February 19, 1945. At 08:59—one minute ahead of schedule—United States Marines stormed ashore on the black sands of Iwo Jima. The first moments were eerily quiet, but the calm was not to last. Iwo Jima would become a hell on earth, where a great many heroes were made, and a great many brave men were lost—nearly 7,000 Americans killed and 20,000 wounded. It would go down as one of the great and tragic battles in history.

At the 10th Annual Conference, three of the battle’s survivors, who witnessed the horror—and heroism—that was Iwo Jima, recounted their experience. Chuck Tatum, Donald Mates, and James White were just three of the thousands for whom “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Chuck Tatum: Hello, I’m Chuck Tatum, and I was a member of B Company, 1st Battalion of the 27th Marines at Iwo Jima. And as I look in the audience, I see an awful lot of young people here, some of whom don’t look any older than I was when I was at Iwo Jima. Well, some people haven’t heard of Iwo Jima; it’s been over 60 years, and has started to fade into history. Why was there an Iwo Jima? It’s just eight square miles of volcanic rock out in the middle of the ocean. And its only value was that it was big enough to build a landing strip big enough to land a B-29 on, and if you had a place to land B-29s, you could fly it all the way to Tokyo and hit it with the big bombers.

I don’t know how many of us invaded on that first day, but in the first wave, there were 9,000 Marines involved. By this time in the war, we had captured the islands of Saipan and Tinian, and from there you could fly the B-29s and bomb Tokyo. But there was one flaw in the plan: Iwo Jima was halfway between Saipan and Tinian, and Tokyo—600 miles from Tokyo. And on Iwo Jima, the Japanese had fighter planes that could rise up to fight the B-29s as well as radar which could alert Japan that the bombers were coming. The losses of the B-29s were astronomical; they were losing more than 30 percent of flights. So somehow or another, Iwo Jima became the most valuable piece of real estate in the world at that time. The orders came out from Washington to capture Iwo Jima by force of arms. And this meant sending in the United States Marines. The Marines had fought in a number of battles already, but Iwo Jima was to turn out to be one of the greatest battles in history.

Iwo Jima was more than just a battle; it was actually a 36-day descent into hell. Hell on earth. We lost 8,776 American lives. There were 21,000 Americans wounded, 1,500 suffered from combat fatigue, and 22,000 Japanese Imperial soldiers and sailors lost their lives defending Iwo Jima. So it became a very pivotal battle in the Pacific, and with Iwo Jima in our hands, we would control the bombing of Tokyo, which would culminate in the B-29 that dropped the bomb. That’s why we had to have Iwo Jima. Other than that it was useless. Eight miles of sulfur, volcanic ash.