Seventy years after one of the Marines' deadliest battles, a California nonprofit is on a mission to bring the original statue of the iconic flag raising on Iwo Jima to the West Coast.
The Iwo Jima West Foundation wants to raise funds to purchase the Felix de Weldon cast stone sculpture that served as the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial's massive bronze statue near Arlington National Cemetery. The original 5-ton, 20.5-foot tall statue is currently gathering dust in a Connecticut storage facility after it failed to sell at auction in 2013, and the group wants to change that.
The foundation, made up of retired Marines and civilian supporters. plans to transport it to Camp Pendleton, through which about 450,000 U.S. Marines transited on their way to fight in the Pacific during World War II. That included members of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, who would raise the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.
"We are building a memorial site that will reflect the monument's importance to the Marine Corps and the nation as one of America's greatest and most profound symbols of courage," said Laura Dietz, the nonprofit's founder.
Now the Iwo Jima West Foundation is looking at a daunting $10 million price tag to purchase the statue, transport it across the country and build a memorial site where the Marines depicted in the sculpture would be looking out over the Pacific Ocean from Pendleton.
If successful, Dietz said, the monument will finally have an appropriate home. From Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, 60,000 members of 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Corps' history to secure the remote, 8-square-mile volcanic island 660 miles south of Tokyo, Japan.
More than 6,000 U.S. troops, most of them Marines, gave their lives during those five weeks.
Iwo Jima West Foundation has dubbed its goal, which it hopes to reach by the Marine Corps' 241st birthday on Nov. 10, 2016, Operation Home of the Brave.
"The rush is for one very simple reason: Most Iwo Jima veterans are well in their 90s, and we want to give these great heroes a final reunion before their generation is gone," Dietz said.
The nonprofit also recently signed the Colorado-based Fentress Architects to design the memorial where the statue would sit, the same international firm that designed the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia.
The memorial will sit on a hillside next to the Pacific View Events Center at Camp Pendleton, overlooking Del Mar Beach and complementing the existing Korean War memorial there. Pending agreement from Japan's government, the nonprofit would also like to ship volcanic black sand from Iwo Jima to provide an interactive experience at the site.
De Weldon, an Austrian-born sculptor serving in the Navy during World War II, created the concrete and steel statue at personal expense after seeing Joseph Rosenthal's renowned photograph of Marines planting the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi in 1945. He also crafted its limestone sister sculpture, which currently resides at the entrance to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
After creating the sculptures, the de Weldon sculptor then oversaw the production of the 100-ton, 78-foot tall cast bronze Marine Corps War Memorial, which was placed in Arlington in 1954.
The original, however, had a tarp thrown over it in back of de Weldon's studio in 1947, where it sat for more than 40 years until the current owner, collector Rodney Hilton Brown, located it and purchased it in return for a Stradivarius violin, a sword and an undisclosed amount cash, according to the New York Times. Brown then restored the sculpture with a bronze coating and lent it to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, where it was displayed from 1995 to 2013.
Dietz then saw it at an auction house later that year.
Despite the hefty cost of moving it to Pendleton, Dietz said it is well worth the price. Her organization plans to preserve the statue for at least the next 500 years, she said.
Marines interested in donating to the project can visit Operation Home of the Brave's website.
The group is also holding a fundraising luncheon on Oct. 31 at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, California, with Iwo Jima veterans and Bonnie Haynes, widow of Iwo Jima Survivors Association of America founder Gen. Fred Haynes, in attendance.