updated 6/22/2007 8:19:54 AM ET 2007-06-22T12:19:54

A U.S. search team on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima is zeroing in on a cave where a Marine combat photographer who filmed the iconic flag-raising 62 years ago is believed to have been killed in battle nine days later, officials told The Associated Press on Friday.

The seven-member search team — the first on the island in 60 years — is looking for the remains of Sgt. William H. Genaust, who was killed in action after filming the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The team is also searching for other U.S. troops killed in the battle — one of the fiercest and most symbolic of World War II.

“This marks the first time since 1948, when the American Graves Registration Service recovered most U.S. service members killed during the campaign, that a team has been able to return to Iwo Jima to account for those who are still missing,” the Joint POW/MIA Accounting office said in a statement before the team left its base in Hawaii.

The current search was prompted by what officials said was a valid lead from a private citizen in connection with the of Genaust.

The island was occupied by the United States after Japan’s 1945 surrender, and returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1968.

Missing service members
“The team is finding caves that have been cleaned out, and some that have collapsed,” JPAC spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Brown told the AP.

Brown said the team is looking for as many American remains as it can find, including those of Genaust.

He said 88,000 U.S. service members are missing from World War II, including about 250 from the Iwo Jima campaign.

Brown said the search is a preliminary one, and that if a high probability of recovering remains is determined, a full recovery team will be sent in.

“Our motto is ‘until they are home,”’ Brown said. “‘No man left behind’ is a promise made to every individual who raises his hand.”

Genaust, a combat photographer with the 28th Marines, used a movie camera to film the raising of the flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. He stood just feet away from AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, whose photograph of the moment won a Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize the Pacific War and the struggle of the U.S. forces to capture the tiny island, a turning point in the war with Japan.

Genaust didn’t live to see the end of the battle.

Johnnie Webb, a civilian official with JPAC, said Genaust died nine days later when he was hit by machine-gun fire as he was assisting fellow Marines secure a cave.

Highest percentage of casualties
Iwo Jima was officially taken on March 26, 1945, after 31-day battle that pitted some 100,000 U.S. troops against 21,200 Japanese. All told, 6,821 Americans were killed and nearly 22,000 injured — the highest percentage of casualties in any Pacific battle.

Only 1,033 Japanese survived.

Many of the missing Marines were lost at sea, meaning the chances of recovering their remains are slim. But many also were killed in caves or buried by explosions, and Brown said they are optimistic that the current search for Genaust and other servicemen will prove useful.

“We are looking at several caves,” he said. “‘We are looking for a number of service members, including Genaust. We have maps dating back to World War II and even GPS locations. So far, everything seems to be where it should be.”

Accounts of Genaust’s death vary, but he was believed to have been killed in or near a cave on “Hill 362A.”

On March 4, 1945, Marines were securing the cave, and are believed to have asked Genaust to use his movie camera light to illuminate their way. He volunteered to shine the light in the cave himself, and when he did he was killed by enemy fire. The cave was secured after a gunfight, and its entrance sealed.

Genaust was 38 when he died.

“We decided that the only way to determine if his remains were there was to work on the ground,” Webb said. “We believe his remains may be in there, along with the remains of the Japanese.”

From Iwo Jima to Iwo To
Separately, Japan on Monday returned to using the prewar name for Iwo Jima at the urging of its original inhabitants, who want to reclaim an identity they say has been hijacked by high-profile movies like Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

The new name, Iwo To, was adopted by the Japanese Geographical Survey Institute in consultation with Japan’s coast guard.

Brown said the mission “has been under study for quite some time.”

Webb added the command received information from a “private citizen” regarding the remains of Genaust, and that the information was deemed valuable and helped prompt the current search. He did not provide any further details about what that information was.

“We try to check up on every valid lead,” Brown said.

Sending a team to Iwo Jima requires close coordination with the Japanese government and support from the Japanese military, which maintains a base on the otherwise uninhabited island.

“Logistically it is a big challenge,” he said.

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