Rising from hallowed ground, the Marine Corps War Memorial overlooks the Potomac River at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. It is the largest bronze monument in the world. Arguably, it is also the most famous monument in the world. And for all who have earned the title, a pilgrimage to the monument is required. First, a brief historical review: In the closing years of World War II, U.S. Marines fought and bled their way across the Pacific Ocean toward Japan. The Japanese knew their tiny volcanic island, Iwo Jima, would be attacked. Its crucial airfields lay only 650 miles from Tokyo, just over two hours flying time. So, under the command of LtGen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Japan's best and brightest mining engineers turned remote Iwo Jima into a seemingly impregnable fortress. In the volcanic rock, laborers blasted out 16 miles of tunnels, connecting 1500 rooms. The engineers built underground hospitals and supply rooms under hundreds of feet of solid impenetrable rock. These were linked to over a thousand fortified artillery and antiaircraft batteries, and machinegun and mortar bunkers. Impregnable, they believed.
Preliminary bombardment by the 16-inch guns of U.S. Navy battleships had a negligible effect on the volcanic island fortress. Nonetheless, on 19 February 1945 the Marines stormed the beach. Many never even made it to the shore. From hundreds of fortifications, many atop 550-foot high Mount Suribachi, the Japanese rained a hail of rockets, artillery, mortar, and automatic weapons fire down upon the attacking force. For both the Japanese and the Marines, the island became a charnel house. Yet, by the fourth day the Marines of 3rd Platoon, Echo Company, had clawed their way to the summit of Mount Suribachi. Here they raised a small American flag. Soon a larger flag was obtained. Five Marines and a Navy corpsman mounted the new flag on a piece of pipe. Together they raised this flag atop the former Japanese bastion. The six flag-raisers represented a cross-section of America: PFC Ira Hayes, a full-blooded Pima Indian from Arizona, Sgt. Michael Strank, a Pennsylvania coal mine worker, Cpl. Harlon Block, a draftee from the Texas oil fields, PFC Franklin Sousley, a 19 year old Kentucky farm boy, PFC Rene Gagnon, a New Englander rejected by the Navy, and PM2 (corpsman) John Bradley, a funeral director's apprentice.
Joe Rosenthal, of the Associated Press, photographed the men as they raised the flag. That picture, stopping time for 1/400th of a second, would become the most famous photograph of all time.After 36 terrible days, Iwo Jima finally fell to the Marines. Of the forty men in 3rd Platoon who stormed the beach, only four escaped being killed or seriously wounded on Iwo Jima. Of the six men who raised the flag, Cpl. Block, Sgt. Strank, and PFC Sousley were all killed-in-action within days. They are among the 6,821 Americans who never left Iwo Jima alive. Further, an additional 19,217 Americans were maimed or grievously wounded. In July 1947 the U.S. Congress authorized a Marine Corps War Memorial, based on the timeless photograph by Joe Rosenthal. The new memorial was sculpted by Felix de Weldon. In 108 separate pieces, it was cast in a New York foundry and then trucked to Washington. Ground-breaking and assembly began on 19 February 1954, the ninth anniversary of the Iwo Jima landing. The final cost of $850,000 was borne entirely by donations, 96 percent of them from U.S. Marines. Burnished into the base of polished black Swedish granite, in gold letters, is the inscription, "Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue." On the opposite side, flanked by Marine Corps emblems, is the additional inscription: In Honor And Memory Of The Men Of The United States Marine Corps Who Have Given Their Lives To Their Country Since 10 November 1775. Inscribed in gold are the names of the campaigns in which Marines have fought since 1775. Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. President, delivered the dedication address on 10 November 1954, the 179th birthday of the Corps. The five Marines and their corpsman are forever immortalized in bronze, raising the American flag on Iwo Jima for their Corps and Country. They represent the supreme sacrifice of all Marines who went before them, and all who follow. They live eternally. They live on hallowed ground. Never to be forgetten by fellow Americans.