PASCAGOULA, Miss. -- The latest addition to the U.S. Navy's warship fleet is named for the most costly battle in Marine Corps history, in which more than 6,800 men died in 36 days to win a mound of gray volcanic sand and rock in the Pacific Ocean. Some of the men who survived the fighting lived to step aboard the carrier USS Iwo Jima this summer.
About 1,000 World War II veterans arrive before dawn by bus convoy on the steamy banks of the Mississippi Sound. Now in their 70s and 80s, many carry themselves up the Iwo Jima's gently sloping gangway with their erect Marine Corps posture intact. Others, stooped with age, lean on the arms of sons and grandsons, or shuffle along with walkers. Some are pushed in wheelchairs.
On the hangar deck several stories above the pier, these members of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Division Associations check in with the young Navy men sitting at desks. Men search the crowd for a familiar face, hug, shake hands, wipe away tears in the swell of feeling at seeing an old buddy. The deck sparkles with the flashing of so many cameras.
"It's very emotional for us," says William L. More of Reisterstown, president of the 4th Marine Division Association, World War II.
A retired Exxon marketing representative, More spent much of the past year organizing the event after Iwo Jima Capt. John T. Nawrocki agreed to his request to take part in the "sailaway."
On this eight-hour maiden voyage, the vessel would steam east from the shipyard where it was built to the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, where it would be commissioned a week later.
On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, men of the 4th and 5th divisions hit beaches on the southeast end of Iwo Jima, encountering little resistance at first. They could scan the expanse of sand and see no Japanese defenses.
Enemy troops were all in an underground stronghold of bunkers, tunnels and a hospital.
The Allies considered Iwo Jima, all 8 square miles of it, an ideal base for fighters escorting long-range bombers to Japan's home islands. Lying about 650 miles south of Tokyo, Iwo Jima's three airfields were considered essential to the Pacific campaign.
The invasion began about 9 a.m. as landing craft carrying Marine forces coursed toward Iwo's beaches under the protection of naval gunfire. Minutes later, as men and machines bogged down in heavy volcanic ash, Japanese forces unleashed an intense mortar barrage.
By the first day's end, with about 30,000 troops on the island, the Marines had managed to isolate Mount Suribachi and Motoyama Airfield No. 1. But the cost was high: 2,500 Marines dead.
The battle that inspired one of the most enduring World War II photographs occurred four days later. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal photographed five Marines and a Navy corpsman struggling to raise the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi. The image marked the conquest of one key position, but the fighting would continue for a month.
The 36-day struggle ended March 26 when Iwo Jima was declared secure. Military planners who thought the operation would take only 10 days had seriously underestimated enemy forces.
The losses were staggering. The battle had cost 6,800 Marines their lives and wounded 26,000. Of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo, only 1,083 survived.
"Scared. You were scared all the time. Things got so bad you could hide behind a blade of grass and feel safe," says More.
George Walsh, 78, of Belleville, Ill., a former Marine gunner and now the public affairs officer for the Illinois Department of Transportation, had traveled to Pascagoula with a special mission in mind. He was looking for his old colonel, Robert E. Neiman, 82, of Indian Wells, Calif. He had not seen Neiman since 1945, when the colonel helped carry him to the beach after he was wounded.
Walsh carries a carefully preserved sepia photograph showing the men in his company aboard a transport bound for Iwo. He happily displays the photo that shows him seated next to Neiman, who is standing. When the USS Iwo Jima's chaplain reunites the two Marines, they stand speechless, hugging each other.
Walsh, in a choked voice, says, "I hugged him. You bet I did. He saved my life and I'm almost ready to cry."
"I told George, `You have a million-dollar wound and you're going home,'" says Neiman.
"I didn't want to go. He put me in a landing craft and said, `You're going,'" says Walsh.
Neiman would spend the next 32 days on Iwo Jima. "And when you walked off," he says, "you couldn't help but be different."
Seven members of the Snyder family spanning two generations accompany George A. Snyder Sr. and his wife, Catherine L. Snyder, of Dayton, Ohio, to the reunion.
Snyder, who survived four Pacific invasions, earned a Purple Heart when the tank he was aboard was destroyed by a shell on his wedding anniversary. He later staggered to the beach, grabbed a few bandages and went back to the front.