Talmadge: Making a rare trip to Iwo Jima, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan paid his respects Tuesday to the more than 21,000 soldiers who died in one of World War II`s bloodiest battlegrounds — and one that after 65 years is still giving up its dead.
Kan`s visit follows the recent discovery of two mass graves on the tiny, volcanic isle where the bodies of roughly 12,000 Japanese soldiers have yet to be recovered. Officials traveling with Kan said the visit underscores his resolve to finally account for all of Iwo Jima`s dead.
"We will examine every grain of sand. Please be patient a little longer," Kan said. "I prayed from my heart for the souls who died here."
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 U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi has become 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 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.