US veterans return to Iwo Jima for 70th anniversary

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Ceremony Marks 70th Anniversary of Iwo Jima

IOTO, Japan (AP) - Dozens of aging U.S. veterans, many in their early 90s and some in wheelchairs, gathered on the tiny, barren island of Iwo Jima on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most iconic battles of World War II.

More than 30 veterans flown in from the U.S. island territory of Guam toured the black sand beaches where they invaded the deeply dug-in forces of the island's Japanese defenders in early 1945.

They were bused to the top of Mount Suribachi, an active volcano, where an Associated Press photo of the raising of the American flag while the battle was still raging became a potent symbol of hope and valor to a war-weary public back home that was growing increasingly disillusioned with the seemingly unending battle in the Pacific.

For some of the veterans, the return to the island where many of their comrades died, and which is still inhabited only by a contingent of Japanese military troops, brought out difficult emotions.

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Iwo Jima vets return
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US veterans return to Iwo Jima for 70th anniversary
U.S. Marines hoist the U.S. flag on the summit of Mt. Suribachi, near the site of a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known as Ioto, Japan, Saturday, March 21, 2015. The battle is one of WWII's bloodiest and most iconic battles. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
The color guard of the United States Marines and Japan Self Defense Force hold the flags of the U.S. and Japan during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known as Ioto, Japan, Saturday, March 21, 2015. The battle is one of WWII's bloodiest and most iconic battles. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Dog tags hang from a memorial on the summit of Mt. Suribachi, near the site of a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known as Ioto, Japan, Saturday, March 21, 2015. The battle is one of WWII's bloodiest and most iconic battles. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
A U.S. veteran is comforted by a U.S. solider at the memorial statue during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima on Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
A U.S. Marine looks out at Invasion Beach near the site of a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known as Ioto, Japan, Saturday, March 21, 2015. The battle is one of WWII's bloodiest and most iconic battles. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, left in the middle, offers a wreath during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima on Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. Dozens of aging U.S. veterans gathered on the tiny, barren island of Iwo Jima on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most iconic battles of World War II.(AP Photo/Japan Pool) JAPAN OUT
Japan's Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, left, talks with a U.S. veteran after a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima on Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Japan's Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, bottom, delivers a speech during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
A U.S. veteran with uniform attends a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
U.S. veterans pay respect at the Iwo Jima battle monument during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima on Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
In this Jan. 31, 2014 photo, G.I. Joe action figures portray Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima in a display at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A half-century after the 12-inch doll was introduced at a New York City toy fair, the iconic action figure is being celebrated by collectors with a display at the military museum, while the toy's maker plans other anniversary events to be announced later this month. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Japan's Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, left, talks with a U.S. veteran after a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima on Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, Japan Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Iwo Jima, now known officially as Ioto, is seen from an airplane in Japan, Saturday, March 21, 2015. The U.S. and Japan held the ceremony Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of one of World War II's bloodiest and most iconic battles. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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"I hated them," said former Sgt. John Roy Coltrane, 93, of Siler City, North Carolina. "For 40 years, I wouldn't even buy anything made in Japan. But now I drive a Honda."

Speeches at the Reunion of Honor ceremony held near the invasion beach were made by senior Japanese politicians and descendants of the few Japanese who survived the battle. Also speaking were U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who noted that the battle for Iwo Jima remains the "very ethos" of the Marine Corps today.

"We should never forget that the peace and prosperity of Japan and the United States at present has been built on the sacrifice of precious lives," Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said in his remarks.

This was the first time that Japanese Cabinet officials attended the anniversary ceremony, now in its 16th year. And while the presence of veterans able to make the grueling trip has been steadily dwindling, the number of participants - about 500 - was double that of last year because of the significance of the 70th year since Japan's surrender ended World War II.

After the joint memorial, the U.S. and Japanese dignitaries and guests went their separate ways to visit the parts of the island that were of the most significance to their own troops. The Japanese have erected several memorials to their dead, and in a traditional way of placating their souls poured water and placed flowers on the memorial sites.

The Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, and it was only declared secured after more than a month of fighting. About 70,000 U.S. troops fought more than 20,000 Japanese - only 216 Japanese were captured as POWs and the rest are believed to have been either killed in action or to have taken their own lives.

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Iconic WWII Photos Joe Rosenthal
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US veterans return to Iwo Jima for 70th anniversary
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on Feb. 23, 1945. Strategically located only 660 miles from Tokyo, the Pacific island became the site of one of the bloodiest, most famous battles of World War II against Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, fifth division, cheer and hold up their rifles after raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, a volcanic Japanese island, on Feb. 23, 1945 during World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Australian and New Zealand fliers arrive at San Francisco on Matson Liner Mariposa Nov. 4, 1941. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Japanese arms plant precision machinists at work on the breach end of a gun barrel in Tokyo, Dec. 1, 1941. Armament production is proceeding at a high pitch of intensity and efficiency. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Japanese guns and material captured at Kokumbuna in the Solomon islands are brought from the front in a jeep on Feb. 12, 1943. American soldiers look them over. Much booty was captured by the Americans when they took Kokumbuna, Japanese strong point on Guadalcanal last January. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marine paratroopers, in training at a South Pacific base, use a portable tripod to shake out their parachutes and remove dirt and leaves on April 13, 1943. S/Sgt. Robert E. Sale of Chicago, right, directs the operation. The towers in the background are portable cabinets for drying wet chutes with heated air. (AP Photo/Pool/Joe Rosenthal)
Marine gunner Charles E. James of Hartland, Wis., demonstrates various methods of snap-shooting pistols to a group of U.S. Marines in training at a Pacific base on April 13, 1943. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Cyclops airdrome in the Hollandia area of Dutch New Guinea on May 12, 1944 is full of activity as Army transport planes land and takeoff from this field captured from the Japanese. In the foreground is the wreckage of a Japanese zero. Soldiers are unidentified. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal/Pool)
Sitting on the remains of a destroyed Japanese Zero at Hollandia, New Guinea on May 14, 1944, are these American soldiers who helped occupy the Japanese-held air field. Left to right: Pvt. Angelo Gemelli, Chicago, Ill.; Pfc. Troy A. Martin, Missoula, Mont.; Sgt. Henry H. Coldeway, Hermleigh, Texas; Pfc. David C. Calvert, Great Falls, Mont.; Pvt. John Henry Pavlowski, Syracuse, N.Y.; T/Sgt. Howard Sandberg, Ronan, Mont.; and T/Sgt. Stanley P. Mach, Posen, Illinois. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Sgt. Raymond W. Davis (lower center), of Utica, Ohio, shows a group of home state boys the proper method of servicing a motor, somewhere in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Standing around the sergeant, left to right: Pvt. Guadelupe Barron, Dayton, Ohio; Cpl. Otis C. French, Dayton, Ohio; Cpl. Willis L. Felver, Piqua, Ohio, and Pfc. Frank E. Davis, Massilon, Ohio. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Five New Jersey boys strike this pose somewhere in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Left to right: Warrant Officer Frank P. Bingert, New Brukswick; S/Sgt. John Petrjcik Jr., Meyuchen; T/3 John Nagy, Perth Amboy; T/5 Mickey Procadding, Princeton; and T/5 Philip Roman, Passaic. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
American artillery fire, which hit the tree under which they were sitting, killed these three Japanese as American forces established a beachhead on Saipan in the Marianas, June 26, 1944. The invasion, closest yet to Japan, was launched on June 14. U.S. Marines are in background. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
These Wisconsin lads find a stack of heavy duty tires the ideal spot on which to relax from their chores at a base in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Left to right: T/5 Daniel Buress, of Kenoshan; Sgt. Floyd Davison, of Milwaukee; Cpl. Adolph D. Larson, Deerfield, and Cpl. George Mazanek, Green Bay. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Marines take advantage of natural cover at the beachhead near Asan, Mariana Islands, Guam, July 1944. In background is a burning "duck". (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines move forward in the rain, toward junction with 1st Marine Brigade at the front lines, July 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Soldiers of a parachute unit wash their bodies and clothes, New Guinea, Jul. 11, 1944. (AP Photo)
Transporting a piano to a paratroopers base in New Guinea is no easy feat but these men accomplished it, shown July 12, 1944. Left to right: Pvt. Mike Pazinko, Olyphant, Pa; Pfc. Salvador R. Fiorelli, Philadelphia, Pa; 1st Lt. Arthur E. Schuder, Atlanta, Ga. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Marines land on coral reefs during U.S./Japanese warfare, Guam, Mariana Islands, Jul. 21, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Vehicles are slung over the side of a transport ship in preparation to being run to the Guam shore in a landing craft, July 21, 1944. In the background, partially obscured by haze and smoke from shelling is another landing craft. Photo made on the first morning of invasion to retake Guam. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Guam in the Mariana Islands is pictured on Jul. 27, 1944, during U.S./Japanese warfare. (AP photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Wounded soldiers are carried on stretchers towards a beach where they will be evacuated to a hospital ship, Guam, Mariana Islands, Jul. 27, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Among equipment abandoned by the Japanese as Marines stormed forward is this 25-millimeter anti-aircraft gun near Piti, past Tepungan, July 27, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
A view of destruction in outer Agana, Mariana Islands, Guam, Aug. 1944. (Joe Rosenthal)
Marine Corps General A. H. Noble, left, looks on as Major Gen. A. H. Turnage frisks a captured Japanese carrier pigeon on Guam island in the Marianas, Aug. 2, 1944. Pfc. Louis E. Cook, Jr., of DuQuoin, Illinois, keeps a close watch on the proceedings. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Wreck of a Japanese plane on Tiyan airport after seizure by Marines on the Guam, Aug. 2, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. troops stop to eat on the road to Agana, the capital of Guam, Aug. 10, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines pose at the graves of dead comrades in Guam, Aug. 10, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Tiny natives of Guam hold home-made American flags made by their mothers from parts of dresses while in custody of the Japanese, Aug. 10, 1944. The children waved the flags when the Yanks moved in. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Supported by tanks, Marines of the 1st U.S. Division inch their way up on the beach of Peleliu, during the invasion of the island in the Palau group, on September 14, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
As the U.S. invasion of Peleliu gets underway, various types of landing craft approach the island in the Palau group, ferrying men and material to the beaches, on September 14, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. troops of the First Marine Division storm ashore from beached "Alligator" vehicles at Peleliu Island, Palau on Sept. 20, 1944 during World War II. The invasion started Sept. 14. The smoke is from a burning "Alligator." (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Soldiers stand by a crashed Japenese bomber on Peleliu, Republic of Palau, Sep. 22, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Fourth Division Marines move in from the beach on Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcanic Island, on Feb. 19, 1945. A dead Marine lies at right in the foreground. Mt. Suribachi, in the background, was turned into a beehive of guns by Japanese troops. It was scaled by the U.S. Marines, who took control. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines aboard a landing craft head for the beaches of Iwo Jima Island, Japan, on Feb. 19, 1945 during World War II. In the background is Mount Suribachi, the extinct volcano captured by the Marines after a frontal assault. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
A U.S. Marine, center, is shot dead during battle for Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 19, 1945 in World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines of the Fourth Division shield themselves in abandoned Japanese trench and bomb craters formed during U.S. invasion and amphibious landing at Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 19, 1945 in World War II. A battered Japanese ship is at right in the background at right. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Two U.S. Marines, slumped in death, lie where they fell on Iwo Jima, among the first victims of Japanese gunfire as the American conquest of the strategic Japanese Volcano Island begins on Feb. 19, 1945 during World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines offer a Japanese prisoner of war, whose face is obliterated by censors, a cigarette after he is captured during American invasion of Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 28, 1945 in World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines kneel in prayer before they receive communion during a lull in the fighting for Motoyam Airstrip No. 1 on Iwo Jima, March 1, 1945. From left to right: Pfc. Edmond L. Fadel, Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Pvt. Walter M. Sokowski, Syracuse, N.Y.; and Pvt. Nicholas A. Zingaro, Syracuse, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Joe Rosenthal, of the Associated Press, photographer with the wartime still picture pool, looks over the scene at Iwo Jima, Japan on March 7, 1945, from which he has sent some of the most graphic pictures of the Pacific war. (AP Photo/U.S. Marine Corps)
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The island was declared secure on March 16, 1945, but skirmishes continued. In about 36 days of battle, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines were killed and 20,000 wounded.

It is to this day considered sacred ground to many Japanese. As a haunting reminder of the ferocity of the fighting, search teams continue to dig up more and more Japanese remains each year - it's estimated that 12,000 have yet to be found.

The United States returned the island to Japan in 1968. Wreckage of military equipment can still be seen dotting some of the beach areas, along with pill boxes and extensive mazes of caves.

Though the idea of developing the island for tourism has been mulled for decades, and possibly using its natural hot springs as an attraction, the island is virtually untouched other than the small airfield used by the Japanese.

Though a tiny volcanic crag, the island - now called Ioto or Iwoto on Japanese maps - was deemed strategically important because it was being used by the Japanese to launch air attacks on American bombers. After its capture, it was used by the U.S. as an emergency landing site for B-29s, which eventually made 2,900 emergency landings there that are estimated to have saved the lives of 24,000 airmen who would have otherwise had to crash at sea.

Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded for action in the battle, more than any other in U.S. military history.

The only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima, Hershel "Woody" Williams, 91, attended the ceremony. Afterward, he said his feelings toward the Japanese had not changed in the decades since the battle.

"They were just doing their jobs, just like we were," he said. "We tried to kill them before they could kill us. But that's war."

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