Long before I stepped onto the KC-135 Stratotanker, I
couldn’t contain my anticipation and excitement. I kept
thinking about how great and rare of an opportunity I was
As more than 30 of us were taken to the
flightline to board the aircraft, my emotions continued to
We were then crammed into the aircraft,
embarking on the journey of a lifetime – a journey to a
small island with a great history – Iwo Jima.
first thing I noticed when I stepped off the KC-135
Stratotanker was how quiet the airfield we landed on was. It
was so peaceful and tranquil. There was no sound of birds or
crickets. I only felt the salty cool breeze of the island
and the gentle warmth of the sun. The sun was shining
brightly but yet, it was a cool 70 degrees.
All of my
senses came alive when we were walking along the airfield.
With the eerie quiet was the unique smell of sulfur
infiltrating my senses. The breeze seemed to carry the smell
everywhere, and it felt as if the sulfur was caressing my
As we continued walking, I thought about the
Marines who first stepped on the island back in February of
1945. In my head, I was imagining a scene of an old war-time
movie, black and white, where the images, black and grey
dots and lines jump around the screen.
(dad’s father) told me so many war stories about his
experience in Japan. Although he was not involved with the
conflict on Iwo Jima, this experience made me able to better
grasp what he was talking about.
The Battle of Iwo
Jima marked one of the heaviest losses for Marines in any
conflict they’ve ever been in, according to Brett Manis,
18th Wing historian.
January 12, 2017 - U.S. Air Force Airmen from Kadena Air Base,
Japan, walk along a trail to Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. Airmen from
different units throughout Kadena were selected for this special
trip as part of a professional military education outing to learn
about the battle of Iwo Jima. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior
Airman Lynette M. Rolen)
The Marines initially thought
the battle for this strategic island would take only a few
hours. What was thought to be a few hours turned into five
weeks and one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific at the
time for the Marines during World War II.
family was impacted by loss during the conflict in the
Pacific. Her father lost two brothers during World War II
within the span of one year. I can’t even begin to imagine
the agony and grief he endured; those were two brothers he
would never see again.
I attempted to imagine what
the Marines’ families felt when they found out their sons,
grandsons, brothers, uncles and fathers lost their lives
during this conflict.
I just wanted to get a tiny
glimpse of what it was like for them during that time and
try to even get a little bit of understanding for what their
families experienced. It honestly saddened me to even think
As the sun beat down on us, we started to
make our way to Mount Suribachi. I began to think about what
it was like for those Marines so many years ago. Many of
them were just kids; kids involved in something so much
bigger than themselves; kids fighting for the freedoms we
I felt like I was stepping back in time as
we were walking around the island.
Every few minutes,
it seemed like we discovered some of the weaponry used
during the battle. What was once formidable is now rusted
over. Some of the weapons even looked like they would
literally break apart and disintegrate.
As we were
hiking, I tried to imagine all the sounds occurring during
the battle; the artillery, machine guns going off, Kamikaze
planes, bombs exploding and all the war cries, cries of
attack and devastation.
We were able to walk where
those Marines walked in 1945 and climb Mount Suribachi as
The climb took some effort, but I know it
was nothing compared to what the Marines faced during the
war. We were climbing without fear of being shot at or
losing our lives, knowing we would be returning safely home
at the end of the day. They were climbing up the mountain,
never knowing if they would see their families again or if
it would be the place where they would take their last
When we finally got to the top of Mount
Suribachi, everyone was exhausted. Then we saw it.
The memorial which is now in place of where those Marines
raised the American flag during the conflict.
January 12, 2017 - U.S. Air Force Airmen from Kadena Air Base,
Japan, hiked to Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. They visited the island
to see the battleground of the largest assault in U.S. Marine Corps
history. More than 6,800 Marines died and more than 17,000 were
wounded over a period of 36 days. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior
Airman Lynette M. Rolen)
overcame so much and endured so many losses and yet came out
the victors. Chills literally ran up my spine when I saw the
memorial. I understood the significance of it now and what
it took to get it up there.
We were able to see the
whole island from the top. It was difficult to imagine such
a large conflict with so many losses on such a small island.
We began to go back down the mountain and stopped by
the beach on the south side of the island. We went up and
down the same slopes the Marines did back in 1945.
The sand was like nothing I've ever seen before in my life.
It was a blackish-grey color and when you stepped across it,
dust just rose up. The texture of the sand was like finely
ground coffee beans, coffee beans and quicksand. Going down
there, it seemed like I was skating on the sand as it was;
it moved with you wherever you went.
When I finally
got to the water’s edge, I collected some of the sand to
send back home to my family. As I looked to my left and
right, fellow service members were doing the same. It was
grainy and rough to the touch, unlike any other sand I’ve
ever felt. It also didn’t sparkle and glisten like the sand
I’ve seen usually does.
We wanted to take something
home with us which would serve as a reminder of our
incredible trip and possibly provide a small bit of closure
to family members who have lost service members.
Coming back up the beach was a challenge in and of itself.
Climbing (or better yet, crawling) up the slopes was no easy
feat. The sand moved and slid with me, so whenever I tried
to climb up the slope, I would always slide down and into
the sand with every move I made.
Our attempts up the
slope were made without any gear on our backs and in
complete safety. I couldn’t conceive how difficult it was
for the Marines in 1945 to get up the slopes with full
battle gear, weapons and combating enemy fire.
surmounting the challenge of climbing up the sand slopes, we
explored one of the caves the Japanese constructed for
This cave was unlike any other I've ever
been in before. Being on a volcanic island, it was warmer
inside and so humid, damp and dark, like a vast, elaborate
Even though we were in the cave for a few
minutes, it seemed like hours as we kept on walking through
it. One wrong turn would not end well. It could end in
separation from the group, walking into centipedes or
spiders, walking into a wall or going down a corridor
leading into others, resulting in endless wandering.
After finally exiting the labyrinthine cave, we saw
another memorial which fills up with light once the sun
sets. As we were walking, we came across many memorials,
commemorating the losses of both American and Japanese
This honor was by far the most
rewarding experience of my life.
This journey made me
so grateful to be an Airman. It made me thankful for the
sacrifices of the heroes who came before me and my fellow
service members. They gave everything so we could have a
This journey also helped me to better
understand the magnitude and impact of war. Thousands upon
thousands of losses occurred during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Thousands of families were just ripped apart, never to be
the same again.
I was greatly humbled by this
experience. It made me realize how precious and short life
is and how I should never take even one moment for granted.
At any time, war can break out and I may have to answer that
call. Before this trip, I knew I would answer that call
proudly and happily, but now, I will also answer it humbly.
I was so honored to have been selected to go on this
journey. I know how few people get to visit this historic
island. I am grateful to my leadership for letting me
experience this once in a lifetime event.
experience made me so grateful for all of the sacrifices
made by the service men who came before me so many years
ago. Words cannot describe the gratitude I feel. I'm free to
write this today and enjoy all the freedoms I have as an
American because of them.
I will never forget this
experience. It made me proud to be an Airman, a daughter,
granddaughter of warriors, and an American.
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Lynette M. Rolen
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