Q. Did the U.S. government give back the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa to the Japanese after all those Marines died taking them? If they did give them back, why?
— Marine Corps Vietnam veteran F.C.T., of Belleville
A. I can’t imagine what a punch in the gut it may have felt like to many in this country’s greatest generation when, on June 26, 1968, they read the following in papers all over the world, including the News-Democrat:
“Americans hauled down the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima today, 23 years after a band of Marines raised the U.S. flag atop battle-scarred Mount Suribachi.”
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Even those who have experienced the battle only through “Flags of Our Fathers” or other World War II films know what a horrific hell U.S. soldiers suffered in early 1945 as they battled a Japanese army entrenched in an elaborate bunker system and willing to fight to the death of its last soldier. From the landing on Feb. 19 to a last-ditch counterattack by 300 enemy fighters on March 25, your Marines suffered nearly one-third of all their war casualties during this 37-day battle.
It did, of course, produce one of the most inspiring moments of the war. Just four days after the landing, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a picture of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, which won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most reproduced photos in the world. But Operation Detachment would exact a terrible price to win this 8-square-mile speck of land in the Pacific. The final toll: 6,821 Americans dead and another 21,865 wounded or missing, leading U.S. Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz to comment, “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
After the war, the United States retained possession of Iwo Jima and Okinawa (where another 20,000 Americans died) along with a number of other islands in the Central Pacific. And, for finally declaring war on Japan on Aug. 8 — a week before Japan surrendered — Russia gained control of both the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island.
But while Russia continues to hold on to its former Japanese territory, the United States has returned almost all of its. Why? Although it may feel like a betrayal to those who fought there, historians argue it was unquestionably in our nation’s best interest.
After the war, a new Japanese constitution approved in 1947 prohibited the country from rebuilding its armed forces. Yet this small country, greatly weakened by the long war, faced imminent threats from countries throughout the region. Did the United States want to see Japan eventually fall to, say, the likes of Russia, Red China or even North Korea? Obviously not. So in 1951, as the United States and other allies signed a final peace treaty in San Francisco, Japan and the U.S. inked their first security treaty, allowing the United States to station its armed forces personnel in Japan for its defense.
But think about it. If you were trying to repair relations with a neighbor, would you continue to do things that irritated him even though his behavior had started the feud in the first place? In very simple terms, that’s the issue the U.S. faced as it tried to cement important diplomatic ties with a much-needed ally. By holding onto this territory, we were, in essence, continuing to poke our thumb in the eye of Japan, which wanted it back. So, as much as many veterans might have wanted to hold onto these hard-won islands out of revenge, we returned almost all of it.
Besides, other than our military bases, they weren’t doing us much good. Iwo Jima, for example, is uninhabited except for a base staffed by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. As University of Southern California professor Nicholas Evan Sarantakes noted in his book “Continuity Through Change: The Return of Okinawa and Iwo Jima,” “Japan regained lost territory, while the United States maintained an alliance critical to an international system that made it the predominate power in the Pacific. The return of these islands brought continuity through change.”
If you weren’t aware of it, the process had actually begun in 1953, when the United States returned part of the Ryukyu Islands (which include Okinawa). Then, in 1968, the U.S. gave back the Volcanos, which included Iwo Jima; the Bonins, which included Chi Chi Jima (the only inhabited island in the two chains); and three other small islands.
“The Stars and Stripes came down in simple ceremony on the sun-baked island,” the story about the return of Iwo Jima stated. “One man standing at rigid attention during the ceremony (Col. Miller Blue, of San Diego) remembered the day members of the 28th Marine regiment raised the large flag on Mount Suribachi. A couple of hours after he watched the flag being raised, he was wounded by a Japanese rifleman.”
Meanwhile, during official ceremonies in Tokyo, Crown Prince Akihito and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato praised the return of the islands as an example of postwar cooperation between Japan and the United States. Yet, at the same time, the Japanese press urged the continuation of the campaign to regain other territories, including Okinawa. That came three years later. On June 17, 1971, the Japanese government signed a treaty that authorized the return of Okinawa to Japan in return for the United States’ ability to maintain military forces on 14 bases on the islands.
And it’s not over yet. On April 5, 2013, for example, the United States announced that it would return the Marines’ Futenma Air Base on Okinawa as early as 2022 if a planned relocation on the island can be carried out. Surrounded by hospitals, shops and more than 100 schools, it was once called it the world’s most dangerous air base by the Japanese. The deal also included time frames for the return of all or part of five other U.S. military facilities. The goal was again to cement a vital alliance in a region where Japan continues to face hostility from China and North Korea.
“With the security environment in the Asia-Pacific region getting tougher, I’m glad that we were able to show that the bond of trust in the Japan-U.S. alliance is not wavering at all,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
We can only wonder what those who died there would think of the changes today.
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Answer to Thursday’s trivia: When Francesco della Rovere became pope in 1471, he inherited a Vatican with a decrepit chapel known as the Cappella Maggiore. So Rovere, who took the name Pope Sixtus IV, had it demolished and replaced with a grand Cappella Magna. Eight years in the making, it reportedly was built to the specifications of the Old Testament’s Temple of Solomon with interior dimensions of 134 feet by 44 feet. In 1482 he had a team of famous Renaissance painters create a series of frescoes depicting the lives of Moses and Christ. Then, as the coup de maitre, Pope Julius II had Michelangelo spend four years from 1508 to 1512 painting the ceiling. Today, of course, we know it as the Sistine Chapel, named for Pope Sixtus, who celebrated the first Mass there on Aug. 15, 1483, for the Feast of the Assumption. Today it is the site where cardinals from around the world gather to elect a new pope — and a must-see attraction for every tourist who visits Rome.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, email@example.com or call 618-239-2465.