Iwo Jima, then and now
Vet returns war mementos to Japanese
By Deborah A. Miles
Who would have ever imagined that PEF member Nick Zingaro would return to Iwo Jima 60 years later to commemorate one of the most symbolic battles of World War II. Only this time, his mission was to be a messenger of peace to the Japanese.
This retired U.S. Marine joined 87 other U.S. vets on the hallowed grounds in March to return the personal effects of Japanese soldiers to some of the 400 families who gathered for an “honor reunion” ceremony.
“When I handed a flag to one elderly woman, she grabbed my arm, as if to give me a hug. The Japanese don’t usually do that. They are a quiet people. So, I bowed to her and she bowed back to me,” Zingaro said. “She was very grateful. When others received flags, they held them to their hearts.”
In addition to the flags, Zingaro and another Marine Corps veteran, Martin Connor, returned letters, postcards and photographs to widows and descendants of the lost. The two vets started the campaign to collect the mementos a couple of years ago.
“These things mean something to the Japanese families,” Zingaro said. “If it were the other way around, we would want them back.”
Making new memories
In 1945, Zingaro was one of the first to land on this tiny teardrop-shaped island, famous for black sand beaches. He didn’t want to talk about what it was like when nearly 7,000 Americans died and more than 22,000 Japanese were killed.
He said the 11,000-mile trip was difficult. It was not just the distance, but also the memories of being a 17-year-old private on Iwo Jima and “seeing your buddies destroyed” that made it tough. And he said it was a common practice for soldiers to empty the pockets of their enemies.
Zingaro’s job as a senior engineering technician at the state Department of Transportation in Syracuse, which he has held since retiring from the Marines in 1980, has helped him focus on more positive things. He views the campaign to collect and return the war souvenirs as part of the healing.
One last visit
He said word of the campaign is spreading across the country because of local and national news stories and more veterans are responding. Future items will be shipped directly to the Iwo Jima Association of Japan, as the 60th anniversary also marks the last time for visitors to the island due to transportation logistics and lack of accommodations.
“You have to fly there from Guam and you can’t stay there.” Zingaro said.
He described Iwo Jima as still being barren like a grave with no signs of life, just an airstrip, dirt roads and sandstone cliffs pockmarked with bullet holes.
For many Americans, what they will always remember about Iwo Jima is the image of the six Marines raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi — the Pulitzer Prize winning photo that inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
For Zingaro and the other Marines who stood on the hillside during the ceremony that overlooks the landing beaches, they will remember two historical moments — a merciless battle and a ceremony where the Japanese offered prayers and wreaths for all the dead.
Mostly, Zingaro said, they will remember the expressions of gratitude and appreciation on the faces of those who received a final memento of someone they loved.
“Raising of the flag” Photograph by Joe Rosenthal © Copyright 2004. Iwo
Communicator May 2005
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