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Battle of Iwo Jima


In the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The relentless 36-day assault to seize the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese began on February 19, 1945. It involved the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions of the Fifth Amphibious Corps, a total force of some 70,000 men. Evan Andrews of notes this to be “the most Marines ever assembled for a single operation.” Iwo Jima was bitterly defended by nearly 23,000 Japanese army and navy troops. The island’s defenders were entrenched in an elaborate network of caves, dugouts, tunnels and underground instillations, forcing the Americans to fight inch by bloody inch. At the cost of an estimated 26,000 American casualties, Iwo Jima was finally secured on March 26. The Japanese were ordered to fight to the last man in their defense of the island, and they nearly did, losing some 21,000 men.

Iwo Jima, which means Sulfur Island, was considered a strategically important steppingstone in the American push towards mainland Japan. Due to the distance between Japan and U.S. bases in the Mariana Islands, Iwo Jima was needed as an emergency landing strip for B-29 Superfortresses returning from bombing runs over the Japanese homeland. The island could also serve as a suitable staging ground for B-29 fighter escorts.

A B-29 bomber over Osaka, Japan on June 1, 1945. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to the amphibious invasion, Iwo Jima suffered the longest and most intensive shelling of any Pacific island during the Second World War. Through the efforts of Allied aircraft, battleships, and cruisers, the 8-square-mile island was pummeled with thousands of tons of high explosives. Corporal Stacy Looney recalled that there “wasn’t anything left standing.” Despite the overwhelming bombardment, the Japanese defenders were saved from annihilation through their efforts to transform the island into a labyrinth of natural caves, subterranean tunnels, fortified pillboxes, and bombproofs.

The Battleship USS New York bombarding the Japanese defenses on Iwo Jima. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On February 19, 1945, the Marines stormed Iwo Jima. They had been told to expect heavy resistance, but strangely, the first waves of landing craft encountered only scattered arms fire and a few artillery bursts. Thousands of infantrymen, tanks, and vehicles successfully landed on the beach. The ominous calm was interrupted when the first units advanced onto an ash-covered terrace beyond the shore. As these men moved up, the Japanese unleashed a fury of firepower. Shell bursts and mortar fire turned the American landing zone, clogged with men and equipment, into a cauldron. Thomas McPhatter was ashore as the chaos erupted. He jumped in a foxhole and encountered a young Marine who was wounded and holding pictures of his family. McPhatter said, “He had been hit by shrapnel, he was bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth. It frightened me. The only thing I could do was lie there and repeat the Lord’s prayer, over and over and over.” It was a nightmare, but American troops braved the intense fire and established a beachhead, enabling them to neutralize Japanese pillboxes and trenches near the shoreline. The 5th Marine Division’s 28th Marines navigated through foot-deep volcanic ash and crossed to the island’s western side, where they cut off its 550-foot-tall southern peak at Mt. Suribachi. By nightfall, over 30,000 Marines had landed on Iwo Jima.

U.S. Marines burrowing in the volcanic sand on Iwo Jima. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Iwo Jima’s garrison was led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Nearly all of the Japanese emplacements contained a copy of his special order commanding the defenders to fight to the bitter end. Kuribayashi’s instructions read, “Above all, we shall dedicate ourselves and our entire strength to the defense of this island,” and that, “Each man will make it his duty to kill ten of the enemy before dying.” With this collective mentality, the Japanese relentlessly challenged the Marines for every inch of ground on Iwo Jima.

Following the intense landing on February 19, U.S. forces continued to advance and captured the first of Iwo Jima’s three airfields. By February 23, elements of the 28th Marines reached the top of Mount Suribachi and raised the American flag. The powerful moment was met by the sound of cheers and celebratory gunfire, but the fight for Iwo Jima was far from over.

The Stars and Stripes over Mount Suribachi. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fred Haynes described that, “The Japanese were not on Iwo Jima. They were in it!” Haynes’ words are indicative of the guerilla warfare tactics implemented by the Japanese on the island. The defenders would ambush Marines and then disappear into their intricate caves and tunnels, only to reappear in new positions. Adding to the complexity of the combat was the fact that small arms fire proved ineffective against Japanese pillboxes and tunnels. To clear these obstacles of enemy combatants, Marines depended on their M2 flamethrowers, bazookas, and fire-spewing Sherman “Zippo” tanks. Both sides found grenades to be extremely effective on Iwo Jima. While providing first aid to wounded men, John Harlan Willis retrieved and tossed back eight Japanese grenades. Before he could throw back a ninth grenade, it exploded in his hand, killing the courageous Navy medic. Willis was posthumously awarded the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor for his actions.

A Marine flame throwing tank scorching a Japanese strongpoint. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By early March, the battle hardened Marines had captured Iwo Jima’s two remaining airfields and reached the northern shoreline. Through their relentless determination, they had fought through hills and gullies that earned nicknames like the “Meat Grinder,” Death Valley,” and “Bloody Gorge,” suffering heavy casualties through it all. With the island essentially split in half, the surviving Japanese were severely outnumbered and despite facing hardships such as going days without water, very few surrendered. Colonel John Ripley later commented that the Japanese on Iwo Jima “fought and fought and fought, and what a hell of a job they did.”

A Marine machine gun team firing at Japanese positions. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 4, a B-29 bomber made the first emergency landing on the island. Because so many Americans were fighting so hard to gain control of Iwo Jima, the aircraft was able to be repaired, refueled, and went on to complete its mission. It was a proud moment for U.S. forces and a sign of what was to come once the remaining Japanese on the island were defeated.

As the battle wore down, Japanese forces were still extremely dangerous. In certain cases, Japanese soldiers slipped into captured U.S. uniforms and launched surprise nighttime attacks. They moved through the island like ghosts and as one American lieutenant put it, “We’d be glad to fight these people if we could only see them.” The Japanese did show themselves again, launching a final desperate assault on March 26. Following this last act, the Marine Corps brass declared an official end to combat operations on Iwo Jima later that day.

U.S. Marines pose on top of an enemy pillbox with a captured Japanese flag. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi perished on Iwo Jima along with 21,000 of his men. Japanese forces followed the orders of their commander up until the very end, dedicating every ounce of their strength to the defense of the island. With the exception of some 1,083 prisoners, the entire Japanese garrison was wiped out.

The legendary fighting spirit of the Marines had prevailed throughout the brutal five-week long campaign. Iwo Jima also could not have been won without the meticulous planning and support provided by the Navy and Army through supply efforts, medical care, and air and naval gunfire. With some 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead, the price of victory was so costly that President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly gasped when he heard the numbers. Tremendous sacrifices were made and “uncommon valor was a common virtue” during the campaign. 27 Marines and sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions on the island of Iwo Jima.

The Fourth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, March 1945. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

By the end of the Second World War, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen made unscheduled landings on Iwo Jima. The island that so many courageous warriors had fought so ferociously for went on to save countless American lives as an emergency landing strip.

Sources Battle of Iwo Jima.

Naval History and Heritage Command: Battle for Iwo Jima.

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