A U.S. team is slashing its way through thick, thorny underbrush to find a cave where a marine combat photographer was believed killed by Japanese machinegun fire nine days after he filed the iconic World War II flag-raising 62 years ago on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwojima.
The island this month was officially renamed Iwoto, the name that residents used before the war. The kanji remains the same, which means “sulfur island.”
The seven-member team, from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, is on the island looking for the remains of Sgt. William H. Genaust and “as many other American servicemen as they can find,” JPAC spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Brown said Friday.
It is the first JPAC team to conduct a search on the remote island since 1948, when most of the remains from the battle — among the fiercest and most symbolic of World War II — were recovered.
Brown said the JPAC team is conducting a preliminary investigation to determine whether a full recovery team should be sent in later.
“Our motto is ‘until they are home,’ ” Brown said by telephone from Hickam. “‘No man left behind’ is a promise made to every individual who raises his hand.”
Genaust, a combat photographer with the 28th Marines, used a movie camera to film the raising of the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945.
He stood just meters away from Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, whose still photograph of the moment won a Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize the Pacific War and the struggle of the U.S. forces to capture the tiny island, a turning point in the war with Japan.
Genaust didn’t live to see the end of the battle.
Johnnie Webb, a civilian official with JPAC, said Genaust died nine days later when he was hit by machinegun fire as he was assisting fellow marines secure a cave.
The island was officially taken March 26, 1945, after a 31-day battle that pitted some 100,000 U.S. soldiers against 21,200 Japanese. All told, 6,821 Americans were killed and nearly 22,000 wounded — the highest percentage of casualties in any Pacific battle. Only 1,033 Japanese survived.
Brown said some 250 U.S. soldiers are still missing from the campaign. Many were lost at sea, or just offshore, thus their remains are unlikely to be found. But many also were killed in caves or buried by explosions, and Brown said they are optimistic the current search for Genaust and other servicemen will prove useful.
“We are looking at several caves,” he said. “We are looking for a number of service members, including Genaust. We have maps dating back to World War II and even GPS locations. So far, everything seems to be where it should be.”
Accounts of Genaust’s death vary, but he was believed to have been killed in or near a cave on “Hill 362A.”
On March 4, 1945, marines were securing the cave, and are believed to have asked Genaust, 38, to use his movie camera light to illuminate their way.
He volunteered to shine the light in the cave himself, and when he did he was killed by enemy fire. The cave was secured after a gunfight, and its entrance sealed.
Webb said the command received information from a private citizen that helped lead to the search. He provided no further details of what that information was.
“We decided that the only way to determine if his remains were there was to work on the ground,” Webb said. “We believe his remains may be in there, along with the remains of the Japanese.”
Brown, who is receiving daily progress reports from the team, which arrived on the island June 17, said the search has been difficult because the area is heavily overgrown with thorny brush.
“The team is cutting its way through,” he said.
If the team determines that there is a high probability that remains can be recovered, heavy equipment may be needed to excavate the area.
Though often overlooked, Genaust played a key role on the day the flag was raised.
As a combat photographer, he was trained to use firearms, and he and another marine protected the AP photographer as they climbed the 166-meter Mount Suribachi together. He did not need to use his weapon. Under heavy attack, the Japanese did not fire on the trio.
Genaust’s footage also helped prove that the raising — the second one that day — was not staged, as some later claimed. Unlike still photographers and civilians, however, he got no credit for his footage, in accordance with U.S. Marine Corps policy.
In 1995, a bronze plaque was put atop Suribachi to honor Genaust, who earlier had fought and was wounded in the Battle of Saipan. An actor portraying him also appears in the 2006 Clint Eastwood movie “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Some 88,000 U.S. service members are listed as missing from World War II and JPAC conducts searches throughout the world to find them.
Their search team on Iwoto is being assisted by the Japanese government and Self-Defense Forces, which retains a base there.
The island remains hallowed ground for both sides.
Japan sent its first search parties to the island in 1952 and others have followed every year since the island was returned to Japanese control in 1968. They have recovered 8,595 sets of remains, health ministry official Kohei Niizu said.
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Iwojima, site of fierce battle, is officially renamed Iwoto