By ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press
IWO JIMA, Japan – Avoiding unexploded grenades and hacking their way through cactus under a blazing sun, an American search team has located two caves where they believe a Marine who filmed the iconic flag-raising on Iwo Jima may have been killed 62 years ago in one of World War II’s most symbolic battles.
The team, which wrapped up its 10-day expedition Wednesday, was the first U.S.-led search on this remote volcanic island since 1948.
Army Maj. Sean Stinchon, who led the effort, told The Associated Press the team conducted an extensive search on the southwestern side of Hill 362A, where Sgt. William H. Genaust was believed killed by enemy gunfire on March 4, 1945.
Stinchon said the seven-member team located two previously unmapped sites, but was unable to search them because of the possibility of a collapse and because of obstacles blocking the way. He said the team will recommend a larger search party be sent in with heavy equipment to excavate.
He said an explosives expert was on the team — Iwo Jima continues to be riddled with unexploded ordnance — and checked before the team did any “poking around.” At the site, shrapnel from the battle, a turning point of the war, still littered the ground.
The condition of the two caves also underscored the difficulty of the mission.
One was blocked by craggy debris, and searchers had to dig through five feet of dirt to get to the opening of the second cave. Bullet holes riddled the entrances to several caves and tunnels nearby — one of which stretched the width of the hill itself.
“It’s not a best-case scenario,” Stinchon said.
Still, he said the mission was “very successful” and has created hope that the bodies of Genaust — and possibly others — may be found.
“This is an initial investigation,” he said. “We are definitely hopeful.”
Iwo Jima was the site of some of the fiercest fighting of, and the photograph taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal of the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, came to symbolize the Pacific War and the valor of the Marines.
Genaust helped escort Rosenthal up the mountain, then filmed the flag-raising — the second that day — from just feet away from Rosenthal, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his still photograph.
“We did everything we could with our hands and with shovels,” Stinchon told the AP, the only civilian media with the team on site.
Though they did not turn up any remains or material evidence, Stinchon said the mission may bring searchers closer to finding Genaust.
The team, sent by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, headquartered at Hickam Air Base in, used machetes to hack through the dense foliage and cactus, which now covers much of the interior of this island.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
Inhabited only by a small contingent of Japanese troops, Iwo Jima is an open grave.
The U.S. officially took the island on March 26, 1945, after a 31-day battle that pitted about 100,000 U.S. troops against 21,200 Japanese. Some 6,821 Americans were killed; only 1,033 Japanese survived.
Some 280 U.S. troops, not including pilots and those lost at sea, are still missing from the campaign. Many of them died in caves or were buried by explosions.
Japan’s government and military are helping with the search on Iwo Jima, which this month was officially renamed Iwo To — the island’s name before the war.
sent its first search parties to the island in 1952 and others have followed every year since Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese control in 1968. They have recovered 8,595 sets of remains — but, to date, no Americans.
“Probably the majority of the remains they are getting are the easy ones,” said Hugh Tuller, a forensic anthropologist with the U.S. team. “The chances of Americans being mixed in with them are rather slim. They have been looking more at the surface and open caves.”
Genaust was 38 when he was killed.
On March 4, 1945, Marines were securing a cave on Hill 362A — named after its height above sea-level — when they asked Genaust to borrow his movie camera to light their way. He volunteered to shine the light in the cave himself, and was killed by enemy fire.
The cave was secured after a gunfight, and its entrance sealed, possibly by an explosion.
Genaust and another Marine protected the AP photographer as they climbed 546-foot Mount Suribachi. Under heavy attack, the Japanese did not fire on the three men. Genaust’s footage helped prove the flag-raising was not staged, as some later claimed.
In 1995, a bronze plaque was put atop Suribachi to honor Genaust, who before Iwo Jima was wounded on the Pacific island of. An actor portraying him appears in the movie “ ,” and an annual award has been established to honor the best videotape of a Marine Corps-related news event.
The search was prompted in large part by information provided by Bob Bolus, a., businessman who became intrigued by Genaust after reading a Parade magazine story about him two years ago. Bolus put together a team of experts that was able to pinpoint where Genaust’s remains were likely to be found.