IWO JIMA — Time has diminished their bodies but not their memories of the fight.
Seven decades later, some of the Marines who captured Iwo Jima returned to the tiny Japanese island to remember one of the last battles of the war in the Pacific — and the moment that gave the world the most iconic image of World War II.
They recalled a struggle that was much more difficult than the Americans had expected. What was supposed to be the quick work of capturing the island from Japan turned into a prolonged struggle.
"Anybody that survived is damn lucky," said John Lauriello, who was part of the first wave to land on Iwo Jima in the U.S. invasion on Feb. 19, 1945. "There's no other explanation for it."
Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commandant of the Marine Corps, were among the dignitaries who spoke at a commemoration here over the weekend. Japanese cabinet members took part in the anniversary ceremony for the first time.
They marked a battle that was far bloodier than expected. More than 2,000 Americans were killed or wounded on the first day. On the fifth day, as the casualties mounted, they made it to the summit of Mount Suribachi.
It was there that Joe Rosenthal, a photographer for The Associated Press, captured the timeless image from the war — a group of Marines planting the U.S. flag and standing it up. The photograph was sent around the world by the AP wire and appeared in newspapers all over the U.S., encouraging a war-weary country.
"When we boil it all down, if we had never raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, we probably would have never heard of Iwo Jima," said Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last survivor of the 27 Medal of Honor recipients from the battle.
"It not only lifted our spirits here on this rock," he said. "It lifted the spirits of America."
The Japanese had dug in, though and had built 11 miles of underground tunnels. The fighting continued for more than a month on the 8 square miles of Iwo Jima. Almost 7,000 Marines were killed before the Americans secured it, paving the way for the invasion of Okinawa and, ultimately, the end of the war.
Lawrence Snowden, who was a 23-year-old rifle company captain in 1945, lost half his men. Like the other surviving Marines, he returned for the 70th anniversary to reflected again on what he can never forget.
"Those kinds of things, I don't care how many years go by — 70, if it's 106 — I can't wipe out memories like that," he said.