IWO TO, Japan -- One by one, they descended the steep incline, past the beach grass and lush vegetation that whispered in a melancholy wind. Past the destroyed pill box and rusted machine gun that still peered toward the black sand beach as it did when it fired on their fellow Marines 70 years earlier.
As they hit the volcanic powder below, they sunk up to their ankles, surrounded by rusty shrapnel from devastating Japanese mortar fire. Some faltered, their bodies stiff with age, but they were immediately propped up by the latest generation of Marines.
Nothing was going to keep them from once again hitting the beach. Nothing would keep them from honoring their fallen comrades, perhaps for the last time.
Though it seemed as if eons had passed, the battle for Iwo Jima came alive in their minds.
On Saturday, a couple dozen survivors of the fight returned to battlefield for a ceremony marking its 70th anniversary. Many of the attendees, now in their late 80s and early 90s, said it would be their last journey back to the "sulfur island," now referred to as Iwo To by the Japanese, who maintain the small scrap of land between the Mariana Islands and the Japanese mainland as a military base.
"When I saw ... the carnage on that beach, and everything just torn to hell all over the place, this is when I went from boyhood to manhood," said Norman Baker, who was 18 when he hit Red Beach 2 with the 4th Marine Division on Feb. 19, 1945.
"I'm happy to be here with the guys and what have you, but I can contemplate the horror of what we went through in the war and everything, and that will never leave guys like me."
Baker recounted the pain of losing his best friend, Lincoln Clement Jr., to an exploding shell as they moved inland during the invasion. He held vigil and ate his rations next to Clement's body until he was evacuated. His friend's death contributed to lifelong nightmares.
"[Lincoln] was like a brother, a dedicated brother," Baker said. "We did everything together. We got so close it was more than family. I was never that close with my brothers or sisters than I was with Linc. And that's why I have never forgotten him, never will. I have his pictures hanging in my library."
Baker also recalled witnessing the artillery barrage that led to the death of Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, who ordered the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi that was captured in an iconic photo by The Associated Press' Joe Rosenthal.
This week's trip was equally hard on Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the battle.
"My emotions are like a tornado," Williams said -- his medal around his neck and great-grandson Benjamin Casey in his arms -- as he surveyed the landscape he attacked with the 3rd Marine Division. "They go up, and then something happens, and they go down. So they've been roller-coastering all day."
Williams was honored for clearing a series of Japanese pill boxes with a flamethrower under heavy fire, then refusing evacuation despite shrapnel wounds.
"I never planned to come back," he said. "I never would have if it hadn't been for grandsons and great-grandsons that talked me into it. But now I'm glad I did, certainly for my sake. It has maybe helped a little in closure."
Williams said it was also important to impart the knowledge and experience to the next generation, so the sacrifices of more than 6,800 U.S. servicemembers killed and 19,000 wounded will not be forgotten. On the Japanese side, approximately 18,000 were killed.
After months of aerial and naval bombardment, the battle for Iwo Jima began Feb. 19, 1945, with the Marines launching an amphibious assault and the Japanese waiting in bunkers dug deep into the volcanic rock.
Seventy-thousand Marines took part in the 36-day battle. Only 216 Japanese soldiers were captured. The rest were killed. The island was declared secure on March 16.
The anniversary commemoration started under an intense sun as several hundred American and Japanese civilians, veterans and government officials arrived on military and commercial flights. They were bused out to the "Reunion of Honor," a solitary obelisk monument that overlooks the beach and is surrounded by stones.
Bands from the III Marine Expeditionary Force and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force played, and the flags of both nations were displayed as a misty rain fell. Then a steady stream of speakers reflected on the battle and what it meant to humanity and themselves.
"I keep in my mind that the peace and prosperity we enjoy now were built upon the many noble sacrifices of the war dead," said Japanese House of Representatives member Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was garrision commander of Iwo Jima during the battle. "And I would also like to renew my resolve to make further efforts for the peace and stability of the world through cooperation between Japan and the United States who now form a firm alliance."
Japan's Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Marine Corps commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. also spoke.
"Today, the United States and Japan are interdependent. Through cooperation in everything from international security to free trade, we depend on one another so that each nation may live in peace and prosperity," Mabus said.
"As partners, we will face the challenges of the future together, but we will never forget the lessons of our past. In trying times, we will invoke the character traits demonstrated here by Japanese soldiers and United States sailors and Marines: honor, courage, and sacrifice."
The speeches were followed by wreath-layings, 30 seconds of silence and a volley of rifle fire.
While the colors were retired, many current Marines mingled and traded stories with the old breed.
"The flag went up [on Suribachi] and everyone started firing their guns in the air, the ships were firing, their whistles were blowing; they were going crazy," recalled Marine veteran Carl DeHaven. "They were like 'The island's secure, we're going to go home.' But that wasn't the case."
DeHaven had the grim task of collecting the dead and wounded and bringing them to either the cemetery or the beach.
"It was a morbid place to go back to because you're used to seeing all the dead laying around and the dead being carried out, and I was responsible for taking a lot of the dead out."
After the ceremony, a handful of Marines hiked down the dirt road toward Suribachi for a pilgrimage of honor. It took a little over an hour to reach the 554-foot mountain's summit, unfurling and raising the stars and stripes in the same spot where Rosenthal's photo was taken.
"I walked down through the sand a little bit, saw a couple of bunkers, then walked up the mountain," Master Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Gascon said after reaching the summit. Meeting his predecessors and hearing their stories had left a major impression.
"I got to shake their hands and talk to them about their experiences. This was the best day in the Marine Corps," he said.
For veterans like Williams and Baker, the battle was still vividly replaying in their memories, and likely will for the rest of their lives. They just hoped the sacrifices of so many were not in vain and that they would continue to be honored after they are gone.
"When he sees Mount Suribachi now, it's going to mean something to this little fella right here," Williams said pointing to his small great-grandson.
"If we had never put Old Glory on Mount Suribachi, it would have been just another campaign. But the fact that we put it up on enemy territory, the flag is what energized everything that took place. Our morale was dragging, we had lost so many guys."
Williams' eyes then twinkled and a smile slowly formed on his face.
"When that flag when up on the 23rd [of February], we got a new spirit. We are going to win this thing. I can still see it, absolutely."