- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

IWO JIMA, Japan | The tunnels of Iwo Jima snake deep beneath the volcanic rock and soil, their entrances camouflaged by a dense tangle of vines and tall grasses.

In their stifling heat, Tsuruji Akikusa suffered months of hunger and thirst. The bodies of dead comrades lay around him. His closest buddy blew himself up with a grenade rather than surrender.

Finally, Mr. Akikusa was the only one left alive in his cave.

In May 1945, he says, U.S. troops found him wounded, unconscious and dehydrated. Out of 21,000 Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima, only about 1,000 had survived.

Mr. Akikusa, now 81, relived those horrors this month when he stepped foot for the first time since the war on Iwo’s black volcanic beaches, flown to the island for a U.S. Army-produced documentary on his life.

“Our commander told us we were going to Hell Island, not Iwo Island,” Mr. Akikusa recalled, looking out over the waves where the U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Feb. 19, 1945. “We figured this was a place we would never return home from.”

Not many did. And today, as old age catches up with the last survivors, only about 20 Iwo Jima vets are still alive in Japan.

Presumed dead by his family, Mr. Akikusa came home to find his own funeral in progress. Then he plunged into the hard work and growing prosperity of postwar Japan - became an electrician, married, had a child.

But he never forgot Iwo Jima, and he never forgot his buddy, Yasuo Kumakura. And when Mr. Akikusa finally returned 63 years later, he found an island where the terror of the past remains frozen in time.

Iwo Jima holds an honored place in the history of World War II in the Pacific, alongside the other titanic clashes of men, machine and weaponry at Guadalcanal and Leyte, Midway and Okinawa.

The desolate 8-square-mile island was the first major battlefield on Japanese territory, a fight of unbridled ferocity between U.S. Marines determined to win at any cost and dug-in Japanese forces just as determined to fight to the last man.

The bloodletting was unprecedented. Over the course of about five weeks, from Feb. 19 to March 26, some 27,000 men were killed on a spit of semi-denuded land roughly a third of the size of Manhattan.

The Japanese vow to kill 10 Americans for every one Imperial soldier took a lethal toll: Allied forces suffered almost 28,000 casualties, nearly 7,000 of them killed.

Today, the Japanese military keeps a base and airstrip on the islet and considers it a massive open tomb. Visits are tightly restricted. The only access is by U.S. or Japanese military flights.

The remains of the 1945 battle are everywhere.

A rusted American tank lies immobilized in the ditch where it fell decades ago, its hatches yawning open. A memorial atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima’s volcanic peak, marks the spot where the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes - an image immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. The tunnels, heated like ovens by the island’s volcanic stirrings, are littered with helmets, cracked sake bottles and gas masks.

For the Japanese, who considered death in battle a supreme duty, the death toll remains something of a puzzle.

Of the estimated 1,000 survivors, Japanese records show that only a little more than 200 were taken prisoner by U.S. forces - meaning that the fate of the other 800 has not been clearly established. Some speculate that Japanese returned home in silence, shamed by their survival; others suspect the calculations are faulty.

And the island is still the site of a peaceful struggle - over the ownership of its history.

After director Clint Eastwood released his two epic films about the battle in 2006, former residents of the island successfully pushed to restore its prewar name, “Iwo To.” It’s a minor change, but to some Japanese, it reasserts their sovereignty over a spit of land where so many perished.

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