Battle of Iwo Jima
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Iwo Jima is a small speck in the Pacific; it is 4.5 miles long and at its broadest point 2.5 miles wide. Iwo is the Japanese word for sulfur, and the island is indeed full of sulfur. Yellow sulfuric mist routinely rises from cracks of earth, and the island distinctly smells like rotten eggs.
Since winning Saipan in the previous year, American bomber commander Curtis LeMay had been planning raids on the Japanese home islands from there, and the first of such bombings took place in Nov 1944. The bombers, however, were threatened by Iwo Jima in two ways. First, the Zero fighters based on Iwo Jima physically threatened the bombers; secondly, Iwo Jima also acted as an early warning station for Japan, giving Tokyo two hours of warning before the American bombers reached their targets. Moreover, the Japanese could (and did) launch aerial operations against Saipan from Iwo Jima. Finally, the United States could gain an additional airfield for future operations against Japan if Iwo Jima could be captured. In the Philippines, the operation on the island of Leyte was pushed up by eight weeks due to lack of significant resistance, which opened up a window for an additional operation. Thus, Operation Detachment against Iwo Jima was decided.
The defenders under the command of Tadamichi Kuribayashi were ready. The aim of the defense of Iwo Jima was to inflict severe casualties on the Allied forces and discourage invasion of the mainland. Each defender was expected to die in defense of the homeland, taking 10 enemy soldiers in the process. Within Mount Suribachi and underneath the rocks, 750 major defense installations were built to shelter guns, blockhouses, and hospitals. Some of them had steel doors to protect the artillery pieces within, and nearly all them were connected by a total of 13,000 yards of tunnels. On Mount Suribachi alone there were 1,000 cave entrances and pill boxes. Within them, 21,000 men awaited. Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru, commander of the Special Naval Landing Forces on Iwo Jima wrote the following poem as he arrived at his underground bunker:
May enemy bombs be directed at me, and enemy shells
Mark me their target.
Many years later, author James Bradley, son of one of the famous flag raisers (more on the flag raising later), visited the island. He noted that the tunnels were extremely sophisticated. Some of the walls were plastered, many of the rooms were well-ventilated, and in the hospital ward beds were meticulously carved out of the rock walls to efficiently make use of the space.
The Americans knew the Japanese were expecting them, but when the field officers saw the intelligence reports, they were astonished by how many guns were present on the island. Black dots representing coastal defense guns, fox holes, artillery emplacements, anti-tank guns, blockhouses, pillboxes, and all sorts of defenses covered the whole island. The American intelligence only detected the presence of 12,000 Japanese, and even at that grossly underestimated quantity, it was already going to be a most difficult landing. Captain Dave Severance of the United States Marine Corps commented that looking at the intelligence map "scared the hell out of [him]." To soften up the defenses, beginning on 8 Dec 1944, B-29 Superfortress and B-24 Liberator bombers began pounding the island. For 70 days, the US 7th Air Force dropped 5,800 tons of bombs on the little island in 2,700 sorties. Holland Smith, the Marines general in charge of the landing operation, knew that even the most impressive aerial bombings would not be enough, and requested 10 days of naval bombardment before his Marines struck the beaches. To his surprise and anger, the Navy rejected the request. "[D]ue to limitations on the availability of ships, difficulties of ammunition replacement, and the loss of surprise", the Navy said, made a prolonged bombardment impossible. Instead, the Navy would only provide a three-day bombardment. When the bombardment began on 16 Feb, Smith realized it was not even a full three-day bombardment. Visibility limitations due to weather led to only half-day bombardments on the first and third days. Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance told Smith that he regretted the Navy's inability to suit the Marines to the fullest, but the Marines should be able to "get away with it."
At 0200 on the morning of 19 Feb, battleship guns signaled the commencement of D-Day, followed by a bombing of 100 bombers, which was followed by another volley from the naval guns. Marine private Jim Buchanan of Portland, Oregon leaned against the railing of his ship as he watched the impressive explosions. "Do you think there will be any Japanese left for us?" He asked his buddy next to him. Little did he know, while the 70 days of aerial bombardment, 3 days of naval bombardment, and the hours of pre-invasion bombardment turned every inch of dirt upside down on this little island, the defenders were not on this island. They were in it. The massive display of fireworks merely made a small dent in the defenders' numbers.
The naval bombardment stopped at 0857, and at 0902, the first of an eventual 30,000 marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, under V Amphibious Corps, departed in their landing craft. They arrived at the beach 3 minutes later. It was uneventful. They were sure that optimists like Jim Buchanan must be right, there were no Japanese left to fight; the only casualties that occurred were to drownings caused by a powerful undertow. Several more waves of landing crafts hit the beach and dropped off their men, tanks, and supplies continuously in the next hour, and it was about then when the thunders of the Japanese guns hit. Under Kuribayashi's specific instructions, they waited an hour for the beach to crowd up before the guns sounded so that every shot fired would inflict maximum damage on the Americans. "Smoke and earsplitting noise suddenly filled the universe," and the Marines had nowhere to hide as the volcanic sand was too soft to dig a proper foxhole. All they could do was move forward; some of those who could not move forward were crushed by tanks that were trying to get off of the beach like the men. Navy Corpsman Roy Steinfort recalled that as he arrived on the beach, he was initially happy to see that countless Marines lay prone defending the beachhead. It did not take long to realize that the men were not in prone positions; they were all dead. Frantic radio calls reported back to the operations HQ: "All units pinned down by artillery and mortars", "casualties heavy", "taking heavy fire and forward movement stopped", and "artillery fire the heaviest ever seen". By sun down, the Americans had already incurred 2,420 casualties.
On the first night, the weather was as tough an enemy as the Japanese. Four-foot waves pounded the beach while the American Marines withstood the continuing Japanese artillery shelling.
The 30,000 who survived the initial landing faced heavy fire from Mount Suribachi at the southern tip of the island, and fought over inhospitable terrain as they moved forward; the rough volcanic ash which allowed neither secure footing or the digging of a foxhole. The Marines advanced yards at a time, fighting the most violent battles they have yet experienced. "There seemed to be no clean wounds; just fragments of corpses", said William Manchester. Often the only way to tell between an American and Japanese body was to look at the bodies' legs: the Japanese leggings were made of khaki and the Americans canvas. Yard by yard, the American Marines advanced toward the base of Mount Suribachi. Gunfire was ineffective against the Japanese who were well dug-in, but flame throwers and grenades cleared the bunkers. Some of the Americans charged too fast without their knowing. Thinking that enemy strong points had been overtaken, they moved forward, only to find that the Japanese would reoccupy the same pillboxes and machine gun nests from underground exits and fire from them from behind. Reporter Robert Sherrod noted that the advance had been nothing less than "a nightmare in hell.... [The Marines] died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay fifty feet away from any body."
Chaplain Gage Hotaling, charged with burials, recalled "[w]e buried fifty at a time in bulldozed plots. We didn't know if they were Jewish, Catholic or whatever, so we said a general committal: 'We commit you into the earth and the mercy of Almighty God.' I buried eighteen hundred boys."
Amidst the battle, Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John Bradley, James' father, a Navy Corpsman attached to the Marines, ran back and forth to do what he could to save the wounded. On the second day of the battle, he ran across a field of machine gun and artillery fire to a Marine losing blood at a dangerous rate. Putting himself between the Marine and the Japanese, Bradley administered first aid, then pulled the Marine back to safety by himself. For this, he was later awarded a Navy Cross, but he never told his family about the honor. The death he had seen was too much for him to bear.
To the Marines' relief, tanks finally arrived on the second day of the invasion. Shielded by the thick armor, the American troops could finally advance under cover as they moved to the base of the mountain.
Day three of the invasion was as tough at Mount Suribachi as the previous day, but for some of the Marines, the day began worse than they could have imagined. Navy carrier-based attack aircraft were launched to strike at Japanese positions, but the bombs fell near American positions. Captain Severance attempted to use a frequency reserved for the top brass to warn the Navy of the friendly fire, and to his surprise he was told to get off the frequency. Fortunately, a field colonel overheard the distress call and ordered the bombing to cease before any Americans were hurt by their own bombs.
Finally, on 23 Feb, the summit was within reach, but the Americans did not know it yet. A 41-man patrol was sent up, Colonel Chandler Johnson gave the lieutenant leading the patrol a flag. "If you get to the top," he said, "put it up." "If" was the word he used. Step by step, the patrol slowly and carefully climbed the mountain, each of them later recalled that they were convinced it was going to be their last, but they made it. Little did they know, they were watched by every pair of eyes on the southern half of the island, and a few of the ships, too. When they reached the top, Lieutenant Schrier, Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas, Sergeant Hansen, Corporal Lindberg, and Louis Charlo put up the flag. Much to their surprises, the island roared in cheers. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, observing from a naval vessel, excitedly claimed that the "raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years." Equally ecstatic, General Holland Smith agreed with Forrestal that the flag was to be the Navy secretary's souvenir. Colonel Chandler Johnson could not believe Forrestal's unreasonable demand from the hard-fighting Marines who rightfully deserved that flag instead, and decided to secure that flag as quickly as possible. He ordered another patrol to go up to the mountain to retrieve that flag before Forrestal could get his hands on it. "And make it a bigger one", Johnson said.
And so, the second flag went up, and as it turned out, the flag was recovered from a sinking ship at Pearl Harbor. Ira hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, and Rene Gagnon were proud to have been sent, but they did not think much of it. It was, after all, just a replacement flag. But they did not know that some distance after them was photographer Joe Rosenthal, who was at the place at the right time to take the famous "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" photograph. The photograph was the driving force for a record-breaking bond drive in the United States some time later, and it would also bring Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.
First Lieutenant Barber Conable of the United States Marines, who would later become the president of the World Bank, woke up in disbelief when he saw the second flag flying above Mount Suribachi. He recalled:
With the landing area secure, more Marines and heavy equipment came ashore and the invasion proceeded north to capture the airfields and the remainder of the island. With their customary bravery, most Japanese soldiers fought to the death. Of the 21,000 defenders, only 1,000 were taken prisoner.
The Allied forces suffered 25,000 casualties, with nearly 7,000 dead. Over 1/4 of the Medals of Honor awarded to marines in World War II were given for conduct in the invasion of Iwo Jima.
The island of Iwo Jima was declared conquered by Chester Nimitz on 14 Mar 1945, noting that "all powers of government of the Japanese Empire in these islands are hereby suspended." However, he made the declaration too early, for that fighting had by no means ceased on the island. "Who does the admiral think he's kidding?" yelled Marine Private Bob Campbell. "We're still getting killed!" On 16 Mar, General Schmidt declared the island secure; fighting still did not end by then, but Kuribayashi knew it was approaching the end. On the same day as Schmidt's declaration, Kuribayashi radioed Tokyo that "[t]he battle is approaching its end. Since the enemy's landing, even the gods would weep at the bravery of the officers and omen under my command." On 21 Mar, Kuribayashi reported that "[w]e have not eaten or drunk for five days, but our fighting spirit remains high." A day later, as his last soldiers were falling around him, he radioed what would become his last words on official record: "The strength under my command is now about four hundred. Tanks are attacking us. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention." Kuribayashi was likely to be killed on that same day, but his body was never found. The United States officially declared the island secure on 26 Mar, twelve days after Nimitz's initial declaration.
Dan van der Vat commented about the operation:
In sum, Iwo Jima saw the only major battle in the entire Pacific Campaign where American casualties surpassed the Japanese dead. All the lives lost, on both sides of the battle, for ten square miles; for that very reason, Admiral Richmond Turner was criticized by American press for wasting the lives of his men. However, by war's end, Iwo Jima sure appeared to have saved many Americans, too. 2,400 B-29 landings took place at Iwo Jima, many were under emergency conditions that might otherwise meant a crash at sea.
The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, immediately outside Washington and adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery, memorializes all US Marines with a statue of the famous picture.
Sources: Flags of Our Fathers, Goodbye Darkness, the Pacific Campaign.
Battle of Iwo Jima Interactive Map
Battle of Iwo Jima Timeline
|14 Jul 1944||Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, and Haha Jima were the targets of land-based aircraft for the first time as US Navy Bombing Squadron 109 PB4Y Liberator bombers based at Isley Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands dropped bombed on their airfields. In the United States, USAAF chief General Hap Arnold warned the Joint Planning Staff about the new Japanese Ki-84 fighters. As a precaution, he recommended seizing Iwo Jima to provide emergency airfields for bombers that might be damaged by new Japanese fighters such as the Ki-84.|
|1 Jan 1945||19 American B-24 bombers based in Saipan, Mariana Islands struck Japanese positions at Iwo Jima.|
|5 Jan 1945||American cruisers, destroyers, and carrier aircraft attacked the Bonin Islands. At Iwo Jima, a Japanese landing ship was sunk by destroyer fire. At Chichi Jima, destroyer USS Fanning sank a Japanese freighter by gunfire and a torpedo, while destroyer USS David W. Taylor was damaged by a mine.|
|29 Jan 1945||19 American B-24 bombers based in Guam, Mariana Islands attacked Iwo Jima, Japan.|
|19 Feb 1945||At 0905 hours, the first of 30,000 US Marines landed on Iwo Jima, Japan after heavy naval bombardment.|
|23 Feb 1945||US Marines and a Navy corpsman raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, Japan.|
|6 Mar 1945||28 American P-51 Mustang and 12 P-61 Black Widow aircraft landed on Iwo Jima, Japan.|
|11 Mar 1945||American fighters began flying escort operations from Iwo Jima, Japan.|
|14 Mar 1945||The island of Iwo Jima was declared conquered by Chester Nimitz, noting that "all powers of government of the Japanese Empire in these islands are hereby suspended", but fighting would continue.|
|16 Mar 1945||Americans declared Iwo Jima, Japan secure, but fighting continued.|
|26 Mar 1945||The Japanese mounted the final suicide charge with 200-300 men at Iwo Jima, Japan.|
|5 Apr 1945||Americans established an advanced air base on Iwo Jima, Japan.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935