IWO TO, Japan - The KC-130J circled the island slowly as curious faces pressed against the windows of the aircraft. Wide eyes and cameras tried to capture the first glimpse of the black beaches and mountaintop that are sacred grounds for Marines all over the world.
Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, Marine Aircraft Group 36, flew more than 80 Marines and sailors Jan. 31 to Iwo To, formerly known as Iwo Jima, from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Marine Corps Installations Pacific.
VMGR-152 is with MAG-36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
Marines with the aviation transportation coordination office plan professional military education trips to Iwo To through the Commander, Naval Forces Japan months in advance.
“Iwo To PME is a difficult process because of all the coordination that has to be done,” said Gunnery Sgt. John K. Marsh, a fixed-wing aircraft crew chief and the ATCO chief with the squadron. “The island is Japanese (territory), and all PME requests must be filtered through (Commander, Naval Forces Japan).”
The ATCO schedules all VMGR-152 movements for the month, according to Marsh. The office then takes that schedule, compares it to the days that Iwo To will allow PME visits, and comes up with the best flight days for that month.
Due to the schedules being filled with training exercises and other mission-oriented engagements, educational trips to Iwo To are a rarity, according to Marsh. But if there is an opening in the schedule, VMGR-152 can take a lucky few Marines and sailors to the island battleground.
“I don’t think there was a single person in our battalion who didn’t want to come,” said Lance Cpl. Leland J. Piner, a geographical intelligence specialist with 3rd Intelligence Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, III MEF. “We’ve been trying to come out here, and this is the first chance we’ve had. It’s definitely something to remember.”
Due to limited space on the aircraft, each section within 3rd Intel. Bn. nominated their best Marines to make the flight to the island. Piner was among the fortunate Marines chosen to participate in the trip and hike up Mount Suribachi.
“I can’t imagine what (the Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima) went through,” said Piner, standing on top of the mountain where the U.S. flag was famously raised after the mountain was secured in 1945. “That’s really the humbling part, because it was a (challenge) just walking up the mountain. I can’t imagine fighting for every inch of it.”
Looking down on the black shores that Marines stormed nearly 70 years ago, many of the men and women paid their respects and added to the myriad mementos left by generations of Marines before them.
“We’re glad to have the opportunity to assist the Marines in getting out to (Iwo To) to see part of their Marine Corps heritage,” said 1st Lt. Michael E. Wright, a KC-130J copilot with VMGR-152. “It’s a great experience not only for us, but for them as well, to step foot on the beach where the Marines before us once stood.”