Last week, one of my 12 year old students – a terrific WWII nut – asked me why the small island of Iwo Jima was such an important strategic hold when it was mostly rock, volcanic sand, and a non-functioning volcano. I emailed my friend, retired Army captain and current social studies teacher, Bill Hetzer, about this and while waiting for a response, did some research on my own.
Iwo Jima, 8 square miles (four long, two wide) was also an airfield for the Japanese. Our Marines landed February 19, 1945, among them, my great-great-uncle, 19 year old Glennard Daugherty. Unfortunately, Glennard was shot and killed by a sniper on February 25th as he rushed into open fire to rescue a fallen Marine.
This afternoon, I noticed that the Victoria Theatre, normally one of our houses that stages live theatre and touring companies, was presenting, as one of their “Hot Summer Movie Nights” the movie, The Sands Of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne. Jose and I rode the bus downtown, ate a wonderful Chinese dinner, and entered the Victoria. The hydraulic stage was raised and a gentleman of considerable years was playing the organ – and what an organ! It was so reminiscent of those golden years, and I am so glad Jose got a taste of what my grandparents knew in their era. It was as though Lawrence Welk had been transported back to Dayton for the evening. I think, of all the adults, I brought the average age in the hall down to at least 70! Prior to the movie, we were all delighted with a Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd cartoon! In the movie were three of the men who had actually raised the flag on Mount Surabachi on Iwo Jima. I also learned from the program notes that when John Wayne placed his prints in the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the cement was mixed with sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima.
About the movie…
The Depths of Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima
by Rob Wilsey
Gary Wills writes of Sgt. Stryker, “Sgt. Stryker is still with us today… lurking in a thousand mens’ adolescent pasts… Wayne is the ideal to which no boy’s father, or coach, or teacher… can quite live up.”
It is this miss characterization that I want to address, the one dimensional analysis of social critics like Wills overlooks the vital sub text in the character of Stryker. Stryker is at base a tragic figure, and the film presents him as a counterpoint to his own ethos which had been used to fill the ideological vacuum of the war.
Contrary to popular belief many American’s didn’t know what they were fighting for in 1945, combat troops in particular learned quickly the hollowness of the catch phrases fed to the public about why the war was fought. “
The war seemed so devoid of ideological content that little could be said about its positive purposes that made political or intellectual sense especially after the Soviet Union joined.” American soldiers in the Pacific were motivated mainly by the desire to survive and the intense race hatred bred by both effective home front propaganda and the brutal nature of Japanese opposition. “
As the war drew on and casualties more numerous… there developed a sense that sheer pragmatic unverbalized action on behalf of the common cause would somehow substitute for formulations of purpose or meaning.”
Into this vacuum stepped films like the Why We Fight series of Frank Capra, and in 1949 Sands of Iwo Jima. Sands, on the surface, represented perfectly what journalist Robert Sherrod wrote while on Tarawa: “The Marines didn’t know what to believe in, except the Marine Corps.”
But the sub text of the film portrays this belief as the destructive force it is in the duality between Stryker and Conway.
Pvt. Conway (played by John Agar) says of Stryker “there goes the hard product of a hard school.” This is what Stryker is, the necessary evil; the man who sacrificed his home life (he is estranged from his wife and son) for the service of his country. But this is not the ideal being put forth in the film. The ideal in the film for the postwar audience is the character of Agar. “The implication is that Agar is the father we will need for the post war age, one who could give his son’s Shakespeare instead of the Marine manual.”
This is where Wills’ analysis fails, by neglecting the presentation of Stryker as a man who is by all measures (and we are told in the letter to his son, by his own as well) — a failure. He exists only for the war, and his sudden death at the end confirms this. The message to fill the ideological vacuum was that all the meanings of the war, all the exterminationist rhetoric that is curiously absent in the film — are obsolete, along with the hard men who fought it, “the suggestion is being made that men like Sgt. Stryker are needed when they are needed, but that they are not needed in peacetime, and peacetime is now.”
“The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen.” The bond between Stryker and his men, and between the viewer and Wayne is forged throughout the film, and when Wayne dies his ethos dies with him; he is at the root of all the meaning. The meaning he carries with him, the hardness of the war, the singular, pragmatic, nihilistic dedication: all that dies with Wayne. We are left in the end with John Agar, who said before “I’m a civilian, I’m in this strictly for tradition.” The man who would give his son Shakespeare speaks for all the men who fought and hoped their sons would live lives without Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Ultimately the character of Stryker is the representation of what was thought to be no longer needed, the film revolves so thoroughly around Wayne that one cannot, as Wills does, separate his death from the death of the message he carries.
More about the battle of Iwo Jima….
On Monday, February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines hit the sands of Iwo Jima. The battle for Iwo Jima can be described in many ways.Most simply, 70,000 Marines routed 22,0000 Japanese in a 36 day battle. It bore little resemblance to today’s’ modern warfare. It was a fight of gladiators. Gladiators in the catacombs of the Coliseum fighting among trap doors and hidden tunnels. Above ground gladiators using liquid gasoline to burn the underground gladiators out of their lethal hiding places.
The Marines had overwhelming force and controlled the sea and air. The Japanese had the most ingenious and deadly fortress in military history. The Marines had Esprit de Corps and felt they could not lose. The Japanese fought for their god-Emperor and felt they had to die fighting.
The Marines were projecting American offensive power thousands of miles from home shores with a momentum that would carry on to create the Century of the Pacific. The Japanese were fighting a tenacious defensive battle protecting the front door to their ancient land. The geography, topography and geology of the island guaranteed a deadly and bizarre battle. The large numbers of men and small size of the island ensured the fighting would be up close and vicious.
Almost one hundred thousand men would fight on a tiny island just eight square miles. Four miles by two miles. If you’re driving 60 miles an hour in your car, it takes you four minutes to drive four miles. It took the Marines 36 days to slog that four miles. Iwo Jima would be the most densely populated battlefield of the war with one hundred thousand combatants embraced in a death dance over an area smaller than one third the size of Manhattan island.
From the air the island looked like a bald slice of black moonscape shaped like a porkchop. All its foliage had been blown off by bombs. The only “life” visible on the island were puffs of “rotten egg” stinking sulphur fumes coming from vents that seemed connected to hell. Correspondents in airplanes could see tens of thousands of Marines on one side of the island fighting against a completely barren side of stone.
On foot it was a morass of soft volcanic sand or a jumble of jagged rock. The Marines sought protection in shell holes blasted by the bombardment. Foxholes were impossible to dig, either the sand collapsed in on you or your shovel failed to dent the hard obsidian floor. Bullets and mortars would come from nowhere to kill. The Marines would come across a cave or blockhouse and shoot and burn all its defenders to death. They would peer into the cavern and assure themselves no one was left there to hurt them. They’d move on only to be shocked when that “dead” position came alive again behind them. The Marines thoughtthey were fighting men in isolated caves and had no idea of the extensive tunnels below.
A surgeon would establish an operating theater in a safe place. With sandbags and tarp he’d build a little hospital and treat his patients away from the battle. Then at night when he lay down exhausted to sleep he’d hear foreign voices below him. Only when his frantic fingers clawed through the sand and hit the wooden roof of an underground cavern would he realize he had been living atop the enemy all along.
The days were full of fear and nights offered terror. The Marines were sleeping on ground that the Japanese had practiced how to crawl over in the darkness, they knew every inch. Imagine sleeping in a haunted man-sion where the owner is a serial murderer who knows the rooms and stairways and trapdoors by touch and you are new. Then you can imagine the tortured sleep of the Marines.
Experienced naval doctors had never seen such carnage. Japanese tanks and high caliber anti-aircraft guns hidden behind walls of rock and concrete ensured that the Marines would not just be cut down, but cutin half or blown to bits.A seventy five year old veteran of Iwo Jima would still reflexively open his bedroom window in 1999 after dreaming of the battle once again. Fifty four years after the battle the stench of death still filled his nostrils.
The bodies lay everywhere. Young boys who had never been to a funeral became accustomed to rolling another dead buddy aside. Kids full of life worked on burial duty unloading bodies from trucks stacked with death.
Mothers back home would tear open the ominous telegrams with trembling fingers. The survivors would remember sailing away and seeing the rows and rows of white crosses and stars of Davids. Almost seven thousand. Today there are still over six thousand Japanese dead still entombed under the island, dead where they fell in their tunnels and caves. Recently two hundred sixty were excavated, some mummified by the sulphur gases, their glasses sitting straight atop preserved noses, hair still on their heads.
Military geniuses predicted a three day battle, an “easy time.” Some of the nicest boys America would ever produce slogged on for thirty six days in what would be the worst battle in the history of the US Marine Corps.
Generals conferred over maps while tanks, airplanes, naval bombs and artillery pounded the island. But it was the individual Marine on the ground with a gun that won the battle. Marines without gladiator’s armor who would advance into withering fire. Marines who would not give up simply because they were Marines. A mint in Washington would cast more medals for these Iwo Jima heroes than for any group of fighters in America’s history.
America would embrace these heroes, but they were enthralled by an image of heroism, by a photo. Millions of words would be written in the US about 1/400th of a second no one on Iwo Jima thought worthy of remark at the time. Thousands would seek autographs from three survivors who felt “we hadn’t done much.” Battles would be fought over that image, some dying early because of their inclusion, some living bitterly because of their exclusion. But that would all come later. After two battles were fought on Iwo Jima, one for Mt. Suribachi and the southern part of the island the other for the northern part. And after one hundred thousand individual battles, personal battles of valor and fear, of determination and dirt.