ARLINGTON, Va. -- Kitano Point, Bloody Gorge and Mount Suribachi are not names one hears much anymore. Even the heroes who died in those places, men such as Charles Joseph Berry and John Harlan Willis and Donald Jack Ruhl, are remembered mainly by their families and the other men who journeyed with them into a little patch of hell called Iwo Jima.
But yesterday, at the 50th anniversary of the battle, a couple of thousand old warriors, many accompanied by their wives, assembled at the foot of the famous Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to receive tribute from a commander-in-chief, four Medal of Honor recipients and a crowd that stood in silent awe.
"The dimensions of their struggle still stagger us," President Clinton said. "With our eyes closed, we can all still see the flag rising atop the hill."
The president stood in front of the 78-foot bronze statue of that flag-raising, first captured on film four days after the landing and then transformed into the very symbol of the Corps.
"Hard men wept when they saw the flag fly over Suribachi," Mr. Clinton said.
"We fought one of the most costly battles in Marine Corps history on that eight-mile-square chunk of rock and volcanic ash -- 80,000 fighting men, Japanese and American, locked in close, savage combat," retired Marine Col. William E. Barber told his old mates. "I am older now, as are you, but I can still see the colors of that February morning. The sky. The island. And sometimes I think I can still hear the noise of battle."
In their late 60s and their 70s, these old Marines walked away with a noticeable spring in their steps; their battle is not yet forgotten, and their sacrifice is not yet unappreciated.
Casualty figures hardly ever tell the story of a battle, but on Iwo Jima they come close.
The Marines, with supporting Navy units, landed on the island on Feb. 19, 1945. On the first day alone, there were 2,400 casualties. The operation was supposed to take 14 days, but it took 36. At the end, 6,821 Americans had been killed in action; more that 16,000 Americans were wounded, many of them in savage, hand-to-hand combat.
L Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, fewer than 1,100 survived.
It was the most costly fight in Marine Corps history. More Medals of Honor -- 27 -- were given than in any other World War II battle, but more than half of the recipients died on the island.
"Uncommon valor was a common virtue," Adm. Chester W. Nimitz said of the men who fought there. President Roosevelt, Mr. Clinton told the crowd, "gasped in horror" when he heard of the casualty reports.
"The thing I remember most about the battle," said Art Huffer, now 69, who fought in the Marines 5th Division, "was the burial site. There were a pile of bodies and they had to dig a hole with a bulldozer."
Bronze star recipient Joe Noll, 74, of Ocean Pines, Md., recalled his reaction to the flag. "I was made a platoon sergeant because my platoon leader was hit," he said. "We were up on the front lines on the sixth day when we ran out of C-2 explosives. Our jeep was blown up and I took five of my guys and we ran down to the beach to get some more. I slipped on the guts of a Marine who'd been killed and my body turned around. And then I saw it, our flag flying! What a hell of a good feeling it was."
Other major Iwo Jima reunions were held over the weekend in Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Antonio. A 50th anniversary commemoration will be held on Iwo Jima on March 14, the day the battle ended.
Historians, in time, would question the wisdom of letting so many men perish on Iwo Jima. Its strategic value was solely to give B-29s based in Saipan a landing strip on their way back from the skies over Tokyo should they have engine difficulty or run out of fuel. Anyone who dared make that point to one of these Marines yesterday would have been quickly set straight: The president himself noted yesterday that B-29s, often carrying crews of 12 and 13 men, landed on Iwo Jima some 2,200 times after it was secured.
"The island was a vital objective, badly needed by the Army air forces for the strategic bombing campaign against Japan," said Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., Marine Corps commandant.
"Fifty years ago, with their lives before them, they left everything -- their families, their loved ones, the serenity and security of their homes -- to fight for a just cause," added Mr. Clinton. "But they never wavered or faltered. And when they were done, our liberties and our homes were safe again."
Mr. Clinton himself avoided service in the military during the Vietnam War and participated in anti-war protests. When Mr. Clinton spoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time two years ago, his presence was protested by some veterans who carried signs, heckled him and turned their backs on him when he spoke.
There was no such behavior yesterday. Regardless of their personal views, they stood at the first strains of "Hail to the Chief."
Don Williams, a 66-year-old Marine veteran from Silver Spring, who fought at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea -- another storied battle in Marine Corps lore -- said: "He's our commander-in-chief, and it doesn't matter if we voted for him or not.
"And if we got in another war," he said, "we'd follow Bill Clinton just as diligently as we did Truman or Roosevelt."