Former enemies meet to honor dead

March 15, 1995|By New York Times News Service

IWO JIMA, Japan -- They traded war stories, visited battle sites and stood uneasily next to men they had tried their hardest to kill.

Half a century after the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the ghastliest in World War II, American and Japanese veterans returned yesterday to commemorate the struggle for an island that had once seemed so important that it had absorbed tens of thousands of lives. These days, it has no permanent residents.

Even now, there are thousands of Japanese soldiers buried in the man-made caves and tunnels of Iwo Jima.

Even 50 years cannot heal war wounds completely, and many veterans refrained from coming face to face with their former enemies. But they cooperated to arrange the daylong ceremonies, and some even returned their spoils of war.

Kelly M. Sharbel, 72, a veteran who fought on the front lines in the attack of this island, picked up four Japanese yen notes half a century ago -- yen that some fallen Japanese soldier then had no need for -- and yesterday he gave them to a Japanese war veteran he met at the commemoration.

"I thought I'd give something back to them," Mr. Sharbel said. "I looked at him and he looked at me and I gave him the yen. He took it and thanked me with a bow."

As Americans scraped up souvenirs of the loose black sand on which hundreds had died under heavy Japanese artillery fire, as they stood on the beach gazing at the empty sea that had been crowded with 500 landing craft, many emphasized that it had all been worth it, that the victory had saved lives.

American military leaders wanted control of Iwo Jima to eliminate a threat and to provide a base from which to send fighter cover for the bombing of Japan.

The price on both sides was high. The Americans had 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 killed; of 20,000 Japanese soldiers, only 1,083 survived.

The miles of tunnels dug by the Japanese, some sinking six levels deep, criss-crossed the island underground, making it hard for the Marines to pinpoint their enemy.

Yoshio Nakajima, 79, was one of those infantrymen in the caves.

His colleagues killed themselves with grenades, but when Mr. Nakajima tried, his grenade failed to explode. Then he tried biting his tongue, hoping he would bleed to death, but he was too weak from not having eaten or drunk for days, and could not muster the strength.

"Yesterday's enemy is today's friend," he said as he stood by the Reunion of Honor Memorial, an engraved monument that was the centerpiece of yesterday's joint commemoration ceremonies.

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