IWO JIMA, Japan - The tunnels of Iwo Jima snake deep beneath the volcanic rock and soil, their entrances camouflaged by a dense tangle of vines and tall grasses.
In their stifling heat, Tsuruji Akikusa suffered months of hunger and thirst. The bodies of dead comrades lay around him. His closest buddy blew himself up with a grenade rather than surrender.
Finally, Akikusa was the only one left alive in his cave.
In May 1945, he says, U.S. troops found him wounded, unconscious and dehydrated. Out of 21,000 Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima, only about 1,000 had survived.
Akikusa, now 81, relived those horrors this month when he stepped foot for the first time since the war on Iwo's black volcanic beaches, flown to the island for a U.S. Army-produced documentary on his life.
"Our commander told us we were going to Hell Island, not Iwo Island," Akikusa recalled, looking out over the waves where the U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Feb. 19, 1945. "We figured this was a place we would never return home from."
Not many did. And today, as old age catches up with the last survivors, only about 20 Iwo Jima vets are still alive in Japan.
Presumed dead by his family, Akikusa came home to find his own funeral in progress. Then he plunged into the hard work and growing prosperity of postwar Japan — became an electrician, married, had a child.
But he never forgot Iwo Jima, and he never forgot his buddy, Yasuo Kumakura. And when Akikusa finally returned 63 years later, he found an island where the terror of the past remains frozen in time.
Iwo Jima holds an honored place in the history of World War II in the Pacific, alongside the other titanic clashes of men, machine and weaponry at Guadalcanal and Leyte, Midway and Okinawa.
The desolate eight-square-mile island was the first major battlefield on Japanese territory, a fight of unbridled ferocity between U.S. Marines determined to win at any cost, and dug-in Japanese forces just as determined to fight to the last man.
The bloodletting was unprecedented. Over the course of about five weeks, from Feb. 19 until March 26, some 27,000 men were killed on a spit of semi-denuded land roughly a third of the size of Manhattan.
The Japanese vow to kill 10 Americans for every one Imperial soldier took a lethal toll: Allied forces suffered almost 28,000 casualties, nearly 7,000 of them killed.
Today, the Japanese military keeps a base and airstrip on the islet and considers it a massive open tomb. Visits are tightly restricted. The only access is by U.S. or Japanese military flights.
The remains of the 1945 battle are everywhere.
A rusted American tank lies immobilized in the ditch where it fell decades ago, its hatches yawning open. A memorial atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima's volcanic peak, marks the spot where the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes — an image immortalized by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. The tunnels, heated like ovens by the island's volcanic stirrings, are littered with helmets, cracked sake bottles, gas masks.
For the Japanese, who considered death in battle a supreme duty, the death toll remains something of a puzzle.
Of the estimated 1,000 survivors, Japanese records show only a little over 200 were taken prisoner by U.S. forces — meaning the fate of the other 800 has not been clearly established. Some speculate that Japanese returned home in silence, shamed by their survival; others suspect the calculations are faulty.
And the island is still the site of a peaceful struggle — over the ownership of its history.
After director Clint Eastwood released his two epic films about the battle in 2006, former residents of the island successfully pushed to restore its prewar name, "Iwo To." It's a minor change, but to some Japanese, it reasserts their sovereignty over a spit of land where so many perished.
That Akikusa survived such a hell hole is remarkable enough. But his story — which he detailed in a 2006 book, "Seventeen Years Old at Iwo To" — is a string of extraordinary coincidences and near-misses with death.
His march to Iwo Jima — or "Sulphur Island" — started in November 1942, when he entered the Japanese Imperial Navy Signal School. His studies concluded, he went to war, landing as a signalman on the northern side of Iwo Jima on July 30, 1944. He was just 17.
The expectations on board the boat carrying him to the island were grim. The men knew the Japanese war machine was faltering, and the focus was shifting from domination of Asia to forestalling an Allied assault on the mainland. Lying midway between the Marianas and Tokyo, Iwo Jima was a leading candidate for a U.S. landing.
It didn't take long for Akikusa to find out what that meant on the ground: A U.S. plane strafed his boat on arrival. He dodged the bullets and ran for the hills, wandering alone for a day before finding his post.
The air raids grew more frequent, eventually raging round-the-clock as invasion day approached. Akikusa monitored it all from his post on the plateau on the northern half of the island.
When the Americans finally landed, Akikusa couldn't believe his eyes.
"All along this beach, there were thousands of Marines," he said, gazing out to sea. "Everywhere you looked, for 360 degrees, there were U.S. Navy ships."
From his perch, Akikusa could see a distant U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on the southern end of the island.
Here however, his account varies from the standard narrative. According to Akikusa, control of the mountain alternated for several days between the Americans and the Japanese — a battle he monitored by noting the swapping of flags: the U.S. flag one day, the Japanese the next.
At one point, Akikusa says he saw a Japanese flag that appeared to be made of a white shirt, with the rising sun painted with what he speculated was the soldiers' own blood.
"I thought, our guys are really struggling," he said.
Then, in early March, Akikusa was knocked down by a shell fired from offshore. Wounded in his hand and leg — he lost three fingertips — he straggled from tunnel to tunnel for months, sometimes with other soldiers, sometimes alone, living off bugs, rainwater and food pilfered from American supplies.
Later he found a tunnel where, in the hellish, volcano-fueled heat, he sheltered with Kumakura. But as U.S. soldiers approached, his buddy detonated a grenade, choosing death over capture.
After that, Akikusa's recollections fade.
"I didn't eat or drink," he said, "and then I don't remember anything."
When he woke up, he was out of the war, a POW in a U.S. military hospital in Guam. Over the next six months, he was shuttled among various camps in Hawaii and then Washington state, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Meanwhile, his hometown mourned his death.
In the confusion of the war's end, the Japanese military bureaucracy assumed that everyone on Iwo Jima had died, and sent what remains they could find to the bereaved families.
So while Akikusa recuperated in the U.S., his hometown in central Japan prepared his funeral. His parents refused to participate: a fortuneteller had told them their son was alive.
Still, his family was aghast when in January 1946, Akikusa appeared at the front door — while his funeral was taking place with those of a host of fallen soldiers at the local elementary school.
"They were speechless," he remembers. "Then they sent me to my own funeral, and I had to take my name down from among the dead."
Today he owns a company that fixes equipment at schools and businesses, and has often dreamed of returning to Iwo Jima to pay his respects.
His book paved the way. His writings caught the attention of the U.S. military, which flew him to Iwo Jima on an Army jet for a day of filming. (The documentary is for in-house purposes and there are no plans to make it public.)
Akikusa approached his confrontation in the calm, studied manner of a tourist. He napped during the flight, then filmed through the window as the plane landed.
Once on the tarmac, he held forth on the changes in vegetation — more lush now than in 1945 — and the weather, less hot than what he remembered as a 17-year-old.
But it was clear he had an overriding goal: to find his final cave and bid a proper farewell to Kumakura. Ferried around the island on a Japanese military minibus, he toured several caves, without success.
Then the bus stopped at one last possibility: a tiny, overgrown hillock near a runway. Akikusa got out and peered through the foliage at the opening of the tunnel, asked his guide questions about the location.
Then he lost his breath.
"Oh, this is it! It's the north entrance," he gasped, choking back tears as he pointed into the leaf-shrouded darkness. "Kumakura's in there, Kumakura's in there!"
He looked up at a fellow visitor.
"I was the last one," he said.
He pressed his hands together and murmured a prayer for his lost friend — then he pushed his fit and nimble body through the foliage and crouched in the hole, disappearing for a few seconds in the darkness where he and Kumakura endured hell.
Later, as the plane flew him back to Tokyo, he mused about having greeted Kumakura's spirit.
"I'm happy we got to meet again," he said. "I told him: 'Now we have peace.'"