Sixty years ago Monday, Marines began their historic assault on the island of Iwo Jima, a battle of such ferocity that it left 6,821 Americans dead and spawned one-fourth of all World War II medals of honor.
Commemorations of that turning-point battle in the Pacific will take place Monday, part of a series of events to be held around the country and overseas to remember the 60th anniversary of the last year of World War II.
At the Marine Corps’ iconic Iwo Jima statue near Arlington National Cemetery, which depicts the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, hundreds will gather to pay tribute to the more than 60,000 Marines and other troops who fought there, and to the fast-thinning ranks of those still alive today.
Recognizing that reality, the Defense Department will stage six regional 60th-anniversary ceremonies across the country in areas with large numbers of World War II vets.
The first is Monday in Tampa, Fla., where a USO-style performance, speeches, the Navy Band and what may be the last reunions of many aged veterans will be featured. Florida is home to about 1.8 million veterans, of whom at least 300,000 served in World War II.
Other ceremonies will be held in veteran-rich San Antonio in March, San Diego in May, Boston in June, Chicago in July, and Vancouver, Wash., in August.
The fact that these commemorations come as America is engaged in another overseas war _ albeit one of far smaller scope _ adds significance, said retired Lt. Gen. Ed Soyster, head of the Pentagon’s World War II anniversary effort.
“We’re delighted … to recognize these veterans who sacrificed much to assure the freedom of Western Europe and the Pacific … and to remember not just the people but the ideas and lessons learned (which) help assure that freedom continues to flourish in the world _ much as the soldiers of today are doing in the Middle East,” Soyster said.
These events are among those being held to honor the sacrifices that accompanied the last bloody year of the Big One. Already, the Dec. 16, 1944, start of the unimaginably brutal Battle of the Bulge _ which took the lives of 50,000 soldiers and civilians _ has been marked in Europe and at home.
Many of the historic dates are being saluted overseas. In the Philippines, ceremonies will be held honoring the end of the battle for Manila, in which GIs fought house to house much as American forces are doing today in parts of Iraq.
Upon discovering that no substantial commemoration of the battles Americans fought in Italy was being planned, the Pelham Post 50 of the American Legion in New York decided to help organize one. On May 2, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Italy from the Fascists, a ceremony will be held at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno to honor the 19,000 Americans who died there.
Perhaps the most high-profile convocation will occur later the same month, when President Bush will join as many as 60 world leaders in Moscow to mark the May 7, 1945, surrender by Germany, which ended the war in Europe.
As did the dedication last summer of the World War II Memorial on Washington’s National Mall, the commemorations this year are certain to bring with them the poignancy of the passing of a great generation. Out of the 16.4 million Americans who served in World War II, no more than 4 million are still alive, and they are dying at the rate of at least 1,200 a day.
“The reason the 60th is so important is because these are the twilight years,” Soyster said. “At the 70th and 75th (anniversaries), there will be very few of them left.”
(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com.)