Iwo Jima: Survivors remember 'living hell' of WWII battle between United States and Japan 70 years on

Iwo Jima: Survivors remember 'living hell' of WWII battle between United States and Japan 70 years on

Iwo Jima: Survivors remember 'living hell' of WWII battle between United States and Japan 70 years on

Updated 28 March 2015, 16:15 AEDT

United States and Japanese veterans of the battle of Iwo Jima return to the island to commemorate the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during World War II.

The United States defeated the Japanese in the battle for Iwo Jima 70 years ago this week, in one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during World War II.

Norman Baker is one of the small band of surviving US Marines who returned to the island to commemorate the 70th anniversary of what was described as 36 days of hell.

He spent the first days of the battle pinned down on Invasion Beach.

"I was 18 years old and war to me, before I hit this beach, was sort of glamorous in my mind," Mr Baker told 7.30.

"All of a sudden, the whole world changed.

"It was horrible, the assault there. It wasn't make believe, it was real.

"It was a one-sided battle ... It was a living hell for us."

Japanese veteran Shuichi Yamaguchi

"And we'd see dead men and rounds all coming in.

"It shocked me to the point that I just found the first shell hole and dived in it."

After taking most of the Pacific, the Americans had amassed its biggest armada yet to take the island.

The Japanese were vastly outgunned and outnumbered by a fighting force of 70,000.

The US believed the volcanic island, only 21 square kilometres in size, would be taken in a week.

The reality was vastly different.

Japanese strategy to inflict as many casualties as possible

When the first marine units landed on the beach all was quiet.

Many thought the months of bombardment had worked, but the Japanese soldiers waited until all the marines and all their equipment landed before they opened fire.

The Japanese knew they could not win but their strategy was to inflict as many casualties as possible.

They had dug themselves in, building an elaborate network of tunnels.

Former marine John Laureillo remembers they fought day and night against an enemy they could not see.

"They perfected the smokeless powder," he said.

"If they poked their rifle out of a little hole and fired you could hear the thing.

"If they missed you'd probably hear it and see the sand dance up around you but you could never look over and see where the thing came from.

"So it made it difficult and that's why casualties were so high, it was unbelievable."

Flag raising at Mt Suribachi 'energised' marines

After five days of fighting the marines took the strategic mountain of Suribachi.

At the summit Joe Rosenthal snapped the picture of the marines raising the US flag that became the iconic symbol of the war in the Pacific and for the US Marines.

The returning veterans relived that moment.

After a while, I wasn't shocked anymore and that's the worst thing for me. You just became like animals or a machine.

US veteran Norman Baker

"The flag going up on Mount Suribachi, on Japanese territory, was something that we as marines really needed," Iwo Jima veteran Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams said.

"It gave us a lift, a spirit — it really energised us."

The raising of the flag should have been a fitting ending of the campaign, but it was just the beginning of a bloody battle of attrition.

Another month of fighting was to follow and of the six men in Mr Rosenthal's famous picture, three would die.

The battle turned to the interior and got nastier.

Every metre seemed to contain more bunkers and more artillery.

"It's the shock factor and if anything it increased as the time went on and it became more brutal," Mr Baker said.

"After a while, I wasn't shocked anymore and that's the worst thing for me.

"You just became like animals or a machine."

Battle was living hell, Japanese veteran says

Inside the tunnels the 22,000 Japanese soldiers were desperate, starving and running out of ammunition.

They pledged to die in the hope of delaying and deterring an American attack on their homeland.

Only 216 Japanese surrendered — most died.

Shuichi Yamaguchi, 95, did survive and now lives in Chiba near Tokyo.

"It was a one-sided battle," he said.

"Japan had nothing — no ammunition, no supplies — we couldn't strike back effectively.

"It was a living hell for us."

Mr Yamaguchi was telling his story for the first time.

He has kept it a secret as it was a great shame to surrender.

He returned home after three years as a prisoner of war, but his family assumed he died in Iwo Jima and built him a gravestone.

"Japanese soldiers were dead all over the place, their bodies were infested with maggots and lice," he said.

"I don't know whether the Americans disposed their dead or not but I never saw a dead American."

"I was captured because I left the tunnel to get water for soldiers who were dying."

'I will never forget'

I've asked that question over the years so many times: 'Why me, why did I make it and he didn't?', and I don't have an answer.

Japanese veteran Tsuruji Akikusa

The two sides, now close allies, have come together to honour the 20,000 Japanese and the 7,000 American war dead.

Tsuruji Akikusa was the only Japanese veteran to return to the island for the anniversary.

After the Americans poured a mixture of gasoline and water into his bunker and blew it up he fell unconscious and was captured. The rest of the soldiers died.

At the anniversary on Iwo Jima he met his former enemies for the first time and has found some resolution.

"This is my second home," he said.

"I feel sad — that's how I feel. It's very hard.

"I remember so many things. I will never forget."

Neither will Mr Williams.

He won the US military's highest award for bravery on Iwo Jima, the Medal of Honour, for singlehandedly clearing tunnels and saving dozens of marines.

But the experience still deeply troubles him.

"Many guys, and I'm one of those, feel guilt because I survived and the guy right beside me didn't," he said.

"And I've asked that question over the years so many times.

"'Why me, why did I make it and he didn't?' and I don't have an answer."