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Groups Say Iwo Jima Name Change Won't Change Americans' Views of History

The name may be changing, but the memories won’t.

The Japanese Geographical Survey Institute this week announced that Japan has changed the name of the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima to the original name given by local residents, Iwo To. The World War II battle for that that island in 1945 led to nearly 7,000 American soldiers being killed or captured.

The new name in Japanese looks and means the same as Iwo Jima — or Sulfur Island — but sounds different, the Japanese Geographical Survey Institute said. The island’s only residents now are about 400 Japanese soldiers.

Despite the change, historical and military groups say the battle that pitted 100,000 U.S. troops against 22,000 Japanese will forever be emblazoned upon America’s memory as the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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"It’s a Japanese island and returning it to its original name is their business, but the name Iwo Jima will be forever engraved in U.S. military history," said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Affairs in Washington. "To those who fought and survived there, and to the families of those who fought and died there, it will always be called Iwo Jima."

He added: "It’s like the Vietnam vets still calling Ho Chi Minh city Saigon. You can change the name but you can’t change the memory of people who lived through that experience."

The battle for Iwo Jima was immortalized by the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press of Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. But it was actually Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery, a photographer from the Marine Corp.’s Leatherneck magazine, who took the first photograph of a smaller 54-by-28-inch flag being raised at that spot two hours earlier.

Retired Marine Col. Walter is the current editor of Leatherneck Magazine. The 90-year-old publication was the official magazine of the Marine Corp. from 1917 to 1972. It is now run mostly by retired Marines.

"Marines have a long association of the name Iwo Jima but changing the official name on maps that are produced by the Geographic Survey Institute aren’t going to change the way it’s changed in Marine Corps history," Ford said. "There might be some veterans who will be upset but that won’t cause them to refer to it — it will still be the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II."

Ford noted that Chosin Reservoir, a battle site during the Korean War in which 30,000 U.N. troops faced off with 60,000 Chinese volunteers, is now known as Lake Changjin River, the largest reservoir in Changjin County. But in historical contexts, the lake is sometimes known according to its Japanese pronunciation, which is the Chosin Reservoir.

"Names might be officially changed but that doesn’t change the way we look at those battles in history," Ford said.

The island has been popularized by modern-day books like "Flags of Our Fathers," the 2000 New York Times best seller by James Bradley and Ron Powers. The film adaptation opened in the United States on Oct. 20, 2006, and was directed by Clint Eastwood and produced by Steven Spielberg. Eastwood’s "Letters From Iwo Jima" tells the story of the battle from the perspective of two good friends serving in the Japanese forces. That film began opening on Dec. 20, 2006.

Eastwood’s agent said the reknowned actor and director was traveling and would not be commenting on the name change.

Thousands of Americans flock each year to Washington to marvel at the capital city’s numerous monument and memorials paying tribune to people and events that have made their mark on this nation’s history.

The Marine Corps War Memorial honors the Marines who died defending the United States since 1775. The 32-foot-high figures are shown erecting a 60-foot bronze flagpole from which a cloth flag flies 24 hours a day in accordance with the presidential proclamation of June 12, 1961. The figures represent the five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman who raised the flag: Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon H. Block, Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley, Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes, and PhM. 2/c John H. Bradley, USN.

The National Park Service said there’s no need to change much in the way of reading material tourists get when they flock to D.C. to view the memorial.

"To us it was never the Iwo Jima memorial — it’s a memorial to all Marines," said National Park Service spokesman Dave Barnam. "We don’t think the name would change in our literature because our literature is for historic purposes and that’s what the names was at the time. Just like the battle of Leningrad, which is now Saint Petersburg [Russia], it’s not something that’s being changed back and forth."

He noted some veterans asked the Parks Service why they flag on the memorial has 50 stars on it instead of 48 — the latter number being the number of states recognized by the U.S. government in 1945. But the statue reflects the historical purpose of that battle, Barnam said, which was the fight for the island.

But there is precedence for making changes in the national park system to most accurately reflect history.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, for instance, used to be known as Custer’s Last Stand Historical Site. The area memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their way of life, according to the National Park Service. It’s here that in 1876, 263 soldiers and personnel of the U.S. Army, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer, were killed by several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

"From a military strategy standpoint, it was a battle for that area of ground, it wasn’t about Custer’s last stand … It [now] more accurately represents the historical context of what actually took place there," Barnam said. "If you changed Pearl Harbor to Virginia today, I don’t think we’d talk about the ‘attack on Virginia’ on Dec. 7, 1941 — we need to keep the historical context."