Japan’s PM vows to find Iwo Jima’s WWII dead
IOTO, Japan — In a rare visit to Iwo Jima, Japan’s prime minister offered prayers yesterday at two recently discovered mass graves and vowed to find the more than 12,000 fallen soldiers whose bodies have yet to be recovered from the remote island where some of World War II’s fiercest fighting took place.
Kneeling in a deep pit with dozens of remains spread out before him, Naoto Kan clasped his hands in prayer and then helped searchers exhume a decayed set of bones swathed in a faded green body bag. Workers said it was one of more than 20 found yesterday alone.
“We will examine every grain of sand,’’ Kan said. “It is hard to imagine from the beauty of the island today what happened here 65 years ago.’’
Kan said he had wanted to visit the island since the discovery of the mass graves just months ago.
Now known in Japan as Ioto — that was what the island was called by residents before the war — Iwo Jima was the site of one of the most fateful and iconic battles in the Pacific and helped turn the tide against the Japanese.
For many Americans, an Associated Press photo of US Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi has become one of the most lasting symbols of the war, and of American sacrifice and bravery.
More medals of honor — 27, including nearly a third of all such medals given to Marines during World War II — were awarded for valor on Iwo Jima than any other single campaign.
In Japan, however, Iwo Jima is seen by most as just one of many bloody defeats.
It has been generally ignored since the war, has been left largely untouched, and is now uninhabited except for a few hundred troops at a small Japanese military outpost.
Kan is only the second prime minister to visit the island. Junichiro Koizumi was the first, five years ago.
But Kan’s government, inspired in part by the success in Japan of the 2006 Clint Eastwood movie “Letters from Iwo Jima’’ and concerned that time is running out, has made a strong effort to bring closure on Iwo Jima by stepping up the civilian-run mission to recover all of the Japanese dead.
That project began in July and took a big step forward in October, when two mass graves that may hold the remains of more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers were discovered by search teams.
Working off of documents provided by the US National Archives and Records Administration, Japanese teams found sites listed as “enemy cemeteries’’ near a runway at the military outpost and at the foot of Suribachi.
“Many troops will be returning home now that these mass graves have been found. I prayed they will rest in peace,’’ said lawmaker Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather was commanding officer of Japanese troops on Iwo Jima. “But Ioto’s battle is not over until all of the bodies are recovered.’’
Yukihiko Akutsu, a special adviser to the prime minister who heads the search mission, said the main site is estimated to have about 2,000 bodies.
Digging was completed this week at the Suribachi site, with 152 remains found. The full excavation effort was expected to take several more months, but Akutsu said the teams have already found more than 300 remains in the two areas.