Friday, May 28, 2010

Iwo Jima: Two Movies and a ‘Joke’ (Rated M for Mature)

I have seen both of Clint Eastwood’s films about Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and I highly recommend them both. There were moments in each film that made me gasp that a layperson may not have appreciated.

One took place close to the end of Flags of Our Fathers, when the actor portraying John Radley was going through is father’s effects after the old gentleman died. Decades before, John Radley’s father had been a corpsman and had participated in the famous flag raising atop Mt. Surabachi, immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph. Of the six men in that photo, three died on the island. As the son sorts through his late father’s belongings, he comes across a medal with a blue and white ribbon. Most people would not recognize that as the Navy Cross, just one step down from the Medal of Honor.

I’ve always thought that if you want to describe the battle for iwo Jima to a layperson in thirty-five words or less, I would do it as follows: “Any time twenty-six men are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for capturing eight square miles of some of the world’s most godforsaken real estate, someone in the planning department has SERIOUSLY messed up. “

In the Japanese-language film, Letters from Iwo Jima, there’s a scene in which General Kurabayashi is on the shoreline asking one of his soldiers where he would run if he had encountered machine gun fire. He was doing this to most effectively position his unit’s machine guns. The thing that made me gasp and made my blood run cold was the fact that Kurabayashi apparently correctly guessed exactly where the American landings were going to take place.

What follows is not for the squeamish. There’s one other Iwo Jima story that I heard recounted in a documentary that I viewed while I was in grad school, thirty years ago. One of the speakers was a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima and he related that the one phrase of Japanese that men in his unit had learned was the words for “take off your shirt.” This was because a number of Japanese soldiers would feign surrender while concealing grenades or even satchel charges beneath their uniform blouses as a means of taking American s with them. Needless to say, the Marines got wise to this trick very quickly.

The old Marine relayed that one Japanese soldier stepped forward, still wearing his shirt and the Marines of his unit emptied their Magazines into them. That particular Japanese was carrying a satchel charge that scattered his body parts over a wide area. The Marine also related (he was there and I wasn’t) that a portion of the Japanese soldier’s torso flew through the air and landed on the knees of a Marine who was huddled behind cover so that the Marine was looking at the bare buttocks of his recently deceased enemy. The Marine telling the story related that the surprised Marine shouted, in a West Virginia accent, “My God, am I hit that bad?” After which, the ancient Marine related the entire platoon was useless for the next half hour, since they couldn’t stop laughing.

General Sherman was right. War is hell and Iwo Jima was one of Hell’s lowest circles.

I once read a comment from Gore Vidal that during World War II, the United States Marines had a reputation for not only being brave men, but also resourceful since only men who possessed both of those qualities could fight their way of some of the ungodly messes that their officers were fool enough to lead them into. Whatever you think of Vidal, anyone familiar with the Battle of Iwo Jima would have to agree.

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