Battle of Iwo Jima recalled by veterans 70 years later

WASHINGTON -- It was 70 years ago Thursday, during the Second World War, that U.S. forces began a bloody but successful battle to capture the Japanese island of Iwo Jima -- needed as a staging area to attack the mainland.

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U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on Feb. 23, 1945. Strategically located only 660 miles from Tokyo, the Pacific island became the site of one of the bloodiest, most famous battles of World War II against Japan. AP

The picture of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima may be the most famous ever; a split second that seemed to capture all that it took to win World War II. But in truth nothing could capture the hell that was Iwo Jima.

"It cost us 7,000 American lives to take Iwo Jima," said Frank Matthews.

He was an 18-year-old private when he went ashore on the first day in relief of a 900-man regiment that had virtually been wiped out.

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Frank Matthews CBS News

"They lost 750 in one five hour stretch," said Matthews. "Every inch of that beach and everything around it had been pinned down and zeroed in by the Japanese guns."

70 years later Matthews is a guide at the Marine Corps Museum where the actual flag the Marines raised on Mount Suribachi is on display.

"I'll say, 'we are showing two items today that were on the battle during the actual battle -- the flag and me,'" said Matthews.

There were 70,000 marines on Iwo Jima. Lawrence Snowden was a 23-year-old captain when he was photographed inside a crater left by a Japanese shell.

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U.S. Marine Lawrence Snowden is seen in a crater on the island of Iwo Jima AP

"When we landed there were three colors -- black and gray from all the exploding ordinance," Snowden recalled. "The third color was red -- blood."

At the time, the famous flag raising on the fourth day of the battle was not the symbol of victory it later became.

"None of us doing the fighting thought that was the end by a long shot," said Snowden. "We knew we were just getting started."

At 93, Snowden is still a font of knowledge for anyone interested in the battle. Caitlin Touhey has been coming to Iwo Jima reunions since she was in high school.

"They're just great people to be around -- not just to learn from their history but just to spend time with," Touhey told me.

She laments the fact that many in her generation may not be aware of the history these veterans hold.

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Caitlin Touhey CBS News

"My generation just doesn't understand the importance of that part of history and that it is going to be gone soon," Touhey told me.

However, she says, the picture is going to be around forever. And that may be the greatest thing about that photograph. It guarantees the battle of Iwo Jima and what it took to win can never be forgotten.