Iwo Jima documentary by Penn State Altoona professor takes viewers on a virtual tour
A new documentary produced by two Altoona natives takes viewers on a tour through a pivotal and hard-to-access World War II battleground.
The documentary makers say it gives veterans’ families and those interested in history a chance to reflect on a place they likely couldn’t visit otherwise.
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island around 700 miles south of Tokyo. It’s the site of the famous “flag-raising” photo on top of Mount Suribachi. The Marine Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery was modeled on that image.
Jared Frederick teaches history at Penn State Altoona. He’s also the host of the new documentary “I Hiked Iwo Jima: A Virtual World War II Battlefield Tour.”
“The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the deadliest battles for the United States military in the Second World War. It's a hallmark moment for the Marine Corps. They lost about 6,000 men killed, three times that wounded and maimed. The Japanese lost their entire garrison of 20,000 men," Frederick said.
The National World War II Museum says the capture of Iwo Jima paved the way for the last and biggest battle in the pacific: the invasion of Okinawa.
Frederick’s documentary is a mix of his reactions while filming in Iwo Jima, conversations with other hikers, and his reflections added in post-production. At one point in the video, he walks over the famous “black ash beach,” made of volcanic ash.
“I am working my way up the sands here, and it is quite difficult to climb. As one Marine said, which I think is quite accurate, it’s like trying to climb wet coffee grounds," Frederick said.
At other points, Frederick stopped to take in the atmosphere.
“It’s so surreal being here, walking atop this mass tomb," Frederick said as he climbed to the top of Mt. Suribachi.
Frederick said when he was walking through the island, he could see battleground scars that remain to this day, including shrapnel and crashed planes.
“Everywhere you turned, there were scars of battle, there was evidence of battle; we were kicking up pieces of shrapnel in the road as we were hiking along. It very much gives the impression of a crime scene, almost. It's a very arid, desolate sort of environment," Frederick said.
Frederick was originally slated to go to Iwo Jima in March 2020, but the pandemic pushed his trip to late March of 2023. He finally finished and uploaded his documentary to YouTube in Dec. 2023.
Frederick said Iwo Jima is one of the hardest to reach battlefields.
“For many of the relatives of Iwo Jima veterans, I realize you may never be able to visit in person," Frederick said.
The Japanese government, which owns the land, only allows American visitors once per year. He said the process to get on that list can be complicated. He also noted the island has an active volcano with a 1-in-3 chance of erupting during this century, which could take away all remnants of the battlefield.
Walking through the black ash beaches and steep slopes, Frederick said it was hard not to feel empathy for the Japanese military who fought there.
“You can certainly cast doubt and give moral judgment upon their cause to conquer much of Asia and the Pacific. But when you go and walk the ground, you can at the very least recognize their humanity, which I think is a very important thing," Frederick said. "They were short on food, they were short on ammunition, medicine, everything imaginable. These guys died a horrible death.”
Frederick talked with others on the tour who echoed similar sentiments.
“We are honored to be able to come here. It’s great," one hiker said. Frederick, who is catching his breath in the documentary, responded "[it] certainly gives us a sense of empathy." Another woman taking a break on the path replied, "Right. We’re just hot and sweaty from walking. They did a battle.”
Frederick said most of the other people on the tour were either relatives of the Americans who fought at Iwo Jima, or U.S. Marine Corps veterans. He said there aren’t many Japanese survivors from the battle.
“There was an expectation that they should have died before dishonoring themselves rather than living. Japanese veterans are not celebrated in the same way that American veterans are celebrated," Frederick said.
Part of Frederick’s interest in history and Iwo Jima is his own family’s connection. His grandfather served in the U.S. Navy. He watched the battle from aboard a ship, since he was recovering from appendicitis.
“He was healing up as he saw his buddies go ashore, and some of them didn't come back. And that was something that I think tore away my grandfather for his remaining decades, the fact that he didn't go ashore, and he wasn't there for his buddies, perhaps when they needed him most," Frederick said.
During the hike, Frederick carries his grandfather’s dog tags and a letter he wrote to his wife from the ship. Frederick reads it after reaching the top of Mount Suribachi: “My best buddy was killed, Don Bowman. I was on the deck when the beach party was loading and Don said to me, ‘Here, Dave. I don’t think I’m coming back.’”
The letter goes on to say Bowman gave his billfold, pen knife, and locker keys to Frederick’s grandfather.
Bowman never did come back. Frederick’s grandfather gave those items to his division officer and held a mass for him at home.
Frederick was 8-years-old when his grandfather died.
“I never had the chance to talk to him about any of this. But during my day on Iwo Jima, I never felt closer to him," Frederick said.
Frederick worked on the documentary with fellow Altoona native Andrew Collins. Collins, who produced the documentary, wasn’t able to go to Iwo Jima and said he probably won’t ever be able to.
“So many people want to visit Mt. Suribachi and just kind of get a taste of what the battleground is like. Now it's out there. Somebody can click on YouTube and get a small taste of what it's like," Collins said.
Collins doesn’t have family members who served in Iwo Jima, but he himself was in the U.S. Army Reserve for 12 years. He served a tour of duty in Iraq, which he said helps him empathize with those who fought in Iwo Jima.
His experience also makes him wonder how he’ll be remembered in the future.
“You know, I wonder if somebody — someday 100 years from now — will be walking through the desert in Iraq, from the Tigris to the Euphrates, trying to document all of that battlefield and having specific stories and maybe some really old guy with them, you know, pointing stuff out," Collins said.
“I Hiked Iwo Jima: A Virtual World War II Battlefield Tour” is free and available on YouTube. The channel’s name is “Reel History” and normally looks to debunk popular historical myths in movies.
Jared Frederick also collaborates with WPSU as a writer/host of the WPSU Digital Series, "Past PA."