Military history

CHAPTER 8

’TILL THE LAST MAN

The night that the Marine patrol reached the sea, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi gave Tokyo its first hint of approaching defeat.

All surviving units have suffered heavy losses,” he declared in a message. “I am very sorry that I have let the enemy occupy one part of Japanese territory, but I am taking comfort in giving him heavy losses.”

The general and his men were indeed doing just that. Even though only about 1,500 Japanese soldiers remained, they were still fighting stubbornly. On the right, where General Cates’s 4th Division was fighting, there were numerous enemy pockets still holding out. Here General Cates tried to reach Major General Sadusi Senda, commander of the Japanese 2nd Mixed Brigade, which opposed the 4th. He prepared a surrender appeal which said:

“You have fought a gallant and heroic fight, but you must realize Iwo Jima has been lost to you. You can gain nothing by further resistance, nor is there any reason to die when you can honorably surrender and live to render valuable service to your country in the future. I promise and guarantee you and the members of your staff the best of treatment. I respectfully request that you accept my terms of honorable surrender.”

It is not known if General Senda ever received this message. Nor was his body ever found when, on March 16, the 4th turned from killing enemy soldiers to counting their corpses. On that date all resistance on the right, or eastern, flank ended. Three days later, the battered, riddled 4th took ship for Hawaii. It had suffered 9,098 casualties on Iwo Jima, and 1,806 of these men were buried there. In just 14 months, the 4th Marine Division had fought three major battles and had suffered 17,722 casualties. So the 4th sailed away from that black, bloody curse of an island, never to enter combat again in World War Two.

On the left, however, the 5th and 3rd were still in battle. Here the remaining enemy soldiers were under the command of Colonel Masuo Ikeda. They were pressed into a square mile of tumbled ravines and gorges. One of these, about 700 yards long and from 200 to 300 yards wide, became the scene of Kuribayashi’s last stand. It was at first impossible to use tanks or other vehicles, and the savagery of the fighting gave the area the name of “Bloody Gorge.”

On March 13 a Marine patrol came very close to capturing General Kuribayashi in a cave within the Gorge. The Americans peered into the cave and the general’s orderly quickly blew out the candles and wrapped his chief in a blanket. Some of the Marines ventured inside. They paused, peered around, and then departed—and the heart of the general’s orderly ceased its mad pounding.

Next day Bloody Gorge shrank still smaller. On that day, Private Franklin Sigler led a charge against the gun position which had barred his company’s advance for several days. He reached it unhurt, knocked it out and killed its crew. Immediately, enemy fire came plunging down on him from Japanese caves and tunnels. Sigler responded by scaling the rocks and destroying these positions as well. But he was seriously wounded in the skirmish. Still, he refused evacuation and continued to direct American fire into the Japanese positions. Under fire he also carried three wounded comrades to safety, and he went to the rear himself only when ordered to do so. Sigler won the Medal of Honor for his actions, which played a large part in the destruction of the defenders of the Gorge—Japan’s famous 145th Infantry Regiment.

Kuribayashi’s concern now was for the 145th’s regimental flag. In the Japanese army a unit’s colors were sacred. If they were ever lost, the unit’s name was stricken from the army rolls in disgrace. Japanese officers very readily sacrificed their lives for their colors, and to be named to the color guard was the highest honor which could befall a Japanese soldier. Because of this, General Kuribayashi asked Colonel Ikeda how much longer the regimental flag would be safe.

“Maybe a day,” the colonel replied, and Kuribayashi said: “Burn it. Do not let it fall into the hands of the enemy.” Ikeda obeyed, reporting from his command post: “Here we burnt our brilliant regimental flag completely. Good-by.”

A few days later, General Erskine attempted to persuade Colonel Ikeda to surrender. His appeal said: “The fearlessness and indomitable fighting spirit which has been displayed by the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima warrants the admiration of all fighting men. You have handled your troops in a superb manner, but we have no desire to annihilate brave troops who have been forced into a hopeless position. Accordingly, I suggest that you cease resistance at once and march, with your command, through my lines to a place of safety where you and your officers and men will be humanely treated in accordance with the rules of war.”

General Erskine sent the message in care of two captured Japanese soldiers. One of them reached Ikeda’s cave. He sent the message inside by a friend, and then, becoming frightened, he ran back to the Marine lines. There was no reply from Colonel Ikeda. The 5th Division would have to clean out the enemy hornet’s nest in the Bloody Gorge.

It was grim work. Powdered gray with the dust of Iwo, their dungarees cut to rags and tatters by the rocky terrain that they traversed, General Rockey’s Marines moved relentlessly from point to point. At last they came to a huge blockhouse at the southeast corner of the Gorge. It was the last Japanese position standing above ground on Iwo, and it supposedly stood above Kuribayashi’s headquarters. Again and again the Marines struck at it with shellfire and 40-pound shaped demolition charges. But the blockhouse was too strong and did not fall. Finally, the Marines by-passed it and began to knock out its supporting positions.

By March 16, Tadamichi Kuribayashi knew that the end had come. That morning he instructed his officers and men to sally forth at midnight “and attack the enemy until the last. You have all devoted yourselves to his Majesty the Emperor. Don’t think of yourselves. I am at the head of you all.” That day Tokyo sent word that Kuribayashi had been promoted to the rank of full general. He did not acknowledge this honor, and he may not have received the message. If he did, he would have known that this was a reward for his gallant stand and that Tokyo was aware that the end had come. That night, General Kuribayashi sent Imperial Headquarters the message it had long dreaded:

The situation is now on the brink of the end. At midnight of the 17th I shall lead the final offensive, praying that our empire will eventually emerge victorious and secure. I am pleased to report that we have continued to fight well against the overwhelming material power of the enemy, and all my officers and men deserve the highest commendation. I however humbly apologize to His Majesty that I have failed to live up to expectations and have to yield this key island to the enemy after having seen many of my officers and men killed.

Unless this island is wrested back our country won’t be secure. Even as a ghost, I wish to be a vanguard of future Japanese operations against this place. Bullets are gone and water exhausted. Now that we are ready for the final act, I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to respond to the gracious will of His Majesty. Permit me to say farewell.

In conclusion, I take the liberty of adding the following clumsy poem:

Shells and bullets are gone and we perish,

Remorseful of failure to fulfill our mission.

My body shall not decay in the field

Unless we are avenged;

I will be born seven more times again

To take up arms against the foe.

My only concern is

Our country in the future

When weeds cover Iwo.

That night a grieving Japanese nation learned that Iwo Jima was lost. Premier Kuniaki Koiso, the leader who had replaced Tojo, told the people: “There will be no unconditional surrender. So long as there is one Japanese living, we must fight to shatter the enemy’s ambitions to pieces.”

There was no banzai charge that night, though. Instead General Kuribayashi with about 400 men came out of hiding—probably from under the blockhouse—and moved to a cave closer to the water. Evidently the general had decided to take a few more Americans with him before going out in a blaze of glory.

Next day the Marines returned to the blockhouse. Tankdozers had now caught up to the riflemen moving through the gorge. Grinding slowly forward while bullets clanged against their steel-plated hides, the tankdozers pushed dirt and rubble over the blockhouse’s air vents and sealed them off. The Marine engineers arrived with five enormous charges of dynamite, each weighing 1,600 pounds. Five times Iwo Jima was rocked by great explosions, and with that the blockhouse finally caved in.

The tankdozers and their covering riflemen rolled on. The Gorge was shrinking steadily. It became an area of about 100 square yards, then 80, then 60…. Tankdozers were butting out paths for the Sherman tanks that followed. With their 75-millimeter guns, the Shermans could fire point-blank into the last few cave mouths.

Suddenly, out of one of the caves, came a Japanese soldier. He ran at the tankdozer with a satchel charge. The Marine driver swung his clumsy vehicle around to confront the enemy. Raising his bulldozer blade high in the air, he dropped it, and cut his assailant in two. With that, the driver climbed out of his tankdozer and ran back to the waiting Shermans. Heedless of bullets spanging around him, he hammered on the side of one until the commander opened his turret.

“Did you see what that crazy Nip tried to do to me?” the excited driver yelled. “That does it, brother—I’ve had it!”

He turned and walked out of the gorge.

But he and his comrades were back the following day, March 21, and on that night General Kuribayashi sent a message to the neighboring garrison on the island of Chichi Jima: “We have not eaten nor drunk for five days. But our fighting spirit is still running high. We are going to fight bravely to the last.” Three days later, there came another message: “All officers and men of Chichi Jima—good-by.”

Those were General Kuribayashi’s last words, if indeed they did come from him. No one knows. Nor does anyone know what happened to the Japanese commander. On March 25, the Gorge was down to a square of 50 yards, and on that day a Marine combat patrol traversed it without harm. The end, it seemed, had come.

But in the early-morning darkness of March 26, some 300 shadowy figures clambered from the caves and caverns and holes of the Gorge pocket. Many of them carried sabers, and there were numerous officers among them. Tadamichi Kuribayashi probably was there, perhaps seeing to it that the men who carried explosives knew where they were to go on this final suicide charge. The chief target was the Army Air Corps’ VII Fighter Command on the west coast near Airfield Number Two.

There the suiciders came upon troops untrained for fighting on foot. They struck with a howl, throwing grenades, stabbing sleeping airmen, and blasting away with captured American weapons. Then the Japanese overran a battalion of Marine construction troops. There, too, the fighting was confused and bloody, until First Lieutenant Harry Martin rallied the Marines and stopped the enemy short of a hastily organized defense line. Then he broke the Japanese with a countercharge. In the end, Martin was killed. He was the last Marine to win the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima.

For daylight of March 26 brought the official declaration that Iwo Jima had fallen. Daybreak also revealed 223 Japanese bodies lying in the Airfield Number Two area. The body of Tadamichi Kuribayashi was not among them. Nor was it ever found.

So, after 36 days the bitter fighting ended and the weary, grimy, silent victors of Iwo Jima turned to counting the costs. They could be seen in the thousands of crosses and the scores of stars standing in neat white rows in the three divisional cemeteries. They could be counted in the hospital ships which had been sailing daily back to the Marianas and Hawaii.

The 5th Division alone had been staggered by 8,563 casualties. Iwo had been its first and only fight, and few if any outfits have ever been blooded as was the fledgling 5th. And when they buried their dead, among them were three more Medal of Honor winners: Sergeant Joseph Julian, who lost his life charging pillboxes, and Private First Class James LaBelle and Private George Phillips, who threw themselves on grenades to save their comrades.

The sacrifices of these men demonstrated the indomitable spirit of the young American Marines on Iwo Jima. All through the last days of battle the living Marines had been coming down to the cemeteries to acknowledge their debt to the dead. There they knelt or stood with bowed heads in prayerful farewell. Some of them decorated the graves of their buddies. Sometimes they carved crosses out of Iwo’s limestone. At other graves they laid Marine emblems or some last salute they had scratched on the bottom of a mess pan with the point of a bayonet. Sometimes inscriptions or designs were made by pressing cartridges into the sand. Some of these epitaphs said:

REACH DOWN, DEAR LORD, FOR THIS MARINE

WHO GAVE HIS ALL THAT WE MIGHT LIVE.

MONTY—A GOOD MARINE WHO DIED IN DEED

BUT NOT IN VAIN.

And then, as though out of the very heart of the nation, there came this cry of grief:

BUT GOD—FIFTEEN YEARS IS NOT ENOUGH!

In all, 4,189 Marines had been killed in action on Iwo Jima. With another 15,749 men who were wounded or put out of action in one way or another, the total cost had been 19,938 casualties. Yet, as heavy as the American losses were, only a handful of the 21,000 Japanese defenders survived. The death toll favored the attacking Americans by a ratio of more than five to one. This was an astonishing figure, because in war the attacker usually suffers far more than the defender. General Graves Erskine was mindful of this when he paid the last tribute to the fallen.

“Let the world count our crosses!” he said.

“Let them count them over and over. Then when they understand the significance of the fighting for Iwo Jima, let them wonder how few there are.”

The Marines had not only fought the most ferocious battle in Marine Corps history, but they were the victors of the most savage single struggle in the annals of American arms. But the brave young Marines who sailed away from Iwo Jima shared no feelings of triumph. They felt only a deep sense of sadness and loss. They would never forget the men they had left behind. Nor would the nation ever forget the name of that terrible, bloody place where the flag was flung to the foreign wind and the gateway to Japan torn open.

It was immortal now. It held equal rank with Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz gave Iwo Jima its epitaph:

“Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

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