Yokota Air Base, Japan -- Waking up at 1:30 in the morning I couldn’t fall back to sleep in anticipation of my upcoming experience of a lifetime.
Tired, but filled with excitement, I boarded the aircraft alongside my fellow Airmen to spend the day on the historic island of Iwo To, Japan, where the major World War II battle of Iwo Jima took place.
After landing, the C-130J Super Hercules’ doors opened to the humid 84 degree island air rushing into the aircraft; smiling at the drastic change in weather I immediately changed out of my rain gear in preparation for the long, hot hike ahead.
After stepping onto the runway and breathing the salted forest scent of the island, our first stop was the air traffic control tower with the Japanese maritime flag painted on it along with Japanese kanji translating to, “Iwo To Maritime Self-Defense Force Air Station.”
The main duties of Iwo To JMSDF air station is air traffic control, meteorological observation and to stand by for rescue operations or disaster relief in the surrounding waters.
We had a last minute safety briefing before breaking into small groups and starting our hike towards the highest point of the island, Mt. Suribachi, which can be seen in the distance on the other side of the island.
As we made our way along the dusty dirt paths towards the mountain, we came across memorials with engraved stone in Japanese or English. Some were made of abandoned artillery and mangled scrap metal from the long ago battle.
By the time we reached the foot of the mountain, I had already sweated off two layers of sunscreen and could feel my skin starting to burn. We took a moment to gather ourselves and wait for some of the group’s stragglers before making our way to the summit.
It quickly became apparent the top of the little mountain was not as close as it looked from the bottom and we were already exhausted. We came around our finial switch back and saw the peak ahead with the memorials on top. Now having our goal in sight, our exhaustion left, excitement took over and we became humbled to set foot on the famous mountain top.
As I took in the amazing view of the blue sky, greeting the green covered island wrapped in black sand surrounded by sea, it was hard to imagine the island as one of the harshest battle grounds of WWII.
One memorial that stood out to me was a U.S. Marine memorial with two posts, one on each side. The posts were overflowing with hundreds of tokens ranging from rank insignias and dog tags to hats, belts, PT belts, unit patches, small flags, chewing tobacco, small bottles of alcohol and one bag of beef Jerky. The mementos were taken to the peak by service members to pay respect to their fallen brothers in arms.
While the American memorial was covered with mementos, the Japanese memorial was clean and tidy to the point where it felt like hallowed ground; I was hesitant to step within its bounds fearing it might be considered disrespectful. Seeing how the culture of the two nations showed through the side-by-side memorials was a wonderful example of how the two allies have overcome so much as world partners and acts as a lesson of respect and forgiveness many countries could learn from.
After paying our respects to the fallen, we made our way to a nearby beach. Along the trail down a few members in our group found pieces of scrap metal and bullets, some with Japanese markings but most were so decayed it was hard to tell what they were.
I looked down the black coastline and through a salty haze, I could see the peak we just climbed. I collected several shells and pieces of broken glass that crossed my path.
We left the shoreline and made our way back to the trail entrance where the beach met the island’s dense tree and foliage line dotted with small purple and yellow flowers.
As we cleaned the fine black sand out of our shoes we talked about how awful it must have been to be weighted down, geared up and have to make it up that sand hill while in the midst of combat. After the discussion we took a last look at the beach and then turned back following the trail somberly in silence until we were back on the main path.
Hiking all day on a hot, humid island is not something my body is used to, and I didn’t realize how much water I had gone through or how much I’d been sweating until we reached our final stopping point before leaving, the caves. By the time we got to the entrance I was out of my two liters of water and was excited to explore the cool caves.
I was wrong about the caves. The further down we went the hotter and more humid it got. The air was stale with a hint of sulfur and the tunnels were so small even the shortest of us had to crouch. The light from our headlamps was no match for the pitch black of the passages.
Tunnels spread out in what seemed every direction; someone could get lost so easily within taking only a few turns. Luckily, there was a bundle of marked ropes to guide us down through the subterranean passages. Small cubby holes just big enough for a person to curl up in were spaced along the tunnel’s wall’s every eight feet or so; each one cluttered with small bits of debris so degraded you couldn’t tell what it had been before it was brought underground.
The Japanese soldiers from WWII lived and fought in those cramped caves. Even after the battle over 3,000 lived in the caves for months, unwilling to surrender. The soldiers are a testament to the Japanese spirit of honor, tenacity and sacrifice. They endured until only two were left. Those two soldiers lived in the tunnel systems for over four years. I was itching to get back top side after being underground for less than 30 minutes. I can’t imagine spending years living inside them.
Following our guide rope back to the surface, even the hot humid island air felt cool and refreshing compared to the air from the tunnels weaving deep into the island’s volcanic core.
The group talked the whole way back to the air strip, which made the last leg of our trek go by quick. It made me think about what the groups of Marines on the beaches, or Japanese soldiers in the tunnels, talked about to help their time on the island go by.
After landing back at rain soaked Yokota, I had the chance to absorb what I saw, heard, felt and smelled during my time on Iwo To. I have a new appreciation for what I have, and respect for those who have sacrificed, forgave and overcame so much so I can be here today. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and an experience I will never forget.