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Blood on the Black Sands: The Battle for Iwo Jima


On February 19, 1945, wave after wave of U.S. Marines poured out of their landing craft and set foot on the black sands of Iwo Jima. Sitting 660 miles south of Tokyo, the capture of this small volcanic island would provide the Americans with a vital air base for fighter escorts and bombers conducting long range missions against the Japanese mainland.

In the months before the Marines launched their amphibious assault, Iwo Jima was pummeled by Allied aircraft and naval vessels, suffering the longest and most severe shelling of any Pacific island during the Second World War. For the Marines, it was hard to imagine that anything could have survived such a devastating concentration of firepower, but as men like Fred Haynes quickly learned once ashore, “The Japanese were not on Iwo Jima. They were in it!”

Gunners aboard the battleship USS New York blasting away at the Japanese defenses on Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The 21,000-man-strong Japanese garrison on Iwo Jima turned the island into a stout defensive labyrinth, digging into bunkers deep within the volcanic rocks and also utilizing natural caves, tunnels, and other elements to bolster their resistance. Despite the intensity of the American bombardment, these defenses saved the Japanese from suffering heavy casualties. Knowing they represented one of the final major obstacles standing between the Americans and the Japanese mainland, the garrison on Iwo Jima resolved to defend the island to the last man.

After allowing the Marines to land unopposed and concentrate ashore, the Japanese opened fire from their strong positions, striking hard at the American landing zone crowded with troops, vehicles, and equipment. Through incredible feats of valor, the Marines managed to establish a beachhead and overcame the formidable pillboxes and trenches near the shoreline. By the end of the first day, more than 30,000 Americans had landed on Iwo Jima, but the fight for control of the island was far from over.

U.S. Marines storming the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the next five weeks, the Marines relentlessly battled the Japanese for every inch of ground on Iwo Jima. The combat was so intense that historian Andrew Roberts describes it as “some of the most bitter hand-to-hand fighting of the Pacific war, in which no quarter was given or recieved, and where the Japanese made a number of suicide attacks by land, sea and air.” On March 26, 1945, the ferociously contested island was finally declared secure by the Americans.

As they had vowed, the Japanese nearly fought to the last man in defense of the island. As Roberts records, by the end of battle, “only 212 defenders - that is, 1 percent of the original garrison - were still alive to surrender.” Among the nearly 70,000 Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions who took part in the fight, approximately 6,891 were killed and 18,070 wounded, making Iwo Jima one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Wounded Marines being treated at an aid station on Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica)

By the end of the war, around 2,251 B-29 Superfortress bombers had made emergency or crash landings on Iwo Jima, which offered the only viable runway in the region for planes of that size. A bloody price had been paid to capture the island, but in the end, the American possession of Iwo Jima ultimately saved the lives of some 24,761 U.S. airmen.

The Battle for Iwo Jima also provided one of the most iconic images of World War II. On February 23, 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a snapshot of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the American flag atop 556 foot Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest peak. It is an image that will forever serve as an eternal testament to the bravery and fighting spirit of the warriors who fought and bled on Iwo Jima.

Joe Rosenthal's iconic flag raising photo from the Battle for Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz put it, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Sources


History.com: How U.S. Marines Won the Battle of Iwo Jima.

National Museum of the Marine Corps: 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Naval Heritage and History Command: Battle for Iwo Jima.

The National WWII Museum: The Battle for Iwo Jima.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.

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