IWO JIMA, Japan - Pointing to a sandstone cliff pockmarked with World War II bullet holes, the U.S. Marine historian was describing a honeycomb of Japanese tunnels yesterday when a somber voice piped up from the back of the Humvee.
"Those are the caves I was firing on," said Joe Rogers, 83, a San Francisco lawyer.
The Marines came back to Iwo Jima yesterday.
This time they walked the black sand beaches in sensible white tennis shoes and filled souvenir vials for their grandchildren with volcanic sand from this Pacific island.
They were marking the 60th anniversary of a battle that has blurred into an American myth, symbolized by the photo of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi.
But for the octogenarians who came back, the nation's history was their personal property.
On the Humvee tour, John Ripley, a retired colonel who is the official Marine Corps historian, pointed out an overgrown gully where 1st Lt. Jack Lummus, an end for the New York Giants, was mortally wounded.
"I put a cigarette in Lummus' mouth - he was going into shock," Gerry Russell said in a matter-of-fact voice from his seat in the front of the jeep. Now 88 and a semiretired college administrator, he was a battalion commander in 1945.
In the 35-day fight for this 8-square-mile volcanic island, 6,821 Marines were killed, more than four times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in two years in Iraq.
About 22,000 Japanese defenders were killed, including 1,600 after the island was declared "secure" by military authorities at the end of March 1945.
The tunnel network was so impenetrable that the last two Japanese soldiers did not surrender until November 1949, more than four years after the war ended.
The Japanese fought tenaciously because this teardrop-shaped island 700 miles south of Tokyo was crucial for U.S. bombing raids on Japan's main islands.
From this island, aircraft spotters could warn Tokyo of approaching bombers, and fighter planes from Iwo Jima could try to intercept bombers.
On March 10, three weeks after the battle started here, B-29 Superfortress bombers hit Tokyo with a huge firebomb raid that killed about 100,000 people, almost all civilians.
"That firebombing is unforgivable," Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and an ardent nationalist, said Thursday at a news conference there. "One hundred thousand people died in one night. That's a massacre, isn't it? We have to say this. But Japanese politicians these days, and the Foreign Ministry, don't."
While Iwo Jima is revered in the United States, the battle is largely ignored in Japan.
In events planned to lead up to Aug, 15, the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender, Japan is expected to focus largely on events in which its civilians were victims: the Tokyo firebomb raid, the battle for Okinawa and the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In speeches at a memorial ceremony yesterday, Japanese representatives focused on the growing military alliance with the United States.
"Today, 60 years after the battle of Iwo Jima, it gives me deep awe to see Japan and the United States cooperate in fighting terrorism," said Yoshitaka Shinda, a grandson of the island's last Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, said here, "Today the grandchildren of the men who fought on Iwo Jima stand together in Iraq to offer the hand of freedom."
While veterans by and large said they backed the strengthening of the U.S. alliance with Japan, several criticized the lack of education about World War II.
"I was telling a young Japanese woman in Guam that I was coming to Iwo Jima for the 60th anniversary," said Keith Mueller, a veteran's son. "She had never heard of Iwo Jima. She kept saying, `Hiroshima?' and I kept saying, `Iwo Jima.'"
His father, Clifford, sat nearby in a wheelchair. He said that his birthday is March 12. "On my 20th I was here and fired 2,000 rounds. Now I am back here for my 80th birthday."
Later this year, Clint Eastwood is to start filming Flags of Our Fathers, based on James Bradley's best-selling book about the battle.
Fathers and sons
The theme yesterday was fathers and sons.
"Until he went to his first reunion in '85, he thought he was the only one to wake up screaming in the night," said Paul Jackson. His father, James, is an 80-year-old former Marine rifleman.
The son recalled, "He once told me he put a bayonet in a Japanese soldier's eye socket, and the soldier just ran away."
Elsewhere on the island, Teddy Draper Jr. waited for a photo session to end for his father, Teddy, the only Navajo code talker at the reunion.
"I just thought that everybody's father would scream at night," he said of his father, who translated military radio communications into Navajo, a language unknown to the Japanese.
Speaking of his 82-year-old father, who had traveled here from Canyon de Chelly, Ariz., he added: "He suffered real bad from the war, but he didn't let anyone know."