Military history

CHAPTER 7

BREAKTHROUGH

Now that the Americans had taken more than half of Iwo Jima they discovered that “Sulphur Island” was indeed as strange as it was ugly.

At the southern end of the island and around the airfields, Marines still shivered in their foxholes at night. But farther north they had come to the Japanese sulphur wells. Here, General Smith said, “it looked like something left over when they finished building Hell.”

The air was foul with the smell of sulphur. Sulphur mists rising to the surface had stained the earth dead white and pale yellow. Marines could scarcely dig a foxhole without starting a sulphur bath. They could cook a can of C rations by burying it in the earth for a quarter-hour. When they wanted to make coffee, they took their canteens to the sulphur wells. Sometimes the temperature of the water rising to the surface was 160 or 170 degrees.

As usual, the Marines took oddities like these in their stride. They had fought and won campaigns in the malarial swamps and jungles of the Solomons, and on the blistering-hot coral atolls of the Gilberts and Marshalls and Carolines. They knew that they would do the same on this peculiar, cold-hot hump of sand and rock. On March 4, it appeared that General Kuribayashi was inclined to agree with them. On that day he radioed Tokyo asking for aircraft and warships to come to his aid. “Send me these things,” he said, “and I will hold this island. Without them I cannot hold.”

As the Japanese commander might have suspected, he was not to get either planes or ships, However, on that very same day, his enemy received a wonderful boost for their morale.

During the afternoon of March 4, Radioman William Welsh was monitoring the air-sea rescue frequency aboard the command ship Auburn. He had just finished a crossword puzzle when the loudspeaker overhead suddenly came to life:

“Hello Gatepost, this is Nine Bakecable. We are lost. Give us a bearing.”

“Hello Nine Bakecable, this is Gatepost,” Welsh replied. “Who are you?”

“We are a monster short on fuel. Give us instructions please.”

An officer checked a list of code names and discovered that a “monster” was a B-29. The Superforts had raided Japan only that morning. Obviously, one of the giant bombers was asking for permission to make an emergency landing on Iwo Jima! Excitement ran like an electric shock through the Auburn. At once, aerial transports from the Marianas were warned to keep away from Iwo. Ashore, the emergency field was cleared for the landing of a “big one.”

No more than two weeks after the Marines had first landed on Iwo, the island was beginning to serve its purpose—even with a savage struggle for the island still going on. As the word spread across Iwo, Marines, soldiers and Seabees came running toward the airfield.

Out over the ocean, the B-29 Dinah Might flew through the rain and mist with open bomb-bay doors. That was Dinah Might’s trouble. The doors would not close, and the wind whistling through the opening had slowed the plane and forced it to consume most of its fuel. When Lieutenant Fred Malo, the pilot, tried to tap the spare tanks he found that the valve would not open. For Dinah Might it was Iwo or the Ocean.

Now Sergeant James Cox, Dinah Might’s radioman, was getting a bearing from Auburn. “Course 167 for 28 miles,” Welsh instructed him. “Do you prefer to ditch offshore or try to land on the strip?”

“We prefer to land.”

“Roger. We will have the field cleared for you.”

Soon Lieutenant Malo sighted Iwo Jima. It was a tiny speck in the sea, growing to cinder size, then larger… larger…. Twice Malo circled the island. Each time the narrow runway slid out of sight. On the third pass he hit the runway squarely. The 60-ton aircraft whacked the matting with a whhhumphf! like an exploding shell. Then it was whizzing between lanes of wildly cheering Americans, its left wing cutting down a telephone pole like a sickle slicing straw, its roaring motors whipping up a huge cloud of dust. When the dust settled, Dinah Might stood safely at the end of the runway. Lieutenant Malo and his men were the first of many B-29 crews to land on Iwo. A total of 2,251 Superforts, carrying 24,61 Americans, were saved by emergency landings on this tiny island.

That was the value of Iwo. And for the first time during the war, the value of an objective had been made evident even before it was taken.

The day after Dinah Might’s dramatic landing, the Marines on Iwo Jima rested. General Schmidt gave his tired men a “day off.” They read letters, ate hot “chow,” and where possible they scrubbed Iwo’s gritty gray grime off their bodies or treated themselves to the luxury of a shave. In the meantime, the divisions reorganized. Generals Schmidt and Smith had decided on a coordinated attack the next day by all three divisions. This, they hoped, would break through Kuribayashi’s last line and bring a quick victory.

The quest for quick victory had brought the Marines back to the assault again and again. The sooner the island was won the sooner the invasion fleet could be released for duty elsewhere. Victory would gain more airfields to provide fighter cover for the B-29s bombing Japan. It would provide flank cover for the invasion of Okinawa, thus speeding up the timetable of conquest.

In wartime the attempt to achieve a quick victory may seem a needless sacrifice of lives, but in the long run it saves lives. The rapid conquest of lower Iwo Jima with its big airfield had already begun to save American airmen and their valuable B-29s.

So on the morning of March 6 the heaviest bombardment of the campaign was begun. It was devastating. All the guns ashore and at sea blasted away. In 67 minutes the Marines fired 22,500 shells of all sizes at the enemy positions. A battleship and two cruisers added 50 rounds of huge 14-inchers and 400 rounds of 5-inch shells. Three destroyers and two landing ships also opened up, and from the carriers came aircraft dropping bombs and tanks of napalm. It did not seem that the enemy could survive such a rain from the sky.

But they did. When the Marines rose up to attack, they were met by a dreadful hail of enemy fire. Once again they were forced to close in and chase the enemy down his warrens of rock and concrete, along his underground burrows and right into his formidable blockhouses. The Japanese were simply not going to be blasted into defeat.

While the Marines were struggling to make some more headway, the Army Air Corps began to arrive on the island. Twenty-eight P-51 Mustang fighters and twelve P-61 Black Widow night fighters roared into Iwo. For the second time, the value of quick victory had been demonstrated.

That night, however, the advance was still being measured in bloody “touchdowns.”

The failure of the artillery barrage had convinced General Erskine of the 3rd Division that the enemy had to be surprised, not overwhelmed. Erskine realized that the Japanese had skillfully adapted themselves to American assault. When artillery began the onslaught preceding each day’s attack, the enemy soldiers merely ran down into their deepest underground positions to sit out the bombardment. When the fire lifted, they ran back up to their guns to greet the advancing Marines with shot and shell. They had done it so often that they could now do it with split-second timing. As a result, the barrages were next to worthless.

General Erskine’s solution was a surprise predawn attack without artillery. His division still held the center, and its mission was to crack straight through to the other end of the island. When that was accomplished, the Japanese would be split in two. Then the 4thDivision on the right would clean out all resistance in its area, while the 3rd would join the 5th in mopping up the left.

Blocking the 3rd Division’s path to the sea was a height called 362C. This hill covered other Japanese positions on the right. (All of these enemy positions were located on the high ground of Motoyama Plateau.) So General Erskine ordered one battalion to take Hill 362C by surprise attack, while two other battalions slipped into position to attack the enemy emplacements on the right. (All of these enemy positions were located on the high ground of Motoyama Plateau.) So General Erskine ordered one battalion to take Hill 362C by surprise attack, while two other battalions slipped into position to attack the enemy emplacements on the right. Once Hill 362C was taken and its guns silenced, the two battalions on the right could begin to attack without fear of flanking fire.

At five o’clock in the morning, with a whistling wind hurling cold rain in their faces, the Marines moved out. Not a shot was fired. Not a hand was raised against them. The two battalions in the center and right reported having moved 200 yards. On the left at Hill 362C, the Marines came upon the Japanese asleep in their trenches and killed all of them. Jubilant, they reported that they had taken Hill 362C.

But they had not!

By mistake they had climbed and conquered Hill 331. At daylight Hill 362C began to pour fire onto the center and right battalions, pinning them down. Now a desperate battle began. Throughout the day the trapped Marine battalions fought back. But their number was steadily whittled.

In the center, 200-man companies were down to barely more than 10-man squads. By nightfall, Lieutenant Wilcie O’Bannon commanded fewer than 10 men in F Company. They were huddled on a mound 300 yards inside the Japanese strongpoint. After O’Bannon’s radio fell silent, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cushman ordered tanks to the rescue. Thirty-six hours after the predawn attack began, the tanks rumbled up to the mound where O’Bannon lay with just four men. Straddling the Marines, the tankers reached through the escape hatches in the bellies of the tanks and dragged them safely inside. Company E under Captain Maynard Schmidt in the same sector fared only slightly better: it had seven survivors.

To the right, other companies were being cut up by enemy fire. Here Lieutenant John Leims risked death three times to save his Marines. He crawled 400 yards through enemy fire to lay communications wire from his cut-off company to battalion headquarters. Then he withdrew the company, after which he twice crawled back to his abandoned position to rescue wounded Marines there. For this, Lieutenant Leims received the Medal of Honor.

So did Lieutenant Jack Lummus, who was fighting with the 5th Division just a little to the left of the embattled 3rd. Lieutenant Lummus was a former All-America end at Baylor University. Now, instead of carrying him on a touchdown run, his powerful legs were carrying him out in front of his pinned-down company. A grenade knocked Lummus sprawling, but he jumped up and rushed on, knocking out a gun emplacement. Another grenade downed him, shattering his shoulder. He arose and dashed forward, again destroying an enemy position and killing its defenders.

Lieutenant Lummus then turned and called to his men to follow him. Inspired by his courage and leadership, they arose and charged, pouring through the enemy network. Then a land mine exploded with a roar and a shower of dirt. When the smoke cleared Jack Lummus appeared to be standing in a hole. The explosion had torn off both legs and he was standing on the bloody stumps, still urging his men forward.

They ran to him sobbing. Some Marines wanted to end his agony for him, but he motioned them forward. As they went, their tears turned to rage and they killed and blasted all before them. At the end of the day they were on a ridge over looking the sea.

To their rear, Jack Lummus lay in the division hospital. Pint after pint of blood was fed into his veins. He received 18 pints in all, but the doctors and Lummus knew that it was hopeless. Yet, as the lieutenant’s immense vitality slowly left him, his gaiety remained. “Doc,” he said at the end, “it looks like the New York Giants have lost a darn good end.” With his remaining strength he smiled, and then he died.

So it went throughout that tragic March 7. In spite of all their losses, however, the Marines had not suffered disaster. In the 3rd Division’s sector, the battalion that had taken the wrong hill finally fought forward to Hill 362C. In the center and on the right, the sector now known as “Cushman’s Pocket” still resisted hotly and eight more days of fighting would be required to subdue it. But, as company after company entered the battle, Japanese resistance on Motoyama Plateau waned and finally died. By nightfall of March 7, the valuable high ground of the plateau was in Marine hands, and the end was in sight.

The enemy also seemed to believe that the end was near. As on Suribachi to the south, the Japanese in the north had begun to kill themselves. On that bloody March 7, a hundred enemy soldiers who were holed up inside a ridge on the left flank blew themselves up. But they also took with them a good part of a company of Marines atop the ridge.

With nightfall of March 8 there came the second proof of Japanese despair: the banzai charge.

This one was led by Captain Inouye, who was still grieving over the loss of Suribachi. He wanted to recapture the volcano and to wreck the American aircraft parked on Airfield Number One. To do so he would have to break through the 4th Division on his left flank. In all, he gathered about 1,000 men of his naval force. Most of them had rifles or grenades, but some had only bamboo spears. Many more had wound explosives around their waists. These human bombs planned to hurl themselves against American equipment.

Just before midnight, they started south. They did not charge immediately. Instead they crawled stealthily forward, hoping to slip through the American lines. But the moment they were detected, they arose and with turkey-gobbler shrieks of “Banzai! Banzai!” they came swarming forward.

Up went the Marine flares. Down came the Navy’s star shells. In that flickering, ghastly, artificial light, Marine mortars crumped and thumped among the charging enemy. Marine machine-gun fire cut them down and popping rifles picked them off. The battle was very quickly over, although, as in most night battles, sporadic firing continued until dawn. Daylight disclosed 784 enemy dead. Although the Marines had lost 90 killed and 257 wounded, Captain Inouye’s banzai had been their biggest break so far.

That afternoon the Marines received the welcome news that the other end of the island had been reached. Under Lieutenant Paul Connally, a 28-man platoon from the 3rd Division came to a high bluff. Looking down, they saw the ocean. Scrambling below in full view of dumfounded enemy gunners, they waded into the water and scooped it up to wash the grit of Iwo from their faces. Some men took off their shoes to bathe their feet. But then the enemy gunners recovered from their surprise and began firing. Men fell, wounded, and the patrol withdrew.

Some of the men returned, however, to fill a canteen with salt water to prove that the 3rd Division had been the first to traverse the length of Iwo. The canteen was sent back to General Erskine with the warning: “For inspection, not consumption.”

Eighteen days after the battle for Iwo Jima began, the island had been traversed. What was left of the defenders had been cut in two, and now the pieces had to be destroyed.

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