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I am trying to understand under which conditions battles are predominantly remembered and commemorated by the losing party (who acknowledge their defeat), not the victors. This is not who gets to write the history of a battle but which losing party appropriates it and why. And directly related: When do winners refrain from commemorating a battle?

I am not interested in a complete list, but in the conditions under which the loser comes to actively keep memories of the battle alive.

Examples which come to mind are the Battle of Kosovo 1389, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Arnhem - both 1944.

My question somewhat differs from this one on the writing of history by the victors (Is history always written by the victors?)

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    Battle of Bunker Hill. Jallianwalla Bagh, Ghandi's salt riots. Tianamin square, Marathon, Masada, I suspect that most of the American Revolution and the Civil war fit your criteria. Any pyrrhic victory and most battles in colonial revolutions are going to fit into the category. I'm concerned that this is a relatively broad list question; it will not generate a clear answer, and may generate lots of debate. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 21 '16 at 8:24
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    Who do you think was the loser in the Battle of the Bulge? – Conrad Turner Jun 21 '16 at 8:40
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    Thank you Mark for your pointer to colonial wars and pyrrhic victories. Much food for thought. I am not interested in a complete list, but in the conditions under which the loser comes to actively keep memories of the battle alive. In the case of colonial wars, commemoration is strongly linked to victimhood, sacrifice and martyrdom by those who were in an inferior position. Related (but I’d say not the same), a pyrrhic victory is significant inasmuch as it marks the beginning downfall of the seeming winner and sometimes the later rise of the loser. – Brick Jun 21 '16 at 10:32
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    I feel obligated to mention the Gallipoli Campaign which is commemorated in Australia and New Zealand with Anzac Day. It was considered a major victory for the Ottomans, not pyrrhic in any sense, yet due to the enormous casualties of Australia and New Zealand forces the campaign is regarded by those nations as a "baptism of fire" and has been linked to their emergence as independent states. – Thriggle Jun 21 '16 at 20:45
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12 Answers 12

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  • The battle caused mass casualties. The commemoration is part of the mourning. Example: Stalingrad from the German viewpoint.
  • The battle showed outstanding heroism from the defeated side. The commemoration celebrates the heroes. Example: Camerone from the Foreign Legion viewpoint.
  • The battle was perceived as perfidy from the winning side. The defeated side is commemorated to vilify the victors. Example: Pearl Harbor from the American viewpoint.
  • The battle was a tactical defeat, but a strategic win. Does that count for your purposes? Example: Battle of Bunker Hill from the American/Colonial viewpoint.
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    Jutland, from the UK viewpoint. – Oesor Jun 21 '16 at 20:18
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    @Brick The Battle of the Alamo from the Texan side. The Battle of Thermopylae from the Greek side. Any other famous holding action whose point was to buy time. – dmckee Jun 21 '16 at 20:26
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    @Oesor Is Jutland "actively commemorated"? I've lived in England (almost) my whole life and never noticed any commemoration. For example, I don't recall the TV news ever mentioning "Today marks the xth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland." – David Richerby Jun 23 '16 at 11:30
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    There was a rather muted 100th anniversary of Jutland event this year. I'd say Dunkirk counts for much more, fitting the categories of heroism and tactical defeat but strategic win. – pjc50 Jun 23 '16 at 12:35
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    @pjc, there was the Verdun anniversary as well. Can we say that both sides lost that one? – o.m. Jun 23 '16 at 16:07
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Battle of the Alamo is certainly remembered in Texas, and they certainly lost that battle.

Pearl Harbor was a major loss to the United States, and is still commemorated annually.

In these two cases the prior losses became rallying cries in future battles, which were victories.

The Romans lost the Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC, for which the humiliating surrender was remembered for centuries. The direct result was that the Romans fought the Samnites harder than ever, to retrieve their honor.

The running theme is to remember your martyrs.

For a less famous battle, consider "Remember the Raisin!" which was the battle cry of William Henry Harrison's Northwestern Army, War of 1812; in remembrance of the Battle of the River Raisin, January 18-23, 1813, and the subsequent massacre of the wounded, was seared into the American memory for a generation. "Remember the Raisin!" was the Kentucky militia's war cry at the Battle of the Thames, Oct 5, 1813, where General Proctor's British and Indian forces were dealt a heavy defeat, and the Indian leader, Tecumseh was killed.

A contemporary report on the Raisin River Massacre.

  • However, the side that lost both battles ended up winning the war, so can it really be said that the "the loser comes to actively keep memories of the battle alive" – CGCampbell Jun 21 '16 at 13:59
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    Loser of the battle ... the OP didn't mention the loser of the war. That would be a different question, with different examples and different answers. – Peter Diehr Jun 21 '16 at 14:19
  • I left this open deliberately (and moved my reply down here to be in context). I'm generally interested in both constellations but as I think about it, I'm not sure whether ultimately there are big differences between them: Lost battles can turn out to be pyrrhic victories for the seeming winner or represent extraordinary sacrifice, martyrdom and/or victimhood both for the later winners and the losers. – Brick Jun 21 '16 at 14:51
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    They did fight back with all they had - my mother had a cousin who was lost on the Arizona. There are many one-sided battles in history. You are correct to call it a sneak attack, as war hadn't been declared yet, apparently due to fumbling at the Japanese embassy in Washington. Not that they had planned to give much warning. – Peter Diehr Jun 21 '16 at 19:37
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    @PieterGeerkens If one side concedes, routs, or is killed down to the last man, that counts as a defeat by most standards. – Peter Jun 23 '16 at 7:39
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Per your comment

"I am interested in ... the conditions under which the loser comes to actively keep memories of the battle alive."

Conditions for retaining a memorial of the defeat include

  • the symbolism associated with the battle
  • the larger cultural reasons/struggles behind the battle
  • celebration of martyrs
  • the sense of group identity it offers, the shared history of a people.

Two examples include the Battle of Kosovo (1389) -- part of the epic struggle that spanned centuries between Islam and Christendom as it played out in the Balkans and later eastern/central Europe(1200's to 1600's) -- and the Battle of Karbalah, (680) that remains a culturally defining event among Shia Muslims.

  • The Battle of Kosovo, in 1389, forms part of the national myth of Serbia, and acted as a cornerstone of Serbian nationalism/identity for centuries. Its outcome is considered by most historians as a defeat for the Serbian side. They were on the strategic defensive as the Ottoman's continued their inexorable spread through the Balkans after making a vassal of the Bulgarian king. The Serbian Prince Lazar died in this battle.

    What is certain that although the battle was an Ottoman victory the Sultan's elder son Yakub also died in the battle and therefore Bayezit had to establish the succession by returning to Anatolia. Serbia lost more ground, most leaders becoming Ottoman vassals (including Lazar's son and Brankovich), but did not finally lose its ndependence until 1459.

    Not everyone agrees on the character of this defeat. Key elements of the Serbian narrative are:

    • The Christian side stopped the Turkish advance (larger cultural relevance). The Sultan died during that battle, so his successor returned home to secure his succession. Some years later, 1459, the Turks completed their conquest of Serbia, which had begun in about 1371 when they scored a significant victory over Tsar Uros in Macedonia along the Marica River.

    • In the longer view, the Battle at Kosovo delayed the Ottoman conquest and thus delayed the ultimate showdown at the Battle of Vienna in 1529. (This consideration seems to benefit a lot from hindsight).

    • It is shown with some pride, and even some characterizations of martyrdom, that the smaller Serbian force would stand up and fight, rather than kneel to the larger Turkish force. Prince Lazar embodied "I'd rather fight than surrender" as he died during that battle. (martyr?)

    Three easy to access sources, one more nationalistic in approach, one more academic(University of Arizona), and one simply descriptive.

    From the more nationalistic version:

    After finally conquering Serbia in 1459, the Ottoman Empire would eventually set its sights on Vienna, and in 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the Austrian city in an attempt to conquer the whole of Central Europe. The Europeans were ultimately successful in repelling the Ottoman siege of 1529, but had the Serbs not engaged the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 the Ottoman Empire would likely have arrived at the gates of Vienna long before 1529, and the outcome of the Siege of Vienna could have been far less favorable for the Europeans. The Battle of Kosovo and the Turkish retreat that followed turned out to be an important victory for Christian Europe in the long run.

    From the more academic account:

    When it was over, both leaders were dead and Murad's son, Bayezid, returned to Edirne to secure his succession. The picture becomes very cloudy beyond these meager details... Surprisingly enough, it is not even possible to know with certainty from the extant contemporary material whether one or the other side was victorious on the field. There is certainly little to indicate that it was a great Serbian defeat; and the earliest reports of the conflict suggest, on the contrary, that the Christian forces had won. Rumors of the battle were disseminated as far as Constantinople, Florence, Venice, Barcelona, and Paris, but they appeared to emphasize just one particular bit of news: the death of the Ottoman sultan ... The death of Murad was, therefore, a cause for celebration in the streets of occidental cities. In itself it was a kind of Christian victory.

  • A second example is the Battle of Karbala, which was a defeat for the Shia side but whose occurrence is definitional to their group identity. It is memorialized each year in well established cultural forms. Those who died in that battle are seen as martyrs.

    The Battle of Karbala is commemorated during an annual 10-day period held every Muharram by Shia and Alevi, culminating on its tenth day, known as the Day of Ashura. Shia Muslims commemorate these events by mourning, holding public processions, organizing majlis, striking the chest and in some cases self-flagellation.

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The battle of Thermopylae (300 Spartans) is a prime example:-) I think no comments are required because everyone knows this example very well.

Persian literature of that time did not survive to our days, but one can be reasonably sure that Persians did not consider this battle as something very important. Moreover, one can conjecture that the battle is so famous mainly because of its description by Herodotus, and because the writings of Herodotus survived.

Another very famous episode which had enormous influence is Anabasis by Xenpophon, which essentially describes a retreat after a lost battle. There is no doubt that it is so famous only because of Xenophon's book.

The whole story of Peloponnese War is known to us from the excellent accounts which was written mainly by Athenian authors, the loosing party. And only because Spartans and their allies did not cultivate historical literature.

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My impression is that the siege of Sevastopol (1854) is more remembered by the side that lost (Russians). Some of the great Russian literature is written about it, and it is very much reflected in Russian art. Museum commemorating this siege is the main sightseeing in Sevastopol. It is true this siege is remembered by the British and French as well (one of the main streets in Paris is called Boulevard Sevastopol; and there is a beautiful poem and several British movies on The Charge of the Light Brigade) but to a much lesser extent.

Same observation applies to another siege of Sevastopol (1941-2) and to the siege of Port Artur (1904-5). All these sieges were lost by the Russians but they are very well remembered and generated significant literature.

EDIT. Trying to answer the question in the comment, which is not so easy. Crimean war (1854-1855) and Russo-Japanese war (1905) were pivotal for Russian history and both led to revolutions (the first one led to abolition of serfdom, which is not usually called a revolution but it was). This shows that these defeats had enormous public resonance. Perhaps this is the main reason why they generated and continue to generate enormous literature. It is usual for Russian discourse that soldiers (and some commanders) are universally praised for their heroism, while the government and political system are criticized. (Praising the heroism and criticizing the government are of course closely connected.)

In the 1941-2 case, Soviet Union eventually won the war, and the common opinion is that this happened only because of the heroism and self-sacrifice of the people and despite the tyrannical and incompetent regime which existed in Soviet Union. The siege of Sevastopol is one of the main examples of this heroism.

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    Thanks Alex - these are interesting examples. What made these sieges significant for Russia? The sacrifice? Them being turning points? – Brick Jun 21 '16 at 10:43
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    One may also recall the battle of Tsushima. It is remembered mainly not for the heroism of Russian sailors (though there certainly must have been many examples), but for the shame of total defeat, which has shown the weakness of the Russian fleet command and equipment. – IMil Jun 22 '16 at 22:16
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    Yes, this battle during the Russo-Japanese war also fits the pattern that I described: criticism of the government+heroism. – Alex Jun 23 '16 at 5:09
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Speaking as a New Zealander, the Gallipoli campaign in WW1 is a pretty good example. A complete unmitigated disaster (and not much happier on the Turkish side), but we commemorate it (as do the Australians) because the occasion played a major part in the development of a national identify separate from Britain.

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    Which brings to mind Ypres and possibly Dunkirk. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 23 '16 at 1:30
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  1. The Battle of Grunwald (taking place near Grunwald/Tannenberg) was a battle fought in 1410 between Polish-Lithuanian army on one side, and Teutonic Knights on the other. The battle resulted in a decisive Polish-Lithuanian victory.

    In 1914, as a part of WW1, the Battle of Tannenberg was actually fought near Allenstein between Germany and Russia, resulting in a German victory. Allenstein is actually 30 km from the location of the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg, but the German military leader von Hindenburg named it after Tannenberg for propaganda purposes, even though Teutonic Knights, the remote predecessors of Germany had lost that battle. This can be seen as a commemoration of a lost battle.


  1. Another example from Indian history, especially from the region of Maharashtra, is that of the (third) Battle of Panipat, 1761. After the slow decline of Mughal Empire, the Maratha confederacy was a rising power in India in the 18th Century. Ahmed Shah Durani was an Afghan ruler who wanted to conquer northern India. Marathas were based in Deccan, which is hundreds of kilometers from the location of battle. They assembled a massive force of 70,000, and was accompanied by a large number of auxiliary people (the journey to the northern India for the engagement with the Afghan army was seen as a kind of pilgrimage).

    Vishwasrao was a young man who was also heir of the Maratha throne. He was killed in the battle by a stray cannon. Seeing this, his uncle Sadashivrao, the commander-in-chief of the Maratha forces, was overwhelmed by the emotions and carelessly charged and disappeared in the enemy lines. Such a quick loss of two significant leaders resulted in very low morale of the Maratha forces which eventually resulted in the defeat. This was also a strategic disaster for Marathas in the long term. They had to cede the provinces from northern India to the Afghans, and it was arguably the start of decline of Maratha power.

    The losses on the Maratha side were enormous. 30-40 thousand troops, and 40-70,000 accompanying civilians were killed as a result of battle. This situation was similar to post-WW1 Europe, where an entire generation of young men was thought to be dead on the battlefields. However, the defeat was quickly romanticized as young men dying on the battlefield for the empire against foreign invaders.
    Another element was that Sadashivrao Bhau, the commander-in-chief, disappeared in the enemy lines, and was killed. However, for a long time, rumors circulated that he actually survived the battle and has reappeared, probably to restore the prestige of Marathas. This was also romanticized in the culture.

    However, the battle enjoys a significant place in Maharashtrian culture, and many works of literature are based on the event. There are also a couple of idioms in the Marathi language based on the disaster. Recently, in 2011, the 250th anniversary (if it can be termed so) was celebrated, and once again there was a resurge in the commemoration of this battle.

  • 1. Not quite what I had in mind at first, but opens up another dimension - defeats as "unhealed wounds" 2. How do you explain this popularity? – Brick Jun 21 '16 at 19:28
  • @Brick I am interpreting 2 as a question about the second example. See the edit. – taninamdar Jun 21 '16 at 20:38
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One case I haven't seen covered by existing answers is when the commemorator lost the battle but won the war, to so speak. The Battle of Borodino was a disaster for the Russians, who lost a third of their army, as well as one of the most high-profile generals. After the battle, the Russian army retreated in disarray and Napoleon captured Moscow.

And yet the battle is famously known as the one that defeated Napoleon - his army also suffered serious losses, was starving and freezing, and he had no choice but to retreat from Russia, having lost the war of attrition.

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    I think you got it backwards: what defeated Napoleon was not the Borodino battle itself but rather the fact that Russians didn't fight for Moscow until the last man standing, as Napoleon expected. Once in Moscow, Napoleon's army started to run short on supply and ultimately had to retreat. Great example nevertheless! – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 22 '16 at 10:06
  • Borodino was not a Russian disaster at all. Russia was playing on home field, it wasn't a must win for them. It was simply a mustn't get crushed battle. France, on the other hand, was thousands of miles from home, and it was THE must win decisively battle for Napoleon. So sure, Russia lost borodino, but it wasn't a disaster, as they didn't have to win. – sofa general Nov 21 '18 at 19:00
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Great responses as usual. The Battle of Kosovo is a major example of the "genre." The overriding theme in "by winning you lose" usually comes down to the idea of a Pyrhric Victory where the enemy achieves a tactical success but at such a cost it becomes a strategic defeat (Bunker Hill in US military lore.)

For entire Campaigns certainly Napoleon's against Russia then the 3rd Reich's against Russia stand out...as does the USA in Korea and Vietnam.

Apparently the "Battle of Pyrhus" should be studied as well...

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    It was an entire Pyrrhic War, not just a battle. King Pyrrhus is supposedly to have said: "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined" – Thriggle Jun 23 '16 at 13:35
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    Yep. Thanks for the reply. Even an up arrow...rarity for me. – Doctor Zhivago Jun 23 '16 at 14:34
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Lost battles are most often commemorated when they preceded, or led to, a win.

For instance, Bunker Hill was a technically lost battle that led to the successful siege of Boston.

The loss of the Alamo, in Texas, preceded the Texas victory at San Jacinto. The ancient Greek equivalent of the Alamo, Thermopylae, was followed by a victory at Salamis.

Pearl Harbor led to the crushing of Japanese naval power in the Pacific, particularly after the Battle of Midway, six months later.

In these battles, the (ultimately) winning side was initially caught "unawares" but "came from behind for a victory.

  • The Pearl Harbor example runs fairly close to being a post hoc fallacy. While the crushing of Japanese naval power certainly came after Pearl Harbor, there were several years and a great many naval actions between that and the eventual allied victory. – Steve Bird Jun 22 '16 at 12:31
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    @SteveBird: "The eventual allied victory" was quite certain after the battle of Midway, which came six months after Pearl Harbor. – Tom Au Jun 22 '16 at 12:39
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    Then you can probably make a case for "the Battle of Midway led to the crushing of Japanese naval power in the Pacific". However, stretching that back to Pearl Harbor seems a stretch too far to me. – Steve Bird Jun 22 '16 at 12:45
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This is quite small in comparison to major battles, but it still remains an interesting note on how some battles which were lost are commemorated today!

Vatican State, also known as the Holy See, commemorates the Sack of Rome of May 6, 1527 with the swearing in ceremony of all new recruits of the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

The Swiss Guard also happens to be the smallest army in the world with only about 110 to 125 soldiers and officers serving at any given time. The basic requirements to apply are pretty straightforward. You must be a Swiss man, younger than 30, at least five foot eight inches tall, and have served with the Swiss military with good merits.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Swiss Guards, Pope Clement VII and his men were able to escape to safety. Of the 189 Swiss Guards only 42 survived.

The Sack of Rome:

On the morning of May 6th, 1527, from his headquarters set up in St. Onofrio's Convent on the Gianicolo hill, Captain General Bourbon launched a series of attacks on Rome. During one of them, at the Torrione Gate, while leading the assault of the walls, he himself was mortally wounded. After just a moment's hesitation, the Spanish mercenaries broke through the Torrione Gate, while the lansquenets invaded the road of Borgo Santo Spirito and St. Peter's. The Swiss Guard, standing firm at the foot of the obelisk (now in St. Peter's Square, but then near the German cemetery within the Vatican close to the Basilica), together with the few remnants of the Roman troops, resisted desperately. Their Captain, Kaspar Röist was wounded, and later killed by the Spaniards in his quarters in front of his wife, Elizabeth Klingler. Of the 189 Swiss Guards, only 42 survived, the ones who, when all was lost, under the command of Hercules Göldli guarded Clement VII’s retreat to safety in Castel Sant’Angelo. The rest fell gloriously, massacred together with two hundred fugitives, on the steps of the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Clement VII and his men were able to escape to safety, thanks to the "Passetto", a secret corridor which Pope Alexander VI had built along the top of the wall connect­ing the Vatican with Castel Sant’Angelo. - Vatican

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Two that I can think of are Iwo Jima and the Battle of Camaron.

The Battle of Camaron was a loss for the French Foreign Legion against the Mexican Gov't, but each year they celebrate this battle, and it is the only battle the FFL treats this way. There is a monument and celebration and all.

Quote from Military.Wiki

"30 April is celebrated as "Camerone Day", an important day for the Legionnaires, when the wooden prosthetic hand of Capitaine Danjou is brought out for display in a special ceremony. The officers prepare and serve the Legionnaires coffee, to celebrate the "...coffee they [The Legionnaires of Camarone] never had." The hand is the most cherished artifact in Legion history[1]:51 and the prestige and honor granted to a Legionnaire to carry it on parade in its protective case is among the greatest bestowed on a Legionnaire."

So this can definitely be a case where the losing party actively commemorates a battle, in fact this is their greatest honor.

The second is the Battle of Iwo Jima and there is a Japanese shrine on Iwo Jima to honor the Japanese that fell at that battle. I have seen it in person. I also believe there are several shrines to honor the dead from the two atomic attacks, though I am not sure that counts as a battle.

The article below mentions the shrine, and though it was a joint ceremony, the shrine is a Shinto shrine to honor the Japanese dead.

"Dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) is the backdrop of a Japanese shrine honoring service members lost in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Harpers Ferry is visiting the island to support the 62nd Commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima"

source: US NAVY - Story Number: NNS070314-16Release Date: 3/14/2007

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