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Marines Fightin' Mad Over AF Plans

Proposed site of a memorial near the Iwo Jima statue has leathernecks incensed. They are enlisting the support of lawmakers.

January 27, 1998|ROBERT L. JACKSON and STEVEN GRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — At the edge of Arlington National Cemetery stands one of the Capital area's most striking tourist attractions: the 60-foot-high bronze sculpture of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.

Dedicated in 1954, the memorial commemorates all the honored dead of the Marine Corps, not just the thousands who died in one of World War II's last bloody battles as leathernecks fought their way onto the Pacific island and hoisted the flag on Mt. Suribachi.

But now, as part of a "monument mania" that has seized the Washington area in recent years, the Air Force Memorial Foundation wants to construct its own edifice just a few hundred feet from the Iwo Jima statue. Backed by the Air Force, the nonprofit foundation already has won the required federal approval for its memorial.

The Marines are incensed.

"To me, it's hallowed ground," said Herbert Newman, 71, a retired Marine who served on Iwo Jima. "None of us are against an Air Force memorial, but just not here."

Lt. Col. Scott Campbell, a Marine spokesman, said the corps officially supports an Air Force memorial but believes the proposed site will detract from the Iwo Jima shrine.

Nor are Marine officials thrilled that the Air Force project apparently will be as abstract in appearance as the Iwo Jima statue is literal. The preliminary design envisions a 50-foot-high, three-dimensional, blue-gray aluminum star. Beneath the memorial, a visitors' center is planned on the two-acre site.

Opponents have gone so far as to enlist the help of members of Congress, including Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), a former Marine. Solomon and several co-sponsors have introduced a bill to prohibit any structure on the extended grounds of what is known officially as the Marine Corps War Memorial.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Solomon is concerned about "the impact the Air Force Memorial would have on one of the most recognizable memorials in the whole country," his office said.

For many current and former Marines, the brouhaha is all the more aggravating because the battle of Iwo Jima was fought to serve the needs of the Air Force, then known as the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The small but heavily fortified island, lying 660 miles south of Tokyo, stood out in early 1945 for its strategic importance.

If bombers were going to attack the Japanese mainland systematically, they would need landing strips on Iwo Jima, military planners said. To accomplish that goal, the Marines launched their assault in February 1945. Intense fighting that lasted for several days resulted in 25,000 U.S. casualties, including 6,800 killed (an estimated 25,000 Japanese troops died).

As the battle raged, a news photographer snapped the flag-raising moment. Perhaps the most famous image to emerge from the war, it was the obvious choice for the monument.

Air Force officials seem determined not to have their proposed $25-million project shot down, or even relocated.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert D. Springer, who heads the Air Force Foundation, said the group has raised privately more than half the funds needed to build the memorial.

"We're trying to convince the Marines that this will not intrude on Iwo Jima," Springer said. "It's not a threat to their memorial or its dignity or integrity. We fought together all during the war, so it makes sense that we can be memorialized together."

One reason the foundation singled out the spot close to the Iwo Jima statue is that it is near the parade grounds where Orville Wright first demonstrated flight to the military in 1908.

Even as Springer holds out hope of defusing Marine opposition to the Air Force Memorial, the proposal faces another potential obstacle: a lawsuit filed by nearby residents.

The residents, who include Newman, contend the memorial will increase noise and traffic around their homes. The group, calling itself Friends of Iwo Jima, has gone to federal court in nearby Alexandria, Va., to try to block the project.

Springer dismisses the complaints as "misinformation."

But Newman and some others insist the Air Force has become caught up in the craze for more monuments.

Within the last year, a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt was dedicated along the Potomac River, and one honoring women who served in the military opened at Arlington National Cemetery. Other projects in the works or being considered include an $8.6-million monument near the Capitol paying homage to the patriotism of Japanese Americans.

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