For 34 years, the men of the 476th Amphibious Truck Company, and all-black unit in what was then the segregated Army, were largely ignored by history-the unremembered faces of the Battle for Iwo Jima.
But yesterday, under a cloudy sky at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, 25 former members and relatives of deceased members of the 476th stood proudly to receive a certificate of appreciation that Army officials and the men themselves said was long overdue.
"This country has a history and tradition of honoring its men who answer the call to arms," said Brig. Gen. Arthur Holmes. "However, that history and that tradition sometimes has not provided the recognition and honor to all black units of our army during the days of segregation."
Holmes, who represented Army Secretary Clifford Alexander Jr. at the ceremony, said, "Such oversight is unfortunate and does disservice to the brave black men like yourselves who fought, suffered and sometimes died in the defense of their country.
Frederick Gray of Washington, who asked the White House last year for the certificate, said, "We only wanted a tiny bit of recognition before we left this world."
For the Vietnam generation, the 1945 Battle for Iwo Jima remains a hazy name out of history: the most famous land battle of the Pacific in World War II and one of the costliest of that war.
Nearly 6.000 Americans and 19,000 Japanese died in the 35-day battle for the eight-square mile volcanic island that blocked America's strategic air and ocean road to Japan.
For the men of the 476th, one of the few Army units in the Marine Corps landing, the battle looms still as the most terrifying achievement of their lives: days of wrestling 32-foot amphibious vehicles through surf and bullets and blood while hauling ammunition and artillery from beached LSTs to the advancing Marine front line.
Monday night, at a gathering at Gray's home in Seat Pleasant, five members of the unit from the Washington area spread snapshots of proud black men in uniform over a dining room table and reminisced.
"During the thick of the battle, there were 80,000 to 90,000 men fighting on eight square miles of island. After the first wave of marines hit the beach, I remember bodies of American marines stacked on top of each other, equipment lay scattered around the beach and blood ran back in to the sea," said Samuel J. Stevenson, one of the 177 men of the 476th.
"We could hear the voice of Maj. Gen. Holland M. (Howlin' Mad) Smith shout over the loudspeaker, 'Go back! Go back there even if it takes every goddamn man, including me!" Stevenson said.
The black men went back and, with other vehicle drivers, "saved the day when the situation along the beach became worse than anticipated," according to "The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War," a history of the Pacific Theater.
The book describes the men of the 476th as "well-disciplined Army troops" who achieved "excellent" coordination between ships and beach despite breakdowns elsewhere in the supply effort.
"Blacks in the military were largely relegated to units that unloaded ships, engineering battalions that cleared the jungles and made runways, and quartermaster battalions that handled supplies," said Chester Higgins, assistant chief of public affairs for the Office of the Secretary of the Army.
"We did the dirty work, the labor work, the service work," said Higgins. "That's the kind of Army it was then, man, there's no blinking that. That was a shameful part of America's history, but that's the way it was.
"But there were black units that stood out under fire, like this one," he said.
Thomas H. Perrin, a mechanic with the 476th, remembered the first attack by marines on the beachfront that started at dawn.
"The island had beem bombed from the air for several days before, and that morning, looking from the top deck of the ship it looked like the island was deserted and somebody had played a trick on us," Perrin said.
"The first wave of the marines went in, then the second wave, with 'Ducks' [amphibious jeeps] of marines and equipment, and when the second wave hit the beach, it looked like all hell broke losse. Fire came from everywhere."
Arthur L. Peterson, the first serfeant of the unit, stood on top of a landing craft listening to the command radio and directing the 476th "Duck" drivers to points along the beachhead. Peterson was one of several unit members who received Silver and Broze Stars.
"From where I stood, you could see the artillery fire, the tanks, people flying in the air from the mines and artillery fire," Peterson said. "I had to direct the men where to go, and if a howitzer was needed on the fron line, that's where my man had to go."
Stevenson said he was in a foxhole near Mt. Suribachi, when the Stars and Stripes was raised there by marines four days after the battle began. The Iwo Jima Memorial commemorates that flag raising.
"A torso of a Japanese soldier stuck in the volcanic ash in front of our foxhole for three days," Stevenson said. "At one point, a guy next to me said, 'Man, what's wrong with your hair turned completely gray."
Jules Blaustein, a white man who, at 23 year old, was captain of the 476th, told a reporter recently that "the Marine officers were very impressed by the valor of the men, who were the first black troops used in combat in an amphibious assault.
"They contributed so much to this country, but because of the times, it was not publicized the way it should have been," said Blaustein, how an Army recruiter who lives in Baltimore.
Other units that fought in the battle received unit citations after the war, but the 476th was deactivated on Iwo Jima in May 1946, and disbanded completely a short time later.
Last year, after a member of the company told Gray that the 476th was eligible for an award, Gray said he contacted the White House to ask about a presentation. He said the White House refused his request initially, but after a story about the refusal appeared in the press he notified that a mistake had been made.
Yesterday's ceremony was the result.
"Segregation here had been a way of life for us," said Peterson, 65, a native of northwest Washington who was drafted into the Army when he was 30. "Any leader or supervisor, not only in the Army but in Washington as well, had to be a white person. We just got used to it."
"I can remember when Negro leaders couldn't even get contact with white leaders," said Lindsay Neal. "I was a valet and handiman to James Roosevelt, and I remember when NAACP leaders would come and talk to the hired help at the White House . . . to get them to say a good word for them."
Perrin said, "The best thing that happened to the Negro was World War II because it put us on the map and showed what we could do." CAPTION: Picture, Former members and relatives of World War II unit gather at Iwo Jima Memorial. By James A. Parcell-The Washington Post