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
immediately changed out of my rain gear in preparation for the long, hot hike
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.
October 17, 2017 - Members of Team Yokota look out over the beach
with Mt. Suribachi behind them at Iwo To, Japan. The island is the
location of the famous World War II battle of Iwo Jima, and the peak
is the place where one of the most iconic photographs of the war was
taken.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Donald Hudson)
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.
October 17, 2017 - The Marine memorial atop Mt. Suribachi at Iwo
To, Japan. The memorial was dedicated to the service members who
fought in the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. (U.S. Air Force photo
by Senior Airman Donald Hudson)
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
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
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.
October 17, 2017 - A member of Team Yokota walks down a tunnel
passage way, Oct. 17, 2017, at Iwo To, Japan. The tunnels were made
by Japanese soldiers who fought and lived in the caves during and
after the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. (U.S. Air Force photo by
Senior Airman Donald Hudson)
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.
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson
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