TOKYO – A U.S. search team on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima is zeroing in on a cave where a Marine combat photographer who filmed the famous flag-raising 62 years ago is believed to have been killed in battle nine days later, officials told The Associated Press Friday.
The seven-member search team is looking for the remains Sgt. William H. Genaust, who was killed in action after filming the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi, and other U.S. troops killed in the battle — one of the fiercest and most symbolic of World War II.
The team is the first from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting office, which is headquartered on Hickam Air Force Base on Hawaii, to conduct a search on Iwo Jima since 1948, when most of the American remains were recovered. The island was occupied by the United States after Japan's 1945 surrender, and returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1968.
"The team is finding caves that have been cleaned out, and some that have collapsed," JPAC spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Brown told The Associated Press.
Brown said the team is looking for as many American remains as it can find, including those of Genaust.
He said 88,000 U.S. service members are missing from World War II, including about 250 from the Iwo Jima campaign.
Brown said the search is a preliminary one, and that if a high probability of recovering remains is determined, a full recovery team will be sent in.
"Our motto is `until they are home,"' Brown said. "`No man left behind' is a promise made to every individual who raises his hand."
Genaust, a combat photographer with the 28th Marines, used a movie camera to film the raising of the flag atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. He stood just feet away from AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, whose iconic photograph of the moment won a Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize the Pacific War and the struggle of the U.S. forces to capture the tiny island, a turning point in the war with Japan.
Genaust didn't live to see the end of the battle.
Johnnie Webb, a civilian official with JPAC, said Genaust died nine days later when he was hit by machine-gun fire as he was assisting fellow Marines secure a cave.
Iwo Jima was officially taken on March 26, 1945 after 31-day battle that pitted some 100,000 U.S. troops against 21,200 Japanese. All told, 6,821 Americans were killed and nearly 22,000 injured — the highest percentage of casualties in any Pacific battle.
Only 1,033 Japanese survived.
Brown said some 250 U.S. troops are still missing from the Iwo Jima campaign. Many were lost at sea, meaning the chances of recovering their remains are slim. But many also were killed in caves or buried by explosions, and Brown said they are optimistic that the current search for Genaust and other servicemen will prove useful.
"We are looking at several caves," he said. "`We are looking for a number of service members, including Genaust. We have maps dating back to World War II and even GPS locations. So far, everything seems to be where it should be."
Accounts of Genaust's death vary, but he was believed to have been killed in or near a cave on "Hill 362A."
On March 4, 1945, Marines were securing the cave, and are believed to have asked Genaust to use his movie camera light to illuminate their way. He volunteered to shine the light in the cave himself, and when he did he was killed by enemy fire. The cave was secured after a gunfight, and its entrance sealed.
Genaust was 38 when he died.
"We decided that the only way to determine if his remains were there was to work on the ground," Webb said. "We believe his remains may be in there, along with the remains of the Japanese."