Tribute to the Fallen Marines and Corpsmen of World War II


Grave of GySgt John M. Basilone in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. He was one of America's first Medal of Honor recipients in the war while serving in the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal, and was killed in action at Iwo Jima on 19 February 1945. Still image from USMC combat camera film

In September 1945, World War II ended with the surrender of Japan. This event was marked with jubilation everywhere. In London, New York and Washington DC the streets filled spontaneously with giant crowds happy that the war was over. To paraphrase a beloved wartime song, "the lights went on again all over the world."

As World War II closed, the US Marine Corps was preparing for its most challenging test; the planned Invasion of Japan. In camps all over the Pacific, Marines breathed a sigh of relief knowing they wouldn't face another beach head. The Marines who had done so much for victory were going home and they were happy to be alive.

In tents and Quonset huts, ball fields and recreation centers, Marines came together to celebrate a new lease on life. For them, victory was a bittersweet thing. The ones who were alive were glad to be so. But they knew better than anyone the cost of winning the war.

VJ Day passed quietly in other places. In cemeteries all over the world, the flag flew above the graves of Marines who could never take part in the victory celebrations. And in homes all over America, their families, sweethearts and friends faced a tragic reality: for them, there would be no homecomings from World War II for their Marines.

Across the world, the path of the Second World War was marked by white crosses and Stars of David. 25,160 Marines and their brother Corpsmen rested forever beneath mounds of shining coral, black sand, or lush grass. Some of the Marines slept forever in their ships and planes, locked at the bottom of the deep ocean. And others were to spend eternity in forgotten caves and overgrown jungle clearings, classified as "missing–presumed dead."

Those who had survived the harsh and unforgiving experience of combat struggled with coming to grips with what they had lived through. There were so many dead friends and brother Marines. On battlefields across the Pacific, cemeteries, with their countless graves neatly laid out in perfect rows, bore silent testament to the war's pitiless nature. Units joined together to dedicate the sacred ground where so many of their buddies laid in final rest. Commanders and Navy chaplain gave heartfelt eulogies in tribute to the lives lost. When he spoke at the dedication of the Third Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima in 1945, division commander MajGen Graves Erskine spoke words that, in a sense, represent all the Marines and attached Navy personnel who fell in the war:

"Only the accumulated praise of time will pay proper tribute to our valiant dead. Long after those who lament their immediate loss are themselves dead, these men will be mourned by the Nation. They are the Nation's loss. There is talk of great history, of the greatest fight in our history, of unheard-of sacrifice and unheard-of courage. These phrases are correct, but they are prematurely employed. Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was. The enemy could have displaced every cubic inch on this fortress with concrete pillboxes and blockhouses, which he nearly did, and still victory would not have been in doubt. What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate this cemetery at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner. Let the world count our crosses! Let them count over and over. Then when they understand the significance of the fighting for Iwo Jima, let them wonder how few they are. We understand and we wonder--we who are separated from our dead by a few feet of earth; from death by inches and fractions of an inch. The cost to us in quality, one who did not fight side by side with those who fell, can never understand."

As we reflect today on the fallen, it is easy to trivialize their sacrifice. We say, "They died for freedom," or, "They were the heroes." Both are factual, but they mask other important truths. First, most of the dead didn't want to die–they wanted to live, but not many had a choice. Second, their brother Marines who survived were, for the rest of their lives, left with the haunting question, "Why Joe, or Pete, or Gizmo, and not me?"



Victory came at a high cost and the bill is still being paid. Sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Wives, fiancees and girlfriends somehow found a way to go on but never forgot. Mothers and fathers, themselves almost all dead now, carried the horrible memory of their children dying before them. And a generation of Marines still carries the burden of their buddies lost in World War II—a familiar weight, like the packs and rifles they shouldered when they were young.

"Last Rites for the Sergeant"
by Kerr Eby, 1944, charcoal

US Navy Combat Art Collection

"He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives–in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men."

Franklin Roosevelt

In the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, Marines wander among the rows of graves searching for their buddies who were lost in the battle. Still image from USMC combat camera film

Pvt Ted Miller, USMC
Co. K, 3rd Bn, 22nd Marines
KIA 24 March 1944–Ebon Atoll
USMC Photo



NOTE 1: Casualty figures extracted from the History of USMC Operations in World War II

NOTE 2: Total casualty figures include 19,733 Marines killed in action, 4,778 non-battle deaths and 649 US Navy personnel killed in action serving with Marine units.






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