Were African-Americans at Iwo Jima?

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L. to R.: Vincent Kessler / Reuters; AP ; Chris Weeks / AP

Correction Appended: June 10, 2008

Sixty-three years after U.S. forces vanquished the Japanese and planted their flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi, the remote outpost in the Volcano Islands is the focus of another pitched battle. This time, acclaimed film directors Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee are engaging in verbal warfare over the verisimilitude of Eastwood's two films about the epic clash, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Lee has claimed that by soft-pedaling African-American contributions to the battle, Eastwood is misrepresenting history.

"Clint Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen," Lee said at the Cannes Film Festival. "In his version of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist." Eastwood's counter: "Has he ever studied history? [African-American soldiers] didn't raise the flag," he said. "If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, they'd say, "This guy's lost his mind.'" Eastwood also told Lee to "shut his face," prompting Lee to amplify the racism charge: "[Eastwood] is not my father and we're not on a plantation, either," he fumed. "I'm not making this up. I know history."

History, as it turns out, is on both their sides. Lee is correct that African-Americans played an instrumental role in World War II, in which more than 1 million black servicemen helped defeat the Axis Powers. Those efforts include significant contributions to the fight for Iwo Jima. An estimated 700 to 900 African-American soldiers participated in the epic island battle, many of whom were Marines trained in segregated boot camps at Montford Point, within Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Those soldiers were restricted from front-line combat duty, but they played integral noncombat roles. Under enemy fire, they piloted amphibious truck units during perilous shore landings, unloaded and shuttled ammunition to the front lines, helped bury the dead, and weathered Japanese onslaughts on their positions even after the island had been declared secure. According to Christopher Moore, the author of a book about African-Americans' myriad contributions during World War II, "thousands" more helped fashion the airstrips from which U.S. B-29 aircrafts could launch and return from air assaults on Tokyo, about 760 miles northwest. Hosting that air base, Moore says, was Iwo Jima's primary strategic importance.

Eastwood's portrayal of the specific battle is, if narrow, also essentially accurate. Flags Of Our Fathers zeroes in on the soldiers who hoisted the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, and this task, memorialized in a famous staged photograph, was accomplished by five white servicemen and a sixth, Ira Hayes, of Pima Indian descent. (His other entry in the Iwo Jima category, Letters from Iwo Jima, is told largely from the perspective of Japanese soldiers.)

Eastwood is also correct that black soldiers represented a small fraction of the total force deployed on the island. That argument doesn't placate Yvonne Latty, a New York University professor and author of a book about African-American veterans. Black soldiers "had the most dangerous job," she says. "If you were going to show the soldiers' landing, you'd need to show [African-Americans] on the beach." In Flags of Our Fathers, which shows the landing in significant detail, African-Americans appear only in fleeting cutaway shots and in a photograph during the film's closing credits.

Moore lauds Eastwood's rendering of the battle, but laments the limited role accorded to African-Americans. "Without black labor," he says, "we would've seen a much different ending to the war."

The original version of this article stated the servicemen who raised the U.S flag over Mount Suribachi were white. One of those six, Ira Hayes, was an Arizona Pima Indian.