Feb. 22, 2020 — This week, the Oregon Coast Military Museum (OCMM) unveiled a short-term addition to the museum’s array of military displays: a tribute to those who fought in one of the most brutal engagements of World War II, the battle for Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima is one of three small islands in the Japanese Volcano Island chain, with an area of approximately eight square miles. The island has been administered by civil authorities in Tokyo since before WWII and the Imperial Japanese Navy has garrisoned troops there since 1940.
During the war, American military planners targeted the island as a central goal to their goal of defeating Japan.
The American invasion of Iwo Jima began on Feb. 19, 1945 and continued until March 26, 1945. The individual one-on-one confrontations between American and Japanese troops were numerous and extremely violent, often ending in death.
The ferocious fighting that took place during the assault added to the perception of the Japanese soldier as supremely dedicated and determined.
It also accounted for what became an iconic image of unknown soldiers (at the time) raising the American flag on the island after a bloody struggle to conquer the small spit of land.
There have been many shifts in the narrative surrounding the Pulitzer Prize-winning image, taken by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press on Feb. 23, 1945, including the revelation that the event was staged after the battle was secured.
The Imperial Japanese Army anticipated the American invasion as early as 1943 and began reinforcing the island’s defenses in 1944. The Japanese had built heavily fortified bunkers with hidden artillery and miles of interconnected tunnels to aid in the defense against the expected invasion.
The battle for Iwo Jima was significant as it was the first U.S. attack on the Japanese home islands and the soldiers assigned to defend the island fought tenaciously. The battle for the small island was one of the fiercest of the war and remains iconic in that regard, with most Japanese soldiers fighting to the death.
According to the U.S. Navy, the assault resulted in 26,000 American casualties, which included 6,800 dead. The number of Japanese who died either during the fighting or by suicide following the Japanese loss is estimated at more than 18,000. Only 216 Japanese soldiers were captured during the battle.
The United States returned Iwo Jima to Japan in 1968, during a time of healing between the two nations. A mutual respect for the combatants from each side grew in the intervening years and has resulted in joint memorial services on a number of occasions.
One of the more unusual aspects of this battle are the two feature films directed by Clint Eastwood that tell the story of the struggle from different perspectives, one from the American side and one from the Japanese side.
“Flags of our Fathers” tells the stories of the six men that raised the flag over the island after the American victory; “Letters from Iwo Jima” recounts the events using the letters of soldiers who fought and died in the battle.
These two films helped fundamentally change the way in which the Battle of Iwo Jima is viewed, both in the context of the WWII and also in a more inclusive way by highlighting the many similarities in the Japanese and American cultures.
Geoffrey Cannon is Operations manager for OCMM, and he wanted to acknowledge the change in the perception of the battle by making the display multi-cultural.
“The concept was to highlight the Battle of Iwo Jima through the view of both sides — from the American and Japanese soldiers’ experience. In our American section, we highlighted the story of Harlan Roth, who served on the USS Lancewood during the battle,” said Cannon. “Mr. Roth, a native of Hemingford, Neb., became an Oregonian in 1998. In our Japanese section, we highlighted the story of Kazuyoshi Morimoto, who was a doctor in the Japanese Army during the battle.”
The Iwo Jima exhibit at OCMM will be on display during normal operating hours through March.
For more information on this exhibit, or to volunteer at the museum, call 541-902-5160 or visit oregoncoastmilitarymuseum.com.