On February 19, 1945, the United States brought the war in the Pacific to the front doorstep of Japan. Iwo Jima was a tiny dark island four and a half miles long and two and a half miles wide. Located only 660 miles south of Tokyo, it looked from the air like a lopsided, black pork chop.
On the bright, clear morning of that fateful Monday, a vast armada of 485 American ships completely surrounded Iwo Jima. Battleships and cruisers stood off in the distance to batter Japanese positions and pin down the enemy so that the assault troops might get safely ashore. Great flashes of orange flame erupted from the ships’ guns as they sent huge shells howling toward their targets. Closer still, graceful destroyers seemed to dance off shore, dueling Japanese gun batteries, while rocket ships turned broadside to unleash flights of missiles.
Out of sight were the aircraft carriers, from whose decks had come the bombers and fighters that were also striking at Iwo. The planes flashed in and out of clouds of smoke and dust with bombs, rockets and machine guns. In addition, a formation of Liberators had flown in from faraway bases in the Marianas to make the little island quiver and shake with “carpets” of big bombs.
It did not seem possible that anything—especially human beings—could survive on little Iwo. And indeed there was no answering fire from the tiny dark island. All was strangely quiet. To the south, the volcano Mount Suribachi rose 550 feet above the sea. Just north of it, on the island’s east coast, were the landing beaches: silent, black and sinister. Then fading away to the north was a jumble of ridges rising to a high plateau. This was Iwo Jima, or Sulphur Island, which 70,000 United States Marines had come to claim for the Stars and Stripes.
As the aerial bombardment slackened, the first waves of Marines prepared to attack. Holding their rifles and machine guns, their flame throwers and bazookas, they filed down to the bottom deck of their landing ships. There they clambered aboard amphibious tractors, or “amtracks.” The amtracks, which the Japanese called “little boats with wheels” because of the gears on which their tracks turned, could churn through water and roll over land. Like great jaws, the forward bow doors of the landing ships yawned and opened wide. There was a great coughing and a roar of motors starting. Inside the landing ships the air became blue with smoke. Some of the Marines had begun to sweat, even though the air was crisp and cool. As they brushed aside beads of perspiration, they smeared the antiflash cream they had put on their faces to prevent burns.
Then the amtracks waddled forward. Like so many ducks, they spilled out of their mother ships, dropped into the water and formed landing circles. Around and around they circled, waiting for the order to attack. The order came. One by one the amtracks swung wide into the attack line. Gradually gathering speed, they went churning toward Iwo’s terraced beaches. The sea bombardment was lifting; the last aerial strike had come and gone. The sound of the amtrack motors was rising to a roar. Marines crouched anxiously below the gunwales, braced for the enemy’s long-awaited answering fire. None came.
Beneath them, the Marines felt a jolt and a lurch. Then they were on their feet—weapons held high—vaulting over the side and sinking ankle-deep into the warm, black sands of Iwo Jima.