IOTO, Japan - Dozens of U.S. veterans, many in their early 90s and some in wheelchairs, gathered on the tiny, barren island of Iwo Jima on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of one of World War II's bloodiest battles.

More than 30 veterans toured the black-sand beaches where they invaded the deeply dug-in forces of the island's Japanese defenders in early 1945.

They were bused to the top of Mount Suribachi, where an Associated Press photo of the raising of the American flag while the battle was still raging became a potent symbol of hope and valor to a war-weary public.

For some, the return to the island where many of their comrades died brought out difficult emotions.

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

Speeches were made by Japanese politicians and descendants of the few Japanese who survived the battle. Also speaking were U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Gen. Joseph Dunford, commandant of the Marine Corps, who noted the battle for Iwo Jima remained the "very ethos" of the Marine Corps.

"We should never forget that the peace and prosperity of Japan and the United States . . . has been built on the sacrifice of precious lives," Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said.

This was the first time Japanese Cabinet officials attended the ceremony, now in its 16th year. And though the contingent of veterans able to make the grueling trip has been steadily dwindling, the number of participants - about 500 - was double that of last year because of the significance of the 70th year since Japan's surrender.

The Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945. About 70,000 U.S. troops fought more than 20,000 Japanese - only 216 Japanese were captured as POWs and the rest are believed to have been killed in action or to have taken their own lives.

The island was declared secure on March 16, 1945, but skirmishes continued. In about 36 days, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines were killed and 20,000 wounded.