Military history

CHAPTER 6

INTO THE MEATGRINDER

On February 25, two days before the fall of Hill 199, the American attack on both flanks had begun to grind down to a bloody crawl. On the west coast, the 5th Division had come up against a system of fortified ridges crowned by the bastion known as Hill 362A. On the east coast the 4th had entered the “Meatgrinder.”

The Meatgrinder was the name which the Marines had given to a defensive system lying roughly half-way up the island, just east of airfield Number Two. Here they were quite literally torn apart on the Meatgrinder’s three cruel blades. These were Hill 382, the highest ground on northern Iwo; a little bald hill known as Turkey Knob; and a rocky bowl called the Amphitheater. Within this complex lay the Japanese communications system. Here, unseen among a network of caves and tunnels, the Japanese had kept the Marines under observation since D day.

The approach to the Meatgrinder offered no concealment. Bombardment from every quarter had stripped the area of its oak trees and laid bare a maze of rocks and brush criscrossed by defiles running to the sea. All the approaches were covered by tanks buried up to their gun turrets. Behind them, cleverly concealed or out of sight in the caves, were machine guns and mortars, antitank guns, and light artillery and antiaircraft guns depressed to fire point-blank. Hill 382, Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater were also mutually supporting. They could defend themselves or one another. It was not possible to take the Meatgrinder point by point, but only by laying all three points under attack at once.

The 4th Marine Division began its assault with a furious bombardment. Land artillery thundered, naval gunfire bellowed, mortar boats and landing ships ran in close to the shoreline to fire up the defiles. While bobbing amtanks put the coastal flank under fire, carrier aircraft came screaming down through the smoke and dust to strafe and bomb. As the bombardment rose in fury, the 4th tried to get around to the enemy’s rear by sending its tanks on a sweep through the 3rd Division’s area. Meanwhile, armored tankdozers butted paths through a rubble of smashed rocks.

Then the foot troops attacked. At first, the Marines went up Hill 382 with surprising ease. But once they reached the summit, the enemy recovered from the shock of the bombardment and opened fire. The Marines were pinned to the ground. They were even struck from the rear, where they had unknowingly passed a hidden system of pillboxes. Under cover of a smoke screen, the Marines came down from Hill 382. The day’s gains were 100 yards, or “one touchdown,” as Major Frank Garretson would say. This former football star was fond of measuring advances on Iwo in terms of 100-yard “touchdowns.”

With the close of battle that night, the Marines held about two-fifths of Iwo Jima and had suffered 8,000 casualties since landing. In Japan, a jubilant but not exactly truthful Radio Tokyo broadcast reports of wholesale slaughter of the Americans. The enemy’s hold on Iwo Jima, the broadcast declared, was “not more than the size of the forehead of a cat.” Many Marines in front of Hill 382 would have agreed with that estimate, at least as far as their own area was concerned. They did not realize that they were assaulting the eastern half of General Kuribayashi’s main line of defense. Even a gain of “one touchdown” was more than the Japanese commander was willing to surrender.

A touchdown was about all the Marines got on the following day, February 26. But they did knock out the pillbox positions they had by-passed. This was done by Private First Class Douglas Jacobson, a rifleman. As he started toward Hill 382 again that day, he saw an American bazooka man go down. Jacobson dropped his rifle and seized the bazooka. Running from position to position like a man berserk, he destroyed 16 pillboxes, knocked out a tank and killed 75 Japanese soldiers. Much of his regiment’s advance that day was due to Jacobson, who received a Medal of Honor for his valor. Yet the Marines had to withdraw for the night.

The same sort of thing was happening at Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater. Every time the Marines drove deep into the enemy defenses, they were made to pay dearly for it. The Japanese simply pulled back and called down the mortar and artillery fire which had been “zeroed-in” on their own positions. After the Americans were forced out at dusk, the Japanese returned to prepare a bloody encore for the following day.

For one full week—from February 25 to March 3—the 4th Marine Division was ground to a bloody pulp in the Meatgrinder. Casualties rose at such an alarming rate that the 4th used 400 pints of fresh blood on a single day. Yet each day’s assault left Kuribayashi’s eastern anchor weaker and weaker. General Cates fed more and more fresh units into the battle. One by one, the Japanese positions were blasted to rubble or sealed off.

At Turkey Knob a 75-millimeter howitzer was dragged over rock and rubble to deliver point-blank fire at a blockhouse that was the center of the height’s defenses. Under covering rifle fire, demolition men crawled up to the blockhouse walls. They planted their charges to tear gaping holes in the walls. Then tankdozers cut a path through the rubble for a flamethrowing tank. Rumbling forward with its flame thrower hissing, the tank poured streams of flame through the holes. Still the blockhouse held out. So did Turkey Knob, so did the Amphitheater, so did Hill 382.

On Friday, March 2, after six days of assault on the Meatgrinder, the 4th Marine Division hit this wicked trio with all its strength. Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater were each attacked by a regiment. The objective was to prevent these strongpoints from firing on the force attacking Hill 382. In this, the Marines were successful.

Company E, under Major Rolo and Carey, and Company F, under Captain Walter Ridlon, prepared to move out against Hill 382. Before they did, heavy artillery laid down a barrage. Supporting fire from tanks and whooshing flights of missiles launched by rocket trucks also helped. Major Carey’s men attacked on the left, Captain Ridlon’s on the right. By mid-morning one of Carey’s platoons was just under the smashed radar antenna, which was situated atop the hill.

Then Carey was cut down by machine-gun fire. Captain Pat Donlan took over E Company. A few hours later Donlan was hit by shrapnel. First Lieutenant Stanley Osborne replaced him, only to be killed by a shellburst, which tore off Donlan’s right leg at the same time while killing one more officer and wounding another. Now Second Lieutenant Richard Reich was the only officer left in this riddled company.

Meanwhile, Captain Ridlon’s F Company was advancing. Running into far less fire, the Marines here on the right worked quickly up beneath the crest of the hill. Then they took it with a rush, and at mid-afternoon, Captain Ridlon radioed headquarters that he was on top of Hill 382. That night Major Garretson wrote in his diary: “Day’s progress, a little over two touchdowns.” Although the Marines held the top of the hill, they had not yet conquered it. And on the following day E Company passed through another ordeal.

First Lieutenant William Crecink had replaced Lieutenant Reich as its commander, but he was quickly wounded and Reich took over again. Then Captain Charles Ireland relieved him, only to be wounded. For a third time, Reich led E Company. For a third time he was relieved, by Captain Robert O’Mealia. But Captain O’Mealia was killed by a shellburst. For Lieutenant Reich, however, there was no fourth term at command of E Company. That was because there was no longer any E Company.

What remained of it was joined with Captain Ridlon’s riddled F Company. With this patched-up force, Ridlon cleaned out Hill 382’s last defenders. Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater still sputtered in defiance, but only weakly. On the following day they were safely by-passed to be reduced at leisure later. The dreadful Meatgrinder had been shattered and Kuribayashi’s first line of defense penetrated.

Again the cost had been high. The 4th Division had suffered 2,880 casualties during the week-long battle at the Meatgrinder. Now its total losses on Iwo were 6,600 men killed and wounded.

In the center, meanwhile, the 3rd Division was also piercing Kuribayashi’s first line of defense, punching through in a series of slanting attacks and overrunning the half-completed Airfield Number Three.

On the left, however, the 5th Division was passing through an ordeal only a little less fierce than the 4th’s.

The 5th Division’s up-island drive had freed the western beaches, where, despite a high and treacherous surf, a second supply line to the fighting front was being built. General Harry Schmidt had located his Fifth Corps headquarters there, and on March 1 he was joined by “Howlin’ Mad” Smith. As the two men talked outside Schmidt’s tent, they noticed that the ammunition ship Columbia Victory had moved inshore to unload shells.

Suddenly Japanese artillery began shelling her! Shell after shell came screaming down from enemy-held high ground. The two Marine generals exchanged glances of consternation. They both knew that a direct hit on the Columbia Victory would detonate her thousands of tons of ammunition, which would probably wreck lower Iwo Jima with all its men and supplies.

As they watched, the first two salvos fell astern of Columbia Victory. The ammunition ship turned and ran for the open sea. Then a third salvo fell ahead of the vessel. The generals tensed. So did everyone on the beach. “The next one’s going to hit her square,” said Smith.

But the fourth salvo missed, dropping in the water astern. Before more artillery could fire, Columbia Victory was safely out of range. She would not return until the Marines battling westward across the ridges could silence the enemy’s guns.

Hill 362A fell on the same day. But the gallant corporal Tony Stein lost his life while helping to reduce that strongpoint. His captain had asked for volunteers for patrol, and Tough Tony Stein had volunteered. He did not return. Three of the men who helped to raise flags over Suribachi also died during the 5th’s conquest of Hill 362A. So did Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander who had ordered the Stars and Stripes unfurled atop the volcano. And Gunnery Sergeant William Walsh won the Medal of Honor on Hill 362A, when he gallantly smothered an enemy explosive with his body to save his men.

Hill 362A, just 20 feet lower than Hill 382 on the east coast, had been almost as fiercely defended. Sometimes the Marines burned the Japanese out of their caves by rolling gasoline drums inside and shooting them alight. At other times they hung from the cliff ledges to lower explosives into the caves on ropes.

True to their word, the brave Japanese defending the hill had fought to the last man. True to the strange Japanese tradition of suicide, the lone survivor killed himself. Marines watched cautiously as he crept out of a cave with a grenade in his hand. They ducked behind a rock when he tapped it on his helmet to arm it. But it did not go off, and when the Marines lifted their heads again they saw that the Japanese had the grenade held to his ear as though listening to it. He tapped it again, and listened. No explosion. A third time…. It went off.

The fall of Hill 362A did not halt the 5th’s advance. The division continued to sweep forward, driving toward the northern coast. On March 3, the 5th was staggered by its losses of 518 killed and wounded, its second worst casualty day during the entire campaign. But on that day five of the Division’s men won Medals of Honor, an amazing record in American military history.

Corporal Charles Berry and Private First Class William Caddy won their Medals by laying down their lives for their comrades. Both of them leaped on sputtering enemy grenades.

Medical corpsman George Wahlen lived to receive his Medal, although he was wounded three times in six days. His last wound was very serious, but Wahlen insisted on accompanying the Marines to treat the wounded. At last, however, he collapsed and had to be evacuated.

Sergeant William Harrell was on sentry duty early that morning when an enemy grenade sailed in on him. It exploded, breaking his thigh bone and tearing off his left hand. Then a Japanese attacked, brandishing a saber. Drawing his pistol with his right hand, Harrell shot him dead. More Japanese attacked. Harrell fought them off until he sank to the ground from loss of blood. A Japanese then ran up and put a grenade under his head. Harrell killed him and pushed the grenade as far from himself as he could. When it exploded, it killed another Japanese and tore off Harrell’s right hand. With that the Marine sergeant lost consciousness. He was found at dawn lying senseless among a dozen dead Japanese. He had held his position, and he would live to receive his nation’s highest award.

Corpsman Jack Williams won the fifth Medal of Honor that day. During a grenade battle he ran out in the middle ground to treat a wounded Marine. As he knelt over the stricken man, a sniper shot him three times. Still, Williams worked on. Only after he had finished treating the Marine did he turn to bind up his own perforated belly. Next he gave first aid to a second Marine. But then an enemy bullet cut him down for good.

With such men General Keller Rockey’s battling 5th at last punched though the western anchor of Kuribayashi’s strongest line. The 5th’s advance, combined with the conquest of the Meatgrinder in the east and the 3rd Division’s penetration in the center, meant that defeat was overtaking the enemy.

By March 3, thirteen days after D day, General Kuribayashi had lost most of his artillery and his tanks, along with 65 per cent of his officers. He had only 3,500 front-line troops able to fight. His communications had been shattered. This meant that he could not contact his subordinate commanders in charge of the different sectors of defense. As a result, the Japanese force defending Iwo was like a body fighting without its head.

Still General Kuribayashi was determined to fight on. He radioed Tokyo: “I am not afraid of the fighting power of only three American Marine divisions, if there are no bombardments from aircraft and warships.”

However, the American bombardments were continuous. But in spite of them, the Japanese commander had managed to inflict the worst casualties of the war on the attacking Marines. During two terrible weeks the Americans had lost 3,000 killed and 13,000 wounded. They did not know yet that they had cracked through the enemy’s strongest defenses. All that they could see was that nearly half the island was still in Japanese hands.

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