February 19 to March 27, 1945
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion 23rd Marines burrow into the volcanic sand on the beach of Iwo Jima as their comrades unload supplies and equipment from landing vessels. In the background, Japanese forces rain heavy artillery fire from mountainside caves.
One Pacific island remained crucial for both Japan and the United States: Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima, whose name means “sulphur island,” is a volcanic outcropping about 600 miles from the Japanese mainland. By taking Saipan, American bombers could now take off from that airfield, but enemy forces could fire on them from Iwo Jima, often destroying the bombers before they could drop their load.
So America wanted to control this island. And Japan knew it.
On February 19, 1945, American military leaders planned the largest Pacific landing to date: 74,000 marines from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Division would form the V Amphibious Corps, or the VAC.
These marines were carried to Iwo Jima’s black sand beaches by more than 500 ships. More than 100 Corsairs would fly in and drop 6,800 tons of bombs. The navy's ships planned to strike the island with 22,000 shells.
With all that power, military leaders assumed the Battle of Iwo Jima would be over within one week.
Unfortunately, the initial bombardment didn't hit many of the essential targets. The military planners also underestimated just how many Japanese troops were on the island. They thought there were 13,000 enemy soldiers. In reality, it was 21,000.
Another mistake was made by underestimating the commander of those Japanese troops, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
A brilliant tactician, Kuribayashi studied the blunders made by his fellow commanders who lost Japanese-held islands in the Pacific to the Americans. Kuribayashi vowed Iwo Jima would be different.
“No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans,” Kuribayashi told his troops. “We will harass the enemy with guerrilla actions until the last of us has perished. Long live the Emperor!"
Because General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign for the Philippines took longer than expected, the American invasion of Iwo Jima was delayed.
Kuribayashi didn’t waste that time.
Bringing in engineers from Japan and laborers from China, his force dug deep fortifications and tunnels throughout the island. These tunnels had a combined length of eleven miles. Kuribayashi then stocked the underground paths with plenty of ammunition, radios for communication, fuel for vehicles, and medical supplies for the wounded. He also placed his troops on half rations of food, and tried to conserve what little fresh water was available.
Kuribayashi planned to force the marines come to him.
He expected the marines to land on Iwo Jima’s beaches, so he strategically placed his fire power to inflict maximum strikes. His plan was to allow two waves of marines to come ashore under minor resistance. As the third wave arrived on the crowded beachhead, Kuribayashi would open fire with deadly power: sixty-five mortars, thirty-three large naval guns, and 100 anti-tank guns. His forces also included new weapons, including rocket-launching aerial bombs and “the Tokyo Express" which consisted of 240-mm and 360-mm mortars with shells the size of fifty to fifty-five-gallon oil drums.
And while Iwo Jima was under attack, Kuribayashi would be safe, commanding his troops from a bunker located seventy-five feet underground.
On February 19th, the marine invasion force headed for Iwo Jima. Leading the way, the Marines’ F4U Corsairs started their bombing and strafing runs. Their actions provided cover for sixty-eight LVTs armed with forward-firing 75mm Howitzers that were following the navy's rolling barrage from the ships' fourteen-inch guns.
Just as Kuribayashi planned, the first two waves of marines were greeted with only small arms and machine gun fire. But the black sand and steep beaches turned into a bigger problem for the Americans because the LVT’s sunk into the soft ground, and seawater flooded the engine compartments, stalling the vehicles.
With the stalled vehicles in front of them, the third and fourth wave of marines came ashore. The troops piled up on the beach.
Kuribayashi opened fire.
The artillery and machine gun fire rained on the marines. The Japanese killed more than 2,400 marines.
Yet, the marines didn’t stop.
Under that hailstorm of bullets, engineers hit the beach and pushed the wreckage out of the way, clearing a path for Sherman tanks and heavy artillery to fire back at the Japanese. That allowed he 5th Marine Division to get close to Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on Iwo Jima, while the 4th Division headed inland to attack the airfields. The 3rd Division was held in reserve.
Marine rocketeers resorted to hit and run tactics on Iwo Jima to escape enemy counter fire
That night, 30,000 marines dug into the ground to rest and prepare for the inevitable Banzai attacks that often began with cries of: “Marine, you die!”
But Kuribayashi was a brilliant tactician. Instead of Banzai attacks, he sent out small Japanese patrols. The packs of soldiers harassed the Americans while gaining intelligence on their locations. Kuribayashi also ordered his men to sneak up and kill as many marines as possible during reconnaissance.
The 3rd Marine Division was brought forward, while the 5th Marines began moving inland. Mt. Suribachi was a key objective. It rose more than 550 feet above sea level, giving troops the best lookout on the island. On February 23, the hard-driving 28th Marine Regiment, with heavy fire support from navy ships, took the mountain. Amid the dead and wounded, the marines planted the American flag on the summit.
But shortly after that flag-raising, an officer ordered one of his men to find an even larger flag, “large enough that the men on the other end of the island can see it. It will lift their spirits also.”
He knew the marines needed the morale boost. They were facing some of the toughest fighting of the war. This battle that was supposed to last one week looked like it was it going to continue much longer, with many more casualties.
Nearby Mt. Surabachi, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal saw six men—five marines and one sailor—raising the second, larger flag. Rosenthal snapped a picture. He didn't think much more about it. But when the photo ran in American newspapers, it created a national sensation. To this day, the flag raising on Iwo Jima remains among the most famous wartime images, ever. There's even a statue of the image outside the US Marine Corps Memorial near Washington, DC.
As the marines beat their way across the bloody landscape of Iwo Jima, they realized that the enemy had changed tactics again. Now it was guerilla warfare.
Kuribayashi's plans were working.
Like Saipan, Iwo Jima developed its own “Death Valley. " Shaped like a bowl, its steep sides were covered by volcanic gravel that slipped under the Marine’s boots. They couldn’t get traction to reach the high spots from where the enemy fired.
For the marines, the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was a morning attack, followed by artillery, demolitions, and then flamethrowers. But soon they realized these tactics weren't working because the Japanese tracked this schedule. When the artillery began, the enemy went underground or deep inside caves. When the shooting stopped, they came out again.
So, the marines altered their pattern. Without artillery fire to alert the Japanese, the marines attacked in the afternoon. Other battalions attacked at night. Though slow and costly, this strategy was effective.
The Americans also came up with a new weapon. Nicknamed the “Zippo,” it was a Sherman tank equipped with a flame-throwing cannon that could blast fire 150 yards and sustain the flame for up to one minute.
Yet even with the Zippo, and strong air and naval bombardments, the force most effective at wiping out the Japanese positions on Iwo Jima was the ordinary foot soldier.
One by one, these soldiers fought their way across the island. Normally, corpsmen don't go on combat patrols and doctors stay behind at field hospitals. But on Iwo Jima, 827 corpsmen and twenty-three doctors were killed because their sefless determination to help their fellow marines placed them in the line of fire.
Meanwhile, the battle that was expected to last only one week stretched to thirty-six deadly days.
Finally, on March 27, the Americans secured the island. The Battle of Iwo Jima was over.
But the cost was huge. About 6,000 American soldiers were dead. Another 18,000 men were wounded. In fact, Iwo Jima was the only Pacific battle in which America suffered more total casualties than the Japanese.
The Japanese lost 20,000 men. About 1,000 were captured. But, following the traditional Bushido code, most of the wounded Japanese soldiers killed themselves before they could be taken captive by the Americans.
Now that America controlled Iwo Jima, bombers would need less fuel for the shorter distance to Japan. That meant they could also carry heavier bomb loads. Also, Iwo Jima’s airfield offered an emergency landing strip for any B-29 bombers that were hit during an attack.
Before WWII was over, some 2,400 Army Air Force pilots would land safely on Iwo Jima.
“Whenever I land on this island,” said one B-29 pilot, “I thank God and the men who fought for it."
During all of WWII, eighty-two Medals of Honor were awarded.
Twenty-seven of those medals— more than one-third—went to the marines who fought at Iwo Jima.
Two Navajo code talkers in the Pacific WWII
At Iwo Jima and other WWII battles, members of the Navajo Indian tribe relayed military messages using a code based on their tribal dialect. Major General Howard Connor would later say, "Without the Navajos, the marines never would have taken Iwo Jima."
Even Japan's chief of intelligence later admitted that although his men broke the American Air Force's code, they couldn’t break the Navajo code. In all of history, the Navajo code is among a select few that has never been broken.
Iwo Jima also had the youngest Medal of Honor winner ever: Jack Lucas.
Before landing on Iwo Jima, Private First Class Lucas had just turned seventeen. During the battle, Lucas threw himself on two Japanese hand grenades, protecting his fellow soldiers. He was seriously wounded on his right side, but lived to receive the medal for his bravery and self-sacrifice.
President Truman himself gave the medal to Lucas. He said: "I'd rather be a Medal of Honor winner than President."
Lucas replied, "Sir, I'll swap with you."
FIND OUT MORE:
The Battle of Iwo Jima: Guerilla Warfare in the Pacific (Graphic Battles of World War II) by Larry Hama Island of Terror:
Battle of Iwo Jima by Larry Hama
Iwo Jima and Okinawa (World War II 50th Anniversary Series) by Wallace B. Black
Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac
This website offers many 1945 newsreels reporting on the Battle of Iwo Jima as well as other historic WWII stories. There’s also a film clip of the famous flag-raising on the island.
Find out more about the Navajo code talkers: http://navajocodetalkers.org/
Sands of Iwo Jima
Flags of Our Fathers and its sequel Letters from Iwo Jima, which together present both American and Japanese points of view.