By Mary Beth Kennedy Voda

On a sunny Monday in May 1944, 25 year-old housewife Milly Kennedy fidgets on a park bench in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her long, slender fingers nervously twist pale pink rosary beads as she whispers pleading prayers. Two-year-old Mary Beth and one-year-old Tommy play on the grass by her feet. Inside a nearby hospital, Milly’s husband, Tom, tired of feeling like a slacker who is not contributing to the war effort, hears the doctor pronounce him fit for military duty. He walks out of the hospital, struggling with conflicting feelings of pride and apprehension. As Tom strides toward the family he adores, Milly looks into his shining, blue eyes and knows that her prayers were not answered.

For Milly and Tom Kennedy, the waning years of World War II test their courage, their patriotism, and their love. Tom’s decision to enlist is not an easy one, and he struggles with a sense of duty to his young family as well as to his country. In the end, war service wins out, and he enlists in the United States Marine Corps. In June 1944 he leaves for basic training in Camp Lejeune, NC, facing the prospect that he, Milly, and their children might never see each other again.

As 25 year-old Pfc. Tom Kennedy reports to boot camp, another husband and father begins a final military mission for his country. On June 22, l944, 53 year-old Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a widely-respected Japanese officer, assumes overall command of Japanese defense operations on Iwo Jima. His assignment is accompanied by a sobering admonition from Japanese Premier General Hideki Tojo, who warns him, “The entire Army and the nation will depend on you for the defense of that key island.” Neither Kuribayashi nor Kennedy knows that when the battle is over, only one of them will return to his wife and children.

Strategically, Iwo Jima (the name means Sulfur Island) becomes a top priority in the American war effort in 1944. Located 650 miles southeast of Tokyo, the eight-square-mile volcanic island lies near the midpoint of a route B-29 Superfortresses fly between the Mariana Islands and the Japanese mainland, which the United States has bombed steadily since the summer of 1944. Iwo Jima is the only island in that part of the Pacific that is able to accommodate a runway and is needed as a base for the fighter planes escorting the B-29s as well as a stopover for injured planes.

The Japanese know Iwo Jima is a target and prepare for its invasion. General Kuribayashi orders the building of more than 750 gun emplacements, blockhouses with concrete walls, miles of tunnels, and 1,000 pillboxes. He recognizes the superiority of American forces and plans a strategy that will keep his 22,000 troops underground as long as possible.

Although separated by age and culture, General Kuribayashi and Pfc. Kennedy share similar ties to home that join them in a universal bond. Kuribayashi is a devoted family man who corresponds regularly with his wife Yoshie, their son Taro, and their daughters, Yohko and Takako. Tom and Milly Kennedy write to each other daily during the 18 months they are separated, sometimes as many as three letters a day.

Writing one warm, summer evening, Milly expresses her loneliness and fears in a brief letter. She implores Tom to be careful and ends with a plaintive request: “Couldn’t you fall off a Jeep and get discharged?” His reply attempts to reassure her that he is well: