A group of U.S. Marines, as tough as boot leather and itching for action, were ready to storm the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima last month when the COVID-19 pandemic put the mission on hold. The novel coronavirus did what the Japanese army couldn’t do.
About 20 surviving veterans of the battle of Iwo Jima were scheduled to take part in a reunion on the island 75 years after they began their bloody, monthlong campaign to wrest control from the Japanese army. The ceremonies, like so many others marking milestone anniversaries of history’s greatest war, were called off.
The commandant of the Marine Corps and other dignitaries were expected to attend the reunion of a battle that has become part of Marine lore.
“They go there to memorialize their colleagues. A lot of things come back to them that they had not thought about in years,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Raul “Art” Sifuentes, a Vietnam veteran and executive director of the Iwo Jima Association of America.
Plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a slew of world-shaping events have become collateral damage in the effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. For the last surviving veterans of World War II, the cancellations and postponements likely mean the loss of their last chance to come together and be recognized for the exploits of their youth.
Commemorations for Iwo Jima and the taking of Okinawa already have been called off. In the coming weeks and months, a world in shutdown mode will mark the 75th anniversary of the final battles of the war in Europe, the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops, the defeat of Nazi Germany, the liberation of concentration camps across central and Eastern Europe, the death of Adolf Hitler, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri.
Events large and small have been called into question. Even as its COVID-19 numbers soar, Russia has yet to call off a massive “Victory Day” parade set for May 9, but officials say the event may have to be held before empty viewing stands. The Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Michigan, has canceled its “Home Front Victory Celebration.”
In Germany, the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site won’t be holding a long-planned liberation ceremony May 3 because of “serious safety concerns” and the recommendation of German public health authorities. Organizers had invited 2,000 people, including survivors of the camp and the U.S. Army soldiers who freed them.
Organizers called the decision “extremely difficult” but noted in a statement that “it is precisely the elderly contemporary witnesses who are most at risk in terms of health.”
The World Jewish Congress and the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation announced a similar decision for 75th anniversary memorial events at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“It was not easy for us to cancel the visit program for this year,” Jens-Christian Wagner, the foundation’s managing director, said in a statement last month. “However, the health of our guests comes first, and we cannot be responsible for letting our elderly guests travel halfway around the world and exposing them to an unacceptable health risk.”
The reunions and commemorations would have entailed risky transportation and exposure for veterans now in their 80s and 90s, along with some, such as retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo, who are even older than that.
Now in lockdown at a retirement community in Florida because of coronavirus-based concerns, Mr. Lombardo, 100, was an infantry platoon leader fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. The number of veterans at his military reunions has dwindled over the years, said his daughter, Michelle Lombardo.
“It’s been very difficult for them not to be around their comrades,” she said. “They share experiences that the rest of us can’t understand because we weren’t there. We didn’t go through it.”
According to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, 16 million Americans served in the military during the war and nearly 300 die every day. For some, the 75th anniversary events would have been their last opportunities to see their old comrades.
Marking the milestone online
“We have had to make adjustments for the World War II commemorative events,” said Scott Warner with the Friends of the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall.
Ceremonies at the memorial marking the 75th anniversary of the Okinawa campaign along with Operation Varsity, the final paratrooper assault in Europe, and Operation Grapeshot, the final Allied offensive in Italy, had to be held online, Mr. Warner said.
Although online ceremonies are not the same as being there in person, Mr. Warner said, a virtual reunion is better than none at all.
“We have received many follow-up thank you notes from family members expressing their gratitude that we are continuing to host these ceremonies online,” Mr. Warner said.
The American Legion is one of the many veterans groups that have suspended or delayed activities because of the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been tough. Everything is kind of in a ‘wait and see, hurry up and wait’ mode,” said American Legion spokesman Paul Harris.
Mr. Harris said he can’t imagine what it must be like for America’s oldest military veterans to be denied one last opportunity to revisit the locations where they sacrificed so much for their country.
“It just must be very hard for them,” Mr. Harris said.
The pandemic also has forced people in other countries, including those battling the U.S. and its allies at the time, to alter how they mark significant events of the war.
In Tokyo, hundreds of people usually attend annual services remembering the devastating firebombing of the city by U.S. forces that resulted in the deaths of about 100,000 civilians. Only about 10 were able to attend the event, which was severely downsized to prevent any spread of COVID-19, according to The Japan Times newspaper.
About 70,000 U.S. Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers were pitted against each other on Iwo Jima. According to the National World War II Museum, the government awarded 27 Medals of Honor for actions there.
Mr. Sifuentes has made several trips to Iwo Jima since joining the organization. Some of the veterans have never spoken about the battle with family members, he said.
“They’ll share their experiences with the other veterans,” Mr. Sifuentes said. “A lot of things come back to them that they hadn’t thought about.”
When he stands atop Mount Suribachi, Mr. Sifuentes said, it is hard to image the buzz saw of crossfire his fellow Marines had to fight through before capturing the island.
That’s why he is determined to continue the reunion trips to Iwo Jima.
“These guys are a tough lot. God knows, they’ve been through enough,” he said.