entrance to one of the many tunnels that have been discovered and re-opened over the years. From my pack, I take out an eight-inch flashlight fitted with a red-plastic shield; the chromed body fits smoothly in the curled palm of my right hand, my thumb-tip nestles snug against the protruding switch — click. Halloween. Trick or treat. A red cherry glow ignites a brief recollection of childhood lurks: a magical beam versus demons in the dark. I step into the cave.

My first awareness is of stifling heat. Iwo is an old volcano, still quite active. I am reminded of tunnels in Vietnam: rat-holes, cool and damp, down into which little guys like me were sent on hands and knees. Here, one could easily stand and walk; but for some inexplicable reason, I crouch and sneak, stalking the unseen. Lying in the sandstone dust are rotting bandages and full ampules, maybe morphine — this had been a hospital cave. Farther in are pieces of old uniforms, litters, canteens, ammo boxes, helmets, and metal portions of weapons. I think of how hopeless it was for patients here; the lucky ones died from their wounds; the rest, refusing to surrender, were sealed in by Marine demolitions units. In a hot darkness filled with rotting bodies, they waited to suffocate.

The deeper I go into this cave, the hotter and more humid it gets; sweat soaks my clothes and drips off my nose — even my camera lens is steamed. My hands are slippery, and I worry that I’ll drop the flashlight. Setting it on the ground. I kneel in its light and remove my pack. I take out a headlamp and put it on, clipping the battery pack to my belt. Tucking away the excess wire, I flip on the lamp and aim its beam at the sandstone walls. Shadowy rings dance. Picking up the other flashlight, I turn it off and stuff its body into the front pocket of my jungle-jacket. I move deeper into the cave.

The tunnel has many branches — some up, some down, and some dead ends. Ahead is a branch with ropes stretched across its nearly sealed entrance. A sign, hand-written in Japanese, was taped to one of the ropes. I assumed it warned, “Stay Out!" Figuring there must be something worth seeing in there, I slide under the bottom rope and crawl up a pile of rocks and dirt.

Holding on to my headlamp. I lie on my stomach and wriggle through an opening barely wide enough for my shoulders. Finally through, I discover the ceiling is too low for me to stand. I move forward in a deep crouch. My sweat-soaked clothes are caked in dirt. Breathing is difficult. To my right. I spot two unexploded land mines. I take a close look — but don’t touch and move on. Suddenly the tunnel heads down, steeply down, and spirals left There are hand-carved steps, lone ago worn smooth. Losing balance for a second, I reach back — swoosh! My feet fly out. The back of my head smashes against the hard steps. Blackness. My headlamp has gone out. Through the darkness and spin of my head, I hear, tunk, tunk, tunk. My other flashlight is rolling down the stairway.

I rip off my headlamp and feel for the switch. I push it off-on, off-on. Nothing. I bang it against my hand. Nothing. My fingers find the wire and slide down its length to a tip of tom copper; patting the ground, I locate the severed battery-pack. There is no way I can fix it. Until now I’d never known what the absolute absence of light was like; a sense of being disembodied; only consciousness sealed in a grave. Ghosts were laughing. In panic and prayer, I sought logic. I have to find the flashlight. Twisting onto my stomach, I slide head first, slowly, toward the bottom. My fingers skim every dusty particle of every step; my mouth whispers, “Oh, God! Oh. God!” Absurdly, my eyes are open wide. Inching forward, hitting the earth with frantic swats. I remember the sign I had ignored. And the land mines.

I must have gone down 20 feet before the tunnel leveled. The tip of my right little finger hits something — the plastic shield! Grabbing the flashlight. I caress its smooth body with both hands.

I remember its tumble: “Please, dear God! Let it work!” I set my thumb on the switch — click. Darkness disappears. Laughing demons vanish.

I crawl to my feet and breath deeply. The descending stretch of tunnel had spiraled into a chamber, maybe 15 feet by 20. I could stand. Spraying the pick-scarred walls with my light, unmistakable shapes catch my eye: scattered amid the rubble of rusted objects and shattered litters were three human skeletons, each at the base of a different wall. They lay crumpled in semi-fetal positions. They appear to have fallen over from their knees. I knew that many Japanese had killed themselves in these tunnels by holding grenades to their stomachs. That. I suppose, was the story here.

Retreating to the rhythm of my rapid breathing. I think about the agony involved in building these tunnels. Worse, I try to contemplate living in one of these geothermal labyrinths. Mostly, I just want to get out.


Relieved to be in the open air. I push on for another mile. Near the base of Suribachi, I cross the narrow neck of the island from west to east, the opposite direction of the Fifth Marines’ assault in February of 1945. During the first few days of the battle for Iwo, the bodies of dead Marines were left where they had fallen; tanks and amphibian tractors had no choice but to drive over them. When enough of a strategic foothold was secured, the job of collecting the dead began.

Somewhere here, near where I stood, had been the Fifth Marines’ cemetery. (Each division had its own.) There would have been a pyramid of corpses, scores of them — twisted, mangled, often just pieces. Identification and burial was slow, meticulous, and continuous. Interestingly, included in the materiel brought ashore were thousands of premanufactured white crosses. When an invasion is planned, nothing is overlooked.

Looking left and right. I’m astounded by the number of gun emplacements, bunkers, and pillboxes, the majority of which are overgrown with scrub and ferns. For some reason, the vegetation seems to thrive better around these old fortresses than anywhere else. Wherever there was an even slightly noticeable bulge of shrubbery, underneath would be concrete and steel. To explore any of these structures provided a reminder of how awful were the deaths of the defenders: around the gun holes and inside, the surfaces are blackened and smashed, signs of the ugly but efficient work of flame throwers and explosives.

Taking a short side road. I pedal to the base of Suribachi, where I get off and walk 100 feet up the slope. Here, jutting out from a rocky cave, is the 18-foot barrel of a Japanese coastal gun that once fired projectiles 15 inches in diameter. The Coasties call her Big Bertha. Over the years, debris has filled most of the cavern; on hands and knees. I enter. The crank once used to aim the long barrel is still intact, although fused now by rust and corrosion. Originally built on tracks, the weapon would be rolled out by the operators, fired, and then would disappear back into the mountain. When Big Bertha's location was finally isolated, a direct hit put her and her gunners permanently out of commission.

Just below Big Bertha is a large, locked concrete bunker that I can enter through an air vent. Pulling and pushing myself up. I first lift one knee, then the other, before twisting onto my stomach and pushing through backwards. I lower myself gently — I’d been warned that housed in here, placed on the floor and individually wrapped in blue fabric, were some 50 unexploded bombs, mortars, and artillery rounds gathered from around the island. All duds. I was told. Only the latest in what, so far, is a continuing discovery of deadly artifacts. Demolition experts periodically come out to the island and transport the newest collection of bombs and shells to the beach and explode them. Iwo rocks again.


The sun had crept overhead like a crazed cyclops, replacing morning’s sensuous heat with a midday microwave. As I turn my back on Suribachi and pedal away. I recognize trouble: the broken asphalt of the road had given way to a deep dust soft as flour; and what was not so apparent coasting south is painfully obvious going north — it’s going to be a very steep climb. Below me on the right, stretching for two and a half miles, are the black sands of the old invasion beaches. Probably nowhere else on Iwo is there such haunting attraction. A mile north, I drop my bike and wander down to a chunk of exposed concrete. Surrounded by high grasses and stunted shrubs, this remnant is one of scores of pillboxes dotting the terraced landscape overlooking the sand. They lie silent like petrified crocodiles, machine-gun apertures agape, their spells mingling with the sensed presence of the dead.

Five times during my week on Iwo, I return to the beaches, once walking the entire length. Starting at the northern extreme, I stand above the blasted remains of several gun emplacements built into a cliff area known as the Quarry. From here the view is unobstructed all the way to Suribachi. I descend to the beach through thick foliage and trudge south. The black sand is actually pumice cinders; each step sinks to the strings of my shoes, and I walk to a scrunch, scrunch cadence. Small artifacts — bullets, casings, jagged pieces of shrapnel — are everywhere. Here and there, the rusting shells of amphibian tractors, blown apart long ago, lie on their backs like defiled turtles. Heat from the sun’s stare is inhaled by the blackness and blows back through my soles — walking barefoot would be impossible. My thoughts are of seasick Marines who jumped into this stuff, stumbling, struggling toward the terrace.

Slightly past half-way is Fatatsu Rock, a volcanic boulder near the surf's edge. It was once the dividing mark between two landing zones: Red Beach I and Red Beach II. Inauspicious names these are, hardly as dramatic as Normandy’s Omaha and Utah — but the Japanese had designed their defenses to be, and in the end were, much bloodier.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was the mastermind of Iwo’s defenses. He, like the baron Nishi, had also spent much time before the war in the United States and knew full well the might with which the U.S. could retaliate if aroused. When Kuribayashi came to Iwo, he knew it was to die. In exchange for his death, the general vowed to turn this island into a pumice sponge, sopping up American blood.

From Fatatsu Rock I can look south to Suribachi, then north to the gun emplacements at the Quarry, and finally straight ahead, up to the terraces and the silent pillboxes. There was nowhere to hide. Kuribayashi had allowed the attacking Marines and their materiel to pile up before pulling the cork on every gun he had. It was a slaughter. Marines didn’t just die, they were dismembered, disemboweled, blown to pieces. Nowhere during World War II did so many Americans die so violently. The life of one, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, ended just atop the first terrace. Nicknamed “Manila John,” he had been a hero on Guadalcanal, becoming the first Marine in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor. On Iwo, minutes after his machine gun platoon hit Red Beach II, he flew apart in midstride as a mortar smashed into his groin.


I climb off the pillbox and return through tall grass to my bicycle. I need to get back. I’ve got water, but there's no shade, and here the road is so steep I have to walk and push. The landscape has become primordial: scrub brush, rocks, and sand. I long ago knew this agony, chopping through jungle under a combat soldier’s load; if only in that respect, I realize, the Marines who fought here had nothing over me. I’d seen people die from the heat alone. A grunt can carry just so much before collapsing — and that’s exactly how much he's given. The tools of war aren’t light. Here I carried no weapons — just water and flashlights. But alarmed by a pounding in my temples. I begin to contemplate heatstroke and the absurdity of being a casualty here. I stop to drink and to try to catch my breath; I had covered one mile in an hour. My gullet spasmed. I began to feel pin-prickly chills, as if I’d been force-fed cold gravy.

Fearing my own vomit, it was here I noted the irony of where, besides upward. I was headed: straight into the mouth of the Meat Grinder.

Located just north and inward from the Quarry, the Meat Grinder covers one square mile of Iwo Jima, dominated by four infamous landmarks. The first of them, the Amphitheater, lay just ahead. To the Fourth Marines who named it and had to cross it, completely exposed and under relentless fire, the Amphitheater must have looked like the floor of a giant stadium in hell. This expanse of volcanic dust and pulverized rock was not only heavily mined, it also contained a plethora of spider-holes and pillboxes, interconnected by a matrix of tunnels. This no-man’s land ran dead ahead into a precipitous series of defiladed hillside fortifications dubbed Charlie-Dog Ridge and an eastern perpendicular escarpment named, strangely, Turkey Knob. This nightmare of topography had the configuration of a tipped-over J, creating a curved wall of uninterrupted machine-gun, artillery, and mortar fire. And above and behind all this still lay Hill 382 — named in reference to its height — from which came even more deadly barrages.

Today, the Amphitheater is a golf course. Admittedly small and crude, the course nonetheless can lay claim to perhaps the most intimidating rough in the world. The crudely mown grass of the fairways is fringed by jungle so thick it is difficult to penetrate for even a yard. For those desperate enough to go after a lost ball, hidden on the jungle floor are bombs, mortars, and artillery shells. One morning I found two — a bomb and a mortar round — during the course of a short but exhausting search with a machete. They were just lying there, partially covered by dead leaves, lethal still. On that same morning, as I emerged, dripping. from the shadowy jungle, I was rendered motionless by the sound of distant music. Piped from behind Turkey Knob and Charlie-Dog Ridge came the mournful strains of the Japanese National Anthem.

Turkey Knob is hardly obtrusive today. Overlooking the old Amphitheater, its major attraction is a bunker with five-foot-thick walls and ceiling, which now houses a museum of sorts. Around the bunker are pieces of rusting weapons — the turret from a small Japanese tank, anti-aircraft guns, a rocket launcher, even one 16-inch American dud that weighs nearly a half-ton, its explosive tip still armed. Inside, corroded rifles, handguns, helmets, canteens, and rice bowls are set haphazardly on the floor or upon crude wooden tables and shelves. This museum seems redundant, given that the island itself, really, is a museum.

Along the crest of the adjoining Charlie-Dog Ridge are dormitories for 200 Japanese military personnel. And just behind, to the west, running northeasterly atop the two square miles of Motoyama Plateau, is the historic airfield. Rebuilt and extended by Seabees while the battle was still hot, the twin runways lie directly between me and the USCG station. Dizzy from heat, I consider a mad-dash shortcut across the airfield, when I spot a Japanese soldier watching me through the window of an adjacent building. He motions for me to come inside.

Obeying, I am instantly overwhelmed by the relief of air conditioning. Two Japanese are watching television, while five others noisily attack a game of cards. Speaking in short, guttural bursts, the players take turns slapping cards to the table, exclaiming each move with a coughed “Hah!" The man who had invited me in was sitting beside a desk, looking at me expectantly, and smiling. There was something in his eyes, however, that didn’t smile; something deep and ancestral. I manage somehow, using Tonto English and sign-language, to communicate a request to cross the airfield. I’m uneasy. “Wait." he says, picking up a phone. After a short conversation, he turns to me; "Okay.” Bowing and saying thanks several times, I step back into the vaporous stench and heat.

As I near the control tower — located on what is left of Hill 382 —- another Japanese serviceman comes out and points in the direction of Friendship Road, which leads to the U.S. side of the island. Sacrilegious as it may seem to Marines who survived here, Iwo Jima was recently given back to the Japanese — lock, stock, and Suribachi. The American flag is permitted to fly from the volcano’s summit for four days each year. But from all appearances, the international relations on Iwo are amicable.

The Americans and Japanese play volleyball, softball, and golf together, exchange gifts, videos, magazines, and occasionally even drink together. They do not, however, explore together. To most Americans, Iwo is an obscure island from the pages of history; to the Japanese, it is a mass grave.

Once at the LORAN tower, it is a short coast into the station. I’d missed lunch and was too tired to eat dinner. Retreating to my room, I strip to my shorts, collapse into a chair, and down a quart of Gatorade. I spend the next several hours fighting muscle spasms everywhere I have a muscle. I promise myself to take it easier in the days ahead. But I don’t.

Over the next five days, I explore the island insatiably.

Through thick foliage, I hack my way into Bloody Gorge and other places, seeking the hidden scars of battle; occasionally, I find the corroded tanks and the nozzle of a flame thrower, the sole of a Marine’s boot, an American rifle.

I crawl into more tunnels, looking at (but not disturbing) the many artifacts that lie in silent testimony to an unfathomable existence. (Incredible as it may sound, of the handful of Japanese who survived on Iwo, most stayed hidden underground for as long as four years.) In the cool evenings, I ride my bicycle atop the plateau, skirting the old airfield; it was strange to consider that for this alone, the battle was fought. The airfield. War planners had considered gassing the island, but — in the odd logic of war morality — the idea was considered too barbaric. The scene, looking across the flat expanse of Motoyama, is eerie: a thousand vents of sulfurous vapor swirl thinly and mingle with the blackened rubble. The fires of hell extinguish slowly.


My week on Iwo ends as all worthwhile adventures should, with still more I want to see. I might have been on the island for a week, but I feel I had been there all my life. On my last day, when the Wednesday plane brought in visitors-for-the-day, I am allowed the privilege of giving the tour. I don’t deviate from the usual tour route, nor do I take more than my allotted three hours; and yet, as I drive on the same road where days earlier I'd languished, my passion for Iwo grows. After years of vicarious absorption through books and documentaries, to be able to actually walk this isle and touch for myself its scars is in itself fulfilling. At a deeper level, my greatest reward came from having sneaked a ride on Charon’s boat to cross the Styx and peek at the dark heart our comforts hide.

When the C-130 lifts off, I peer through the window and catch a final glimpse: bright in tropical greens and sulfurous yellow-orange. fringed by the blackness of its beaches, the old Island of Death is adrift in the cold blue of the sea. I close my eyes, and Iwo becomes a surreal vision lost between two blinks. I think again of what happened there, and of the dead — American and Japanese. Nowhere on earth could the essence of primordial man have been more manifest. It lingers still in the ghosts of Iwo's past: Kuribayashi, the samurai warrior — for whom no trace of remains has ever been found — swore he would haunt this island forever. I feel that I have sensed his spirit — and those of 28,000 more.

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