Iwo Jima vets mark 70th anniversary

26 survivors of grisly WWII battle remember iconic flag-raising moment on Feb. 23, 1945

Marine Sgt. Major Michael "Iron Mike" Mervosh who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam spoke with passion about his time as a Marine and his support for building the Iwo Jima Memorial at Camp Pendleton. — John Gastald


— Seventy years ago Monday, five Marines and one Navy corpsman raised a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the waning days of World War II.
For the 23 Marines and 3 Navy corpsmen honored at a 70th anniversary luncheon in Newport Beach on Monday, the famous flag-raising became a rallying cry for a grisly battle with the Japanese that would drag on for another 32 days and leave more than 26,000 Americans dead or wounded.

Retired Sgt. Major Mike Mervosh of Oceanside didn’t see the flag go up that morning — “I was too busy saving my butt and killing the enemy” — but the 91-year-old Iwo Jima survivor appreciates how the iconic image has come to represent the bravery of the men he fought beside during February and March 1945.

“It was the most demanding, toughest, fiercest and bloodiest battle in the history of the Marine Corps,” Mervosh said. “It was the perfect battle on the perfect battlefield … fighting man against fighting man, kill or be killed.”

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. Strategically located 660 miles from Tokyo, the Pacific island became the site of one of the bloodiest, most famous battles of World War II against Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File) The Associated Press

More than 450 people attended Monday’s luncheon, the inaugural fundraiser for Operation Home of the Brave. The new nonprofit hopes to raise $3 million to buy and install a full-size flag-raising monument at Camp Pendleton in 2016. Many of the Marines who fought in Iwo Jima were trained at Camp Pendleton, but the Oceanside Marine Corps base has only a small memorial of the battle near its South Mesa Club.

Laura Dietz, who founded the nonprofit and is leading fundraising drive, said she’d like to see the monument and adjacent memorial garden built in a prominent location near the new Navy Hospital Camp Pendleton along Interstate 5.

“This iconic image speaks to Americans in a way like no other,” said Dietz, a Corona Del Mar resident. “It’s about empowerment, courage, dedication, commitment and all the good things America stands for.”

Iwo Jima is a barren volcanic island 660 miles south of Tokyo that U.S. forces hoped to use as staging ground for a full-scale invasion of Japan. But the island was heavily fortified by Japanese troops, who were deeply nested in foxholes, underground tunnels and caves, and refused to surrender (nearly all of the island’s estimated 22,000 Japanese soldiers were killed).

Carlsbad resident Jim Scotella, a radio man in the Fifth Marine Division, landed in the first 35 minutes of the Iwo Jima invasion. He said he wasn’t afraid until he saw his first dead body, a fellow Marine on a hilltop just 150 yards from shore.

Four days later — at 10 a.m. Feb. 23 — he was elated to see the flag going up on Mount Suribachi.
“Everybody was whooping and hollering. We had no idea it was going to be such an important thing until we got back home again,” Scotella said.

photoAmong the hundreds of people gathered at the luncheon Monday were several dozen active-duty Marines from Camp Pendleton. Sgt. Timothy Harshfield, 28, said he has great respect for the veterans of Iwo Jima because of their bravery and sacrifice. When local Marine recruits are finishing boot camp, they must complete a 72-hour exercise known as The Crucible. Several of the stations of this exercise are named for Marines who earned the Medal of Honor at Iwo Jima.

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