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Ageing veterans return to Iwo Jima

Dozens of ageing US veterans have gathered on the tiny, barren island of Iwo Jima to mark one of the bloodiest and most famous battles of the Second World War 70 years ago.

The veterans, many in their early 90s and some in wheelchairs, toured the black sand beaches where they invaded the deeply dug-in forces of the island's Japanese defenders.

They were taken to the top of Mount Suribachi, an active volcano, where an Associated Press photograph of the raising of the US flag while the battle was still raging became a potent symbol of hope and valour to the war-weary public at home that was growing increasingly disillusioned with the seemingly unending battle in the Pacific.

About 36 days of battle left nearly 7,000 Marines dead and 20,000 wounded.

For some of the veterans, the return to the island where many of their comrades died and which is still inhabited only by a contingent of Japanese military troops, brought out difficult emotions.

"I hated them," said former Sgt. John Roy Coltrane, 93, of North Carolina. "For 40 years, I wouldn't even buy anything made in Japan. But now I drive a Honda."

Speeches at the ceremony held near the invasion beach were made by senior Japanese politicians and descendants of the few Japanese who survived the battle. Also speaking were the US secretary of the Navy and the commandant of the Marine Corps, who noted that the battle for Iwo Jima remains at the "very ethos" of the Marine Corps today.

The Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, and it was only declared secured after more than a month of fighting. About 70,000 US troops fought more than 20,000 Japanese - only 216 Japanese were captured as POWs and the rest are believed to have been either killed in action or to have taken their own lives.

Though a tiny volcanic crag, the island - now called Ioto on Japanese maps - was deemed strategically important because it was being used by the Japanese to launch air attacks on American bombers.

After its capture, it was used by the US as an emergency landing site for B-29s, which eventually made 2,900 emergency landings there that are estimated to have saved the lives of 24,000 airmen who would have otherwise had to crash at sea.

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