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 being given.
As more than 30 of us were taken to the flightline to board the aircraft, my emotions continued to build.
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.
The 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 skin.
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.
My grandpa (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.
My mom’s 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 about it.
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 now enjoy.
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 they did.
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 breath.
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)
They 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.
After surmounting the challenge of climbing up the sand slopes, we explored one of the caves the Japanese constructed for shelter.
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 maze.
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 service members.
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 future.
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.
This 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
Provided through DVIDS
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