Twenty-one-year-old Marine Capt. Lawrence Snowden already disliked the Japanese when he landed on Iwo Jima with an invasion force on Feb. 19, 1945.
Earlier combat on other Pacific islands along with biting U.S. propaganda had shaped his attitude. And after being wounded twice during the battle on Iwo Jima, Snowden’s anti-Japanese sentiments lingered after World War II.
The story of how that eventually changed is one he’ll tell Sunday in Kannapolis at an event sponsored by the nonprofit Japan Carolinas organization.
The 93-year-old retired lieutenant general lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and is now the most senior military survivor of Iwo Jima.
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Every year since 1995, he has organized a Reunion of Honor Tour, which has hosted veterans and descendants from both sides of the battle. The first tour of Iwo Jima featured a talk by the widow of Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who commanded the Japanese garrison on the island and died there.
“Her message was that we’re former enemies who are now friends,” said Snowden, who has also served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. “She said, ‘Together we must not let that type of warfare happen again.’ I’ve used that theme ever since.”
Snowden is one of three speakers at Sunday’s event, to be held at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Julia Nesheiwat, deputy assistant secretary for energy at the U.S. Department of State, will talk about the changing roles of women in Japan. Rear Admiral Yuki Sekiguchi, Defense Attache at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, will speak on “Japan’s Security Alliance.”
The event is free and open to the public.
Daniel McVety and his wife, Darlene, started Japan Carolinas earlier this year as a way to promote better understanding between the two countries. Both had missionary parents and grew up in Japan.
Daniel McVety is former executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and first met Snowden in Japan during the mid-1970s.
“We sang in the same the choir at the Tokyo Baptist Church,” McVety said. “For years, I knew him as Larry and didn’t know much else.”
Later, McVety learned about Snowden’s military background.
“He’s such a terrific role model,” said McVety. “He’s just a humble guy.”
Memories of war
A native of Charlottesville, Va., Snowden joined the Marine Corps two days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He spent 37 1/2 years in the Corps, retiring in 1979.
During World War II, Snowden fought on the islands of Roi-Namur, Saipan and Tinian. He also fought in Korea and Vietnam.
But none of those battles came close to what he experienced on Iwo Jima.
“It was hell on earth,” said Snowden. “Beyond belief.”
From aboard ship on D-day, the island “looked like a big lump of land mass in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled.
Ashore, there was no green – just black and gray. Vegetation had been blown away and black sand, or volcanic ash, covered the beaches.
“The black sand was unbelievable,” Snowden said. “You put your foot down and there was no hole. It was like water filling a void.”
Military brass had predicted the invasion of Iwo Jima would wrap up in five to 10 days. Snowden spent 36 days fighting on the island.
Years later, when he saw Iwo Jima again for the first time since the war, the black sand was still there and the green had returned.
Snowden remembers that from the air the island “looked like a green pearl in the middle of the ocean.”
Japan has changed the island’s name to Iwo To, its original name.
The tour groups Snowden takes back to Iwo To include American and Japanese families who “come to see where their fathers or grandfathers died,” Snowden said.
He expects about 280 people will be on the 2015 excursion. If 25 to 30 are actual survivors of the battle, “that’s a crowd,” Snowden said.
Visitors can spend only one day on the island, arriving after sunup and leaving at sundown.
“There are no facilities,” Snowden said. “We have to take our own water and box lunches and our own staff medical person.”
Even though he’s been back many times, each trip is “still an emotional experience,” Snowden said. “If you’re there and close your eyes, you can almost hear it (battle) again. It brings back memories you thought were out of your mind.”
How he came to see beyond an old battle and regard former enemies in a new light is the theme of his program on Sunday. Snowden doesn’t want to give too much away, but described the current relationship between the U.S. and Japan as “the strongest and most important in the world today.”
“Now, the Japanese are my friends,” he said. “I’ll explain how that occurred.”