Sand shifts below service members' feet as sulfur engulfs the air and humidity lingers across the island. The weight of reality and historical value settles among them as they take in the view of where so many of their fellow service members lost their lives. This is, Iwo To (Iwo Jima).
Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 conducted a historical professional military education for squadrons stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Nov. 7, 2017.
They loaded service members on KC-130J Hercules aircraft and flew them from the air station to Iwo To.
Once disembarked from their flights, they broke off into groups and conducted a hike passing by caves, memorials, and old machine-gun nests before reaching the top of Mt. Suribachi.
U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Olivia Raftshol, a KC-130J Hercules co-pilot, left, and Maj. Matthew Stolzenberg, a KC-130J Hercules pilot, with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152, prepare to land at Iwo To (Iwo Jima), Japan, Nov. 7, 2017. (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Mason Roy)
As the service members gazed across the island from atop Mt. Suribachi they left behind items such as rank, belts, name tapes, and dog tags.
"Never in my entire life did I think I'd ever be in Iwo Jima," said U.S. Navy Seaman Anthony Adams, a corpsman with VMGR-152. "It blew my mind; the best part of the day was being able to place my shield at the top of Mt. Suribachi."
Mt. Suribachi was a key strategic position for the Japanese military, serving as the toughest line of defense for the island during World War II. U.S. Marines with the 28th Marine Regiment surrounded and climbed the mountain at an estimated rate of 400 yards per day until the famous raising of the colors atop the mountain.
On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines and sailors launched the first American assault against the Japanese on the island of Iwo Jima, resulting in some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. This moment, when Marines crested Mt. Suribachi, was captured Feb. 23 by photographer Joe Rosenthal.
"It tugs at my heart strings," said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Gregory Voss, an aviation ordnance technician with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12. "This is a huge piece of Marine Corps history. Marines shed blood, sweat, and tears here. Granted I've only been in for five years, but this is the most exciting thing that I've done in my career. I'm honored that I could be here."
As the service members began their journey down to the black beaches to collect sand from the once blood-ridden island, exhaustion was present through the sounds of grunts and groans, but not one Marine backed down. They trucked though the beating sun and radiating heat of the active volcano that is Iwo To.
Related: The Battle Of Iwo Jima Began 70 Years Ago — Here's How It Looked When Marines Hit The Beach
"It was demanding," said Voss. "Though we didn't go through what our brothers and sisters went though, it was definitely a challenging — but humbling — experience."
Service members collected sand from the beaches in whatever container they had so they could take a piece of history with them to keep or give to their families back home. Collecting sand from the beach is a tradition that most guests partake in during their journey across the island.
U.S. Marines from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni, collect sand at Iwo To (Iwo Jima), Japan, Nov. 7, 2017. (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Mason Roy)
The beach played a significant role in the advancement on the island. Hundreds of, Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVTs) carried troops to the steep sulfur beaches of the island as U.S. Naval ships rained fire down upon the Japanese fortifications.
By the end of what was about a month of battle, 27 service members received the Medal of Honor, almost half of them posthumously.
"Tradition, lineage, and Marine Corps history means the world to me," said Voss. "It reminds me of where we come from. Just to say I was in the same family as Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone is amazing."
As we celebrate the Marine Corps birthday, it's important to remember the Marines that drew the line, went above and beyond the call of duty, and their unselfish acts of valor. We must also remember the sailors that fought alongside them, through the bloody, tattered clothing to heal their wounds, and the Coast Guardsmen who replenished their brothers and sisters with supplies as enemy fire came barreling down upon them. On that island, we remember that U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz said, "uncommon valor was a common virtue."