The men who fought on Iwo Jima and survived to tell about it have had 40 years to live with the fascination and horror of the place.
Arnold Shapiro, a 44-year-old filmmaker, has lived with his own peculiar fascination for 20 years -- a shorter time and an easier time, but time enough to make "Return to Iwo Jima" a homecoming of sorts, even for a war baby.
Shapiro, a producer best known for "Scared Straight!," the explosive, award-winning documentary in which young people were confronted by prison inmates, said he used much the same technique in doing "Return," an hour-long documentary airing this week on PBS. The idea was to find a group of veterans going back to Iwo Jima for the 40th anniversary of the battle. He interviewed them before they landed on the island for the second time, followed them during the commemoration, and talked to them afterward, pulling together a tearful story of men revisiting the scene of the Marine Corps' most costly victory.
But that's getting ahead of the story, Shapiro's story, anyway.
In 1965, Arnold Shapiro was a 24-year-old producer with just two years in the business when he read a book about Iwo Jima. "It was incredible that any Marine walked off that island alive," he said. The magnitude of it all -- nearly 7,000 Marines killed while taking the island from 21,000 Japanese soldiers, killing 20,000 of them in the process, all for a strategically important but otherwise worthless piece of volcanic rock -- captured Shapiro's imagination and held it for two decades. "I kept research material for 20 years hoping to do something with it," he said.
Two years ago he attended a reunion marking the 38th anniversary of the battle. He asked if any of the Marines would ever go back to Iwo Jima, now a Japanese military base, and made it clear that he'd like to go too.
"Two months later one of them called and said a committee was being formed to hold a 40th reunion," Shapiro recalled. And by the way, the Marine said, since Shapiro was pretty good with words, would he mind sending a note to the Japanese prime minister to get the whole thing started?
Shapiro thus became a producer in more ways than one. He was also called upon to come up with words to put on a small monument to the occasion and to raise money for the money for the monument itself.
In return, Shapiro received some assistance with his documentary. Returning veterans were asked to fill out questionnaires for him. From the 150 Americans and 40 Japanese soldiers he singled out five Americans and three Japanese to follow on a visit to Japan before the commemoration, then on to Iwo Jima; he talked to them the day after as well. Shapiro picked his subjects to represent various aspects of the battle: One is physically disfigured, one still hates the Japanese, an one was a medical corpsman, an unsung hero among unsung heroes.
"The emotional evolution of the people was the equivalent of therapy," he said. "To go back, to shake hands with the enemy and to put it behind them.
"Vietnam is not the only American war in which people have come back emotionally scarred. In World War II they came back with nightmares and survivor guilt too." One returning Marine, Shapiro recalled, broke down in tears. Through his sobs he finally said, "What I'm trying to say is, maybe I should have stayed here in place of those here."
Shapiro went to Iwo Jima before the anniversary to scout the location. "I spent five days there in October," he recalled. "That's when my own catharsis took place. I had my picture taken stepping onto the beach. Walking the main beach, going up to Mount Suribachi . . . those were the emotional peaks for me."
Then the Marines landed, helping with the logistics. They would truck the now aging veterans around the eight-square- mile island and be on hand in case the emotion of the day and the 80-degree heat got to anyone. "No one knew how people would react," said Shapiro. "Would there be heart attacks? Would anyone be overcome with grief or heat? The Marines had people ready in case."
This time, no casualties.
It all turns into an emotion-packed hour, totally fitting for Memorial Day week, and one of the last of the string World War II commemoratives.
"On behalf of my generation I'm saying thank you," said Shapiro. "And I'm telling the Marines, I want to hear your stories."