WASHINGTON — Capt. Larry Snowden led a company of 230 Marines that landed on the beach of a small Japanese island on Feb. 19, 1945. Five weeks later, when Iwo Jima fell to U.S. forces after one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during World War II, his unit’s losses reflected the steep cost of an historic victory.
“When we walked off the island, 99 of us remained,” said Snowden, 93, the senior ranking survivor of the invasion, who retired from the Marines as a lieutenant general in 1979. “That’s a pretty high casualty rate.”
Snowden spoke Thursday in Washington at a gathering of Iwo Jima survivors who marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the siege. Over the decades, the battle’s prominence has persisted, owing to a photograph that shows five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point.
Yet it is the ferocity of the fighting that lingers in the memories of the men sent to Iwo Jima.
Snowden’s company belonged to the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment of the 4th Marine Division. His unit went ashore the first day, part of the initial push of 30,000 U.S. troops, most of whom were Marines.
An additional 40,000 men later joined the struggle against 22,000 Japanese soldiers, who hid among an intricate network of tunnels and caves spanning the volcanic island 750 miles from mainland Japan. U.S. forces advanced as little as 50 yards a day in the early stages as both sides suffered massive casualties.
By the time combat ended on March 26, 1945, almost 7,000 American troops had been killed and more than 19,000 wounded. Almost 19,000 Japanese soldiers were killed as they followed the orders of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi to fight to the death.
U.S. commanders realized only after the battle that they had overrated the strategic importance of the eight-square-mile island and its three airstrips. Iwo Jima nonetheless produced an incalculable morale boost to the American war effort when the photo of the six men raising the flag appeared in newspapers across the country.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the moment on Feb. 23, 1945, the battle’s fourth day, and the image endures as a symbol of American resolve in wartime. Gen. Joseph Dunford, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the survivors that their triumph has reverberated across the generations.
“The battle of Iwo Jima has become part of the very ethos of the Marine Corps,” he said. Dunford added that their example inspired Marines who fought in America’s most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Your legacy transcends the capture of a faraway island in the Pacific long ago.”
Kenichiro Sasae, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, extolled the sacrifice of U.S. and Japanese soldiers alike. Referring to Japanese troops who defended the island as they moved underground, he said, “Mount Suribachi must have felt like a tomb waiting to be closed.”
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked in 1945 that, among U.S. troops on Iwo Jima, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Snowden, who led his company even after shrapnel from a mortar blast wounded him in the neck and head, described overcoming his injuries in more modest terms.
“Part of the game,” he said.