Japanese PM: We Will Recover Iwo Jima’s Fallen

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Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, left, helps to exhume human remains at Iwo Jima. (David Guttnfelder/AP)

Naoto Kan became the second Japanese prime minister to visit the iconic World War II battlefield of Iwo Jima Tuesday. He came to pay his respects to the more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers who lost their lives on the Pacific island—many whose bodies are only now being recovered.

Two mass graves were discovered on the volcanic isle by civilian search teams in October, more than sixty-five years after the five fierce weeks of fighting that culminated in an American victory. The graves—one at the foot of Mount Suribachi, where U.S. troops famously raised their flags—are thought to contain, together, the remains of up to 2,200 men.

(Read “Japan’s New PM: Naoto Kan’s Bad Timing.”)

The former battleground has long been ignored by the Japanese, most of whom associate it with a bloody defeat. But, inspired by the success of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning film Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and eager to bring news to their families, Tokyo has now resolved to account for all of Japan’s fallen in the battle. It hopes to complete the grim mission over the next three years.

Small-scale searches conducted since the 1950s have done little to recover the bodies of Japanese fighters, many of whom huddled deep in subterranean tunnels and bunkers during the struggle. 12,000 Japanese and 218 American are still missing in action and assumed to have died on the island, now known in Japan as Ioto, its name before the war.

(Watch TIME’s video “The Iconic Photo of Iwo Jima.”)

“We will examine every grain of sand,” Prime Minister Kan said during his exceptional trip. “Please be patient a little longer. I prayed from my heart for the souls who died here.” The first Japanese PM to have visited the site of the fateful battle was Junichiro Koizumi, five years ago. (via AP.)