Central Idea: As we celebrate our country’s birth this weekend, we pray for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms, that they may find rest.
His name was Clarence Calkins. We all knew him as BC. He was my friend. This homily is for him.
At 8:59 am on February 19th, 1945, seventy-five years ago, the largest invasion of U.S. Marines took place on a lonely volcanic island 600 miles away from the nearest landmass. The island is merely five miles long, 8 square miles in total and is as desolate as the face of the moon. There is a “mountain” at one end that only rises up about 550 feet. The battle was estimated to take two weeks. In fact, it took thirty six days and by the time it was over 6,821 Marines would be killed, 19,217 would be wounded, 2,648 would suffer from combat fatigue. All in all, over third of the total Marines who participated in the invasion were either Killed, Wounded or suffered from Battle Fatigue. Over a quarter of the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in World War II were given for conduct in this invasion. They fought for a wasteland, but it was not necessarily a waste.
Thus is the story of Iwo Jima.
The story of this battle is the stuff of legends. Iwo Jima was important for two reasons. Strategically, it would provide an airfield from which fighter planes could takeoff and land to protect larger bombers in raids over Japan. Symbolically, it was important because it would mark the first time that Japanese territory, its own home soil, would have ever been taken by a foreign army in its 5000 year history.
The battle was incredibly difficult and decidedly vicious. The volcanic ash was impossible to climb with the 100 pound packs carried by the Marines. The consistency and the difficulty of the soil on the island was never examined before the invasion. The high angle of the slope made return fire very difficult during the initial landings. The pre-bombardment of the island was totally ineffective, primarily because the Japanese were not on the island, they were IN the island. They fought the battle entirely from beneath the ground. They dug 1,500 rooms into the rock. These were connected with 16 miles of tunnels. (Remember the island is only 8 square miles!) And if all this was not bad enough, the Japanese strategy was to fight to the death. They planned not to survive Iwo Jima. Each Japanese soldier was told to kill at least 10 of the enemy each. All 20,000 of them figured that they would not leave the island alive. And that’s pretty much what happened. Only about 1000 Japanese on Iwo Jima were taken prisoner.
By the end of the first day the Marines had not captured half of their original objective but they had over 30,000 troops ashore to begin moving in land with force. Historians described U.S. forces’ attack against the Japanese defense as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.”
Though the Pacific command declared Iwo Jima “secure” on March 14th, the fighting continued for twelve more days. In that period, another 1071 Marines were killed.
Come unto me all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
In the last few years, I have been taken to reading about the exploits of ordinary, everyday people, who have done extraordinary things. Those who survived, went on to become nameless citizens, raising their families, going to their jobs, living their lives peacefully. They are grandfathers eating rehearsal dinners at their granddaughters’ weddings. They are farmers and laborers who often fall eerily silent when someone asks about what they did during the war. They are ordinary men and women who did nothing less than give us, by the grace of God, all that we enjoy in this country. They were so very young, like my friend BC, barely nineteen, himself a Navy veteran of Iwo Jima.
One of the men who lifted the flag over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo, James Bradley, a quiet, private man, gave just one single interview in his life. In it he said . . . “People refer to us as heroes–I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there–and we certainly weren’t heroes–and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.”
I respectfully disagree, Mr. Bradley. Ordinary? yes. There at a certain place at a certain time? Definitely. Not Heroes? No way.
This weekend, in the midst of barbecues, in the middle of fireworks and swimming and get-togethers (remember to keep social distancing), take some time to remember the sacrifices, the courage, the valor. Pray for those who have died that they may find the peace that our Lord promises us in our gospel today. And take some time to pray for those who still serve, who still protect, who still sacrifice. Take some time to pray for peace and justice, both in foreign lands and here in our troubled homeland. And if you could, say a prayer for my old buddy BC who died four years ago.
You may think that fighting for a desolate piece of land in the middle of a vast ocean was a fruitless effort, a waste. And I can see your point, to a point. However, the objective of using the island as an airbase was a bit justified even before the battle of Iwo Jima was concluded. This happened when the B-29 bomber Dinah Might reported it was low on fuel near the island and requested an emergency landing. Despite enemy fire, the airplane landed on the Allied controlled section of the island without incident and got maintenance, refueled and departed, despite taking enemy flak in the battle.
Iwo Jima, quite a story. God bless and heal America.
And Rest In Peace, BC.