WALLA WALLA - Sixty-five years after coming ashore on the black sands of Iwo Jima, a local Marine returned to the island last month for a commemoration of the iconic battle.
Claro Bergevin, a college sophomore when he enlisted and headed off to the war, served in Company B of the 5th Tank Battalion, 5th Marines, which landed on the island two hours into the invasion on Feb. 19, 1945.
Now in his mid-80s, Bergevin returned to the island now known as Iwoto with his son, Terry, as well as 17 other veterans of the battle and dozens of other Americans for a 65th anniversary commemoration jointly organized by the U.S. and Japanese governments.
"It sure didn't look like the first time. The first time it was all bare. ... They'd bombed it for 72 straight days before we even got there," the elder Bergevin said.
Now covered in large part by greenery, the island offers scant clues to its past aside from memorials on the summit of Mount Suribachi and inland from the beach where Marines made their initial landing.
"We was bivouacked right by what we called a big blow hole ... I was trying to find it, but with all this new growth, I couldn't see it or find it," Bergevin said.
Bergevin's route to the island was quicker but less direct than in 1945, when his unit went from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to Hawaii for training, then on to Iwo Jima. This time the Bergevins traveled from Walla Walla to Los Angeles, then Hawaii, then Guam and finally on to Iwoto on March 3, the day of the commemoration.
The journey afforded a fair amount of pomp and circumstance.
In Los Angeles, color guards from the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Marine Corps honored the veterans, as did a TSA choir. The president of Continental Airlines was on hand for the sendoff, too.
"People were stopping and watching and clapping. It was emotional as heck," Terry Bergevin said.
All along their travels to the island, veterans got the royal treatment, he said: "They were rock stars."
The March 3 commemoration drew about 200 Americans as well as hundreds of Japanese. Dignitaries who spoke at the ceremony included Japanese lawmakers and the country's foreign secretary, as well as Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos.
"Our fathers and grandfathers would have found it hard to believe that Americans and Japanese would one day be standing here on this island, side by side in peace and friendship," Roos said during his remarks.
Standing in his kitchen last week, Bergevin simply said, "It was quite an experience."
Alasdair Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8311.