Military history

CHAPTER 3

THE TERRIBLE FIRST DAY

The only apparent difficulty on Iwo seemed to be the terraces of volcanic ash which wind and wave had heaped inland at heights up to 15 feet. Many of the armored amtracks, or “amtanks,” could not climb them. Instead, they backed into the sea again, churned out, and turned to open fire on the island.

Troop amtracks, sending up showers of sand, tried to grind through the terraces. They too became stalled, and their marine passengers leaped out to continue inland afoot. Still there was no fire from the enemy. In came the second wave unopposed. The third… the fourth… Marines trudging inland through the warm, loose sand began to hope that the Japanese had fled the island. But as the American invaders climbed the terraces and began to swarm across the broad flatland beyond, the Japanese gunners opened fire.

At first it came as a ragged rattle of machine-gun bullets, growing gradually louder and fiercer until at last all the pent-up fury of a hundred hurricanes seemed to be breaking upon the heads of the Americans. Shells screeched and crashed, every hummock spat automatic fire and the very soil underfoot erupted with hundreds of exploding land mines. In everyone’s ears was the song of unseen steel: the shriek of shells, the sigh of bullets, the sobbing of the big projectiles and the whizzing of shrapnel. Marines walking erect crumpled and fell. Concussion lifted them and slammed them down, or tore them apart—sometimes hurling a man’s arms or legs thirty or forty feet away from his body.

There were few places to hide—only the shallow depressions in the sand caused by bomb and shell explosions. There was almost no place to dig. Iwo’s peculiar sands, like fine buckshot, slid back into the foxholes and filled them in again. Nor was it wise to take shelter behind a sand hummock. A Marine captain sat on one and called out an order to advance. The blasting of a five-inch gun beneath him knocked him unconscious.

Nevertheless, the American Marines pressed forward. Tadamichi Kuribayashi had given them time to come ashore, and that was all they needed. By the time his gunners opened up, the Marines were 200 to 300 yards inland.

On the left flank, under the fire from Suribachi, the 5th Division had begun to push across the narrowest part of the island. Manila John Basilone called to his machine-gun section: “C’mon, you guys! Let’s get these guns off the beach.” They obeyed, and ran into the blast of an exploding mortar shell that killed Basilone and four others.

Here, too, big Captain Dwayne “Bobo” Mears attacked an enemy pillbox blocking his company’s advance. He knocked it out, using only his pistol. But an enemy bullet opened a gash in his neck. Mears waited for it to be bandaged, and returned to the attack. Now a bullet ripped through his jaw. Blood spurted out and clotted the sand. Mears kept on. But at last he sank to the sand. A private ran up and tried to protect him. “Get out of here,” Mears gasped. “I’ll be all right.” Then Navy medical corpsmen picked him up, and for a while it looked as if he might be saved, but the gallant captain later died aboard ship.

Everywhere now rose the cry, “Corpsman! Corpsman!” as Marines fell stricken. Rushing forward with sulpha and bandages, heedless of the enemy fire, the corpsmen bound up the wounds of the fallen and ticketed them for evacuation to the hospital ships out in the water. Sometimes the corpsmen arrived too late. Often, all too often, the young Marines quietly bled to death where they fell.

Still, the assault on the left was pressed forward, even though some of the 5th’s battalions were down to one out of four original company commanders, and some platoons were being led by enlisted men. If a captain fell, a lieutenant took his place. If a platoon lost its lieutenant and NCOs, some young, and untried private would leap into the breach. Many Marines proved to be unexpectedly resourceful leaders that day.

Corporal Tony Stein, of the 28th Regiment, was one of these. Unusually handsome, he was also unusually tough. In fact, his nickname was “Tough Tony.” Corporal Stein had been a toolmaker in civilian life, and back in Hawaii he had fashioned a special weapon for himself from the wing gun of a wrecked Navy fighter. He called it a “stinger.” Using his stinger, Tony Stein struck at pillbox after pillbox on the left flank. One after another he killed the defenders, leaving the position to be destroyed by Sergeant Merritt Savage, a demolitions expert, and Corporal Frederick Tabert, both of whom followed in Stein’s rear.

Sometimes Tough Tony was so exciting in his one-man war across the island that his comrades stopped to watch him in admiration. But there was no stopping for Tony Stein. Running out of ammunition, he threw off his helmet, shucked his shoes and sprinted to the rear to get more bullets. He did this eight times, each time pausing to help a wounded Marine to an aid station. Finally, when the Japanese forced his platoon to pull back, Tony Stein covered the withdrawal. Twice, his stinger was shot from his hands. But each time he retrieved it and fired on.

Behind Tony Stein’s battalion came another battalion of the 28th Regiment. These Marines were horrified to find the beaches a litter of wrecked and burning vehicles. They passed the lifeless bodies of men who had landed before them, and tripped over severed limbs lying lonely and bloody in the sand. As the din of battle engulfed these men, they realized that their objective would be taken only at a terrible price.

One Marine platoon moved forward under Lieutenant John Wells. Soon they ran into a Japanese bunker. It looked like a harmless mound of sand. But it spat fire, and a Marine buckled and died. Moving to their right, Wells’s platoon got out of the bunker’s field of fire. The enemy guns could not swing far enough to their left to hit them. From this point, a Marine rushed in on the bunker’s blind side with a “shaped” charge. This is an explosive shaped to concentrate most of its blast in a small area. It is provided with supports to keep the charge a certain distance from the target to be penetrated, and it looks something like a kettle on stilts. The Marine scrambled to the top of the mound and scooped out a hole in the sand. Planting the charge, he raced away for safety.

There was a roar, and the blast tore a hole in the bunker’s roof. This was not enough to knock it out, however, and another Marine now dashed forward with a thermite, or heat, grenade. He dropped it down the hole. Instantly the grenade began to generate intense heat and smoke. The Japanese inside the bunker could not bear it. They threw open the door and came charging out through a billowing cloud of white smoke. As the enemy rushed out, the Marines cut them down.

Thus, either with such systematic tactics, or through the sheer bravery and dash of Marines like Tony Stein, the men of the 5th Division punched clear across the island. When they reached the western beaches, they had cut off Mount Suribachi to their left, or south.

On the right flank of the American assault line, the fighting was even fiercer. Here the Japanese gunners had the beaches “zeroed in.” Marines landing there were as naked to their enemies as flies walking on a windowpane. Fire fell on them from their front and both flanks. It came from a rock quarry on the far right, from Suribachi on the far left and from pillboxes, blockhouses and spider traps straight ahead. In front of one battalion alone were two huge blockhouses and 50 pillboxes. This battalion was supposed to take Airfield Number One in the middle of the Iwo flatland. Its commander decided to wait until artillery arrived. But Sergeant Darrell Cole refused to wait.

He led his machine-gun section toward the field and into a network of enemy guns. Cole’s Marines fired into the gun slits as they passed. Cole knocked out two pillboxes himself with hand grenades. Then three bunkers pinned his men down in a cross fire. Cole silenced the nearest one with a counter cross fire. The enemy threw grenades. So did Cole. Three times he struck at the remaining pillboxes, finally knocking them out. But then a bursting grenade killed Sergeant Darrell Cole.

Not all of the Marine companies penetrated the enemy line so rapidly. One company was pinned down in a hail of fire for 45 minutes while its agonized men watched their captain, John Kalen, slowly bleed to death in a hole ringed around by exploding steel. Behind this unit, the guns of the cruiser Chester tried to blast a path inland for the Marines. The Chester’s fire was directed by Lieutenant Commander Robert Kalen, who of course did not know that his brother was bleeding to death ashore. Before the day was over, command of this company changed hands four times.

As the enemy fire rose in fury so did the surf off all the beaches. Landing boats were caught up and hurled hard against the shore. They were wrecked, sunk or driven up on the beach, where they filled with water. Minute by minute the surf line was being turned into an impassable tangle of smashed boats, stalled and wrecked vehicles, bodies, crates, cartons and cans. From flank to flank the beachhead was marked by this long dark pile of debris, which surged with every wave. Offshore there was a swarm of landing boats. Every coxswain was convinced that he carried “hot” cargo; that is, badly needed supplies. All of them sought an opening in the tangle so that they could get ashore, unload and speed away from that place of exploding steel. In another hour or so, it might be impossible to get reinforcements or supplies ashore.

In the meantime, both Marine divisions had begun to call desperately for tanks. The big 15-ton Shermans could help turn the tide of battle. Their armor was thick enough to deflect most enemy missiles, and their 75-millimeter rifles were powerful enough to knock out most enemy positions. An hour after the invasion, 16 Shermans were landed in the 4th Division’s right-flank sector. But they had trouble getting through the beach terraces. On the 5th’s left-flank beaches there was even more trouble. Lieutenant Henry Morgan’s tank, named Horrible Hank, was lost when a big wave swamped the lighter which carried it. Lieutenant Morgan radioed his commander: “Horrible Hank sank.” Then he went on to have two more tanks blown out from under him.

Everywhere the Shermans were being hit by shells. Few of them were knocked out, however; most of them continued to grind their way over the terraces. If they succeeded in getting over that obstacle, however, they entered deadly mine fields. Engineer troops had to precede the tanks on their knees, using their bayonets to poke for mines. They sought the mines by hand because mine detectors were not effective in the magnetic sand. Besides, most of the mines were made of a ceramic material instead of metal. So the gallant engineers gingerly cleared paths through the mines and marked them with white tape for the tanks.

Sometimes, if the tanks could not get through the terraces, the bulldozers cut paths for them. But the bulldozers were also shelled, and easily knocked out. Nevertheless, most of the Shermans got through. The Marine riflemen, however, greeted their arrival with mixed emotions. They knew what the tanks could do, but they also knew that the armored monsters would draw enemy fire. “It’s a tossup whether to run away from them,” said a corporal, “or crawl under them.”

Even before the tanks came in, the Navy beachmaster parties came ashore. It was their job to organize the beaches so that the flow of supplies to the fighting front would be smooth and steady. One of these beachmaster parties came right in after the first wave of Marines. The men landed with colored flags, bull horns, radios, portable generators and sandbags. The generators were dug in and sandbagged. The bull horns were set up on tripods to bellow orders that could be heard by supply-boat coxswains above the roar of guns and the surf. The flags were used to mark off the different beaches assigned to various Marine regiments, and the radios relayed the requests of the Marines to the ships offshore.

The assault troops battling grimly into Iwo’s defenses needed a wide variety of supplies. They required all kinds of ammunition, as well as fuel for their flame throwers, dynamite, barbed wire, water, grenades, gasoline and medical supplies. They also needed food rations. But there was never a question of which should come first—the “beans” or the “bullets.” The bullets always went in ahead. To get these supplies into the hands of the Marines, roads from the beaches had to be cut through the sand terraces which had already blocked the passage of so many vehicles. To do this, a battalion of Seabees came into Iwo Jima.

Seabees are sailor-specialists from Naval Construction Battalions. Their colorful nickname comes from the abbreviation C.B. Many of these highly trained technicians and mechanics were men in their thirties—or forties—who had put their civilian skills and crafts at their country’s service. Between the older Seabees and the youthful Marines there was a great bond of affection. They were the “old men” or the “kids” to each other.

Usually, Seabees had not come into an island until a day or two after the assault. But at Iwo Jima they arrived during the afternoon of D day! They were desperately needed to cut those roads through the terraces. Then supplies could be carried directly from the ships to the battlefield by amphibian trucks called DUKWS, or just plain “ducks.” When the ducks emerged dripping from the water, they displayed rubber wheels like any other truck and were able to roll anywhere. At Iwo, they were driven by Negro soldiers, who were the only Army troops to participate in the battle.

So the Seabees in their bulldozers cut swaths through the terraces, and some of them were killed or wounded as they worked. One bulldozer driven by Alphenix Benard came into the right-flank beaches in a tank lighter. When the ramp banged down, Benard saw a pile of American bodies blocking his path. He hesitated, horrified. But behind him were another bulldozer, two tanks and two tank-retrievers. He could not delay. He closed his eyes and drove over the bodies. “I had no choice,” Benard kept telling himself as his bulldozer butted through the terraced sand.

By noon the battle for Iwo had risen to a thunderous roar. Amtanks, or “armored pigs” as the Marines called them, still wallowed in the swells offshore to duel with Japanese batteries. Destroyers came in closer and closer and even the mighty battleship Tennessee hurled her great shells from a distance of only one mile. But all of this pounding was still not enough to knock down or blow up General Kuribayashi’s powerful positions. From Suribachi on the left flank and from the Quarry on the right flank, enemy artillery fire still rained down on the Marines. Even after they brought in their own artillery, the surest sign that the Americans had come to Iwo Jima to stay, the Marines’ counter-battery bombardments could not silence the well-concealed Japanese guns.

At one point, Kuribayashi began to use his highly prized rocket guns. They fired huge missiles varying from 200 to 550 pounds in weight. They were most inaccurate, although it was difficult for them to be harmless while exploding on Iwo’s crowded beaches. Still they were largely a failure. They had more bang than bite, passing overhead with a horrible blubbering noise. The Marines nicknamed them “bubbly-wubblies,” and soon came to regard them with contempt.

There was no contempt, however, for the Japanese artillery, especially for the guns on that extreme right flank which had so impressed General Cates. Here the Japanese at the Quarry could deliver a plunging fire into the Americans. The Quarry had to be taken, and Colonel Pat Lanigan ordered “Jumpin’ Joe” Chambers to do it.

Six feet two inches tall and powerful, Lieutenant Colonel Justice Marion Chambers got his nickname from his bouncy stride. He was a veteran Marine, one of the finest battalion commanders in the corps. At Iwo that day, the men of his battalion were known as “the Ghouls” because of the antiflash cream they wore on their faces.

Jumpin’ Joe had noticed high ground commanding the Quarry. He pointed to it and told his officers: “Get up there before those Japs get wise and grab that ground themselves.” So up went the Ghouls, their cream no proof against enemy steel. They took the high ground and they finally silenced that dreadful storm of enemy artillery. But they paid for it. By the time Colonel Lanigan was able to relieve Chambers’ battalion, it was down from about 1,000 men to 150. Out of one company of 240 Marines only 18 men remained.

That was how the fighting went the first day on Iwo Jima. And that was how General Kuribayashi, who thought he had “allowed” the American Marines to come ashore, found to his dismay that they had come to stay.

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