By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
For 37 days, Bill Montgomery fought on the volcanic Japanese island known as Iwo Jima. Montgomery, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the deadly World War II battle, still wonders how he survived—when most of the men in his unit did not.
“I never understood how I wasn’t hit,” Montgomery told National Geographic. “I feel guilty. But thankful, too.”
Now 95, he can still see his distraught fellow Marines on the ground, “hands to their faces, sobbing their hearts out,” he says. “Their minds just snapped. A lot of us just got kind of numb, immune to any shock.”
Montgomery (pictured below) is one of the few Marines to endure the entire ordeal, which began February 19, 1945. Nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and 20,000 wounded. More than 19,000 Japanese soldiers also were killed.
These days, the battle is best known for the iconic image (above) of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi, four days after the fighting began. Three of those men would be killed before Iwo Jima was won. The U.S. Medal of Honor was given to 27 servicemen who fought in Iwo Jima, more than any other battle in U.S. history.
Fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million who served in World War II are still alive. Throughout the year, we’ll be sharing their stories.
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Today in a minute
Overdue: More than 150 years after Maryland abolished slavery, statues of its most famous abolitionists, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, were unveiled last week in its statehouse, the Washington Post reported. “A mark of true greatness is shining light on a system of oppression and having the courage to change it,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones. “The statues are a reminder that our laws aren’t always right or just. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Presidents’ Day: For Americans, today is the day when we smushed together birthday celebrations for Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22) into one day marked on calendars and seized upon by retailers for sales. But is it a national holiday? There’s some controversy. Also, six bite-sized profiles of U.S. presidents.
She defied gender stereotypes: Artemisia Gentileschi also challenged gender conceptions, by becoming a distinguished painter in 17th century Italy, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. However, it wasn’t until the past century that the profile of Gentileschi, whose work was often misattributed to others, began to rise again.
Moving on: Applying to college and planning careers in business or human rights law. That’s what some of the girls rescued from Boko Haram kidnappers are now doing. The abduction of the 276 girls in northeastern Nigeria six years ago drew worldwide outrage. More than 100 girls have not been returned home. “This is our best opportunity to make something good,” Patience Bulus, one Boko Haram escapee now studying in the United States, told Nat Geo’s Nina Strochlic (subscribers can read the article here).
An ecological zone: A rarely traveled section of hilly northeastern India, its fields depleted from overuse, is seeking a future with tourism, reports Nat Geo’s Paul Salopek on his walk around the world. One village, Azuram, has set aside half its land as a communal forest preserve. “It will benefit not just our community,” said Nehemiah Panmei, the village’s honorary wildlife warden. “It will be good for all humanity."
Your Instagram photo of the day
History speaks: In the wild and mostly empty Pahranagat Valley in southern Nevada, traces abound of the hunter-gatherers who once lived there. Before dawn, photographer Stephen Alvarez captured an anthropomorphic figure on a rock in the valley’s Basin and Range National Monument. Thought to be 3,000 to 5,000 years old, these anthropomorphic figures are associated with those early hunter-gatherer cultures in this part of the American West.
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The big takeaway
Kind and gentle: Each January and February bring a flood of coverage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and accomplishments. In a Boston Review essay entitled “Brother Martin was a blues man,” philosopher and social critic Cornel West takes another tack. “To think of MLK is to think of Eddie Kendricks singing ‘Just My Imagination.’ There is a sweetness to him. That’s King,” West writes. “You can’t talk about being a loving warrior and not be kind and gentle. That’s what he was.” By the way, here’s Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin singing "Just My Imagination."
A few words
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The last glimpse
Beyond cherry blossoms: Yes, tourists come to Japan (and Washington, D.C.) for the springtime cherry blossoms, but travelers shouldn’t miss the massive wisteria vines in the Ashikaga Flower Park of Japan’s Kantō region. Alive for about 150 years, the park’s centerpiece wisteria (above) covers roughly half an acre.
Read and see: Iconic, historic trees, including Newton’s apple tree, around the world