Atop Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima sits a granite memorial dedicated to the American and Japanese soldiers and sailors that fought and died there during the six-week battle in the winter of 1945. Ever since its unveiling on the 40th anniversary of the battle in 1985, thousands of Marines and navy veterans of that epic clash have converged on the island every year to pay homage and tribute to the heroes that never made it off the tiny, volcanic islet. For many of these now frail and elderly combat veterans the pilgrimage to Iwo Jima is a necessary and almost compulsory journey to revisit the land that had come to shape and define their lives like nowhere else on the planet. It is a dutiful passage in commemoration to honor their brothers-in-arms who made a long life possible for the thousands of survivors that persevered through the hellish nightmare of the month-long struggle. For the United States Marine Corps as an institution, the Battle of Iwo Jima holds a legendary importance unequaled in their long and illustrious history of battlefield exploits. It is the one defining battle that has become synonymous with the unrivaled, soldierly qualities of the Marine Corps fraternity. Perhaps it is no coincidence that roughly one quarter of the Marine Corps’ WWII recipients of the United States Medal of Honor would earn their reverence on Iwo Jima.
|Iwo Jima memorial atop Mt. Suribachi|
Unlike the conventional clash of arms that dominated the colossal battlefields in Europe during WWII, the Pacific Theater is seldom given its due for defining the aspects of ground warfare that has shaped and determined military strategy in the decades that followed. Many warfare enthusiasts view the Pacific Theater of operations as a primarily naval undertaking sprinkled with numerous island-hopping campaigns that exclusively showcased the asymmetry of amphibious warfare. But it is precisely the unconventional nature of amphibious warfare and its abject reliance on the cohesion of all four dimensions of war-craft to elicit operational effectiveness, which has showcased the combined-arms operations of the Pacific Theater as the relative progenitor of the modern day battlefield that we know today. The Battle of Iwo Jima stands out today not so much for its gruesome portrayal of the sacrifice of the small combat unit in action but rather because of the intricate connection between all the various arms on the battlefield which made victory possible. Although victory was achieved ultimately by the courage, grit and determination of the grunts on the frontline, Iwo was also a textbook example of the combined-arms battlefield in motion; equal in size and scope to the operational art used on today’s battlefield.
Iwo Jima was also a stunning example of the effectiveness of a properly planned, practiced and formidable defense-in-depth system. It was the extent of Japan’s vast defensive network primarily underneath the volcanic island which forced the Marines to adopt the insipid frontal assault methods that would end up costing them dearly in time and casualties. Ostensibly there was no other way around this quite challenging development and this compelled the frontline formations to expend enormous amounts of manpower in neutralizing the individual obstacles that interspersed the battlefield yet could not be avoided or isolated. But rather than limiting the Marine’s need for more extensive firepower to overwhelm each obstacle, the frontline infantry was forced to rely on a variety of outside fire-support resources to diminish the more daunting defensive bastions. Close-air ground support operations, although initially disappointing, got progressively better as the battle raged on. Offshore shelling by warships caused considerable damage to the Japanese defenses but was still ineffective against interior-facing bunkers, caves and caissons. As a result the use of flamethrowers, grenades and satchel charges became increasingly valuable to the Marines as the Japanese defenses were reduced to individual strongpoints. The one certainty throughout the battle was that the Marines would have to fight and die for every square meter of land on the two-by-four mile wide island.
Iwo Jima was to the Pacific Theater what the crossing of the Rhine was to the Western Allied armies in Europe. Somehow by the weight of sheer momentum and overwhelming firepower the allies were going to conquer both these formidable obstacles yet the one underlying question was at what cost would the allies pay to bring their plans to fruition? The neutralizing of Iwo Jima opened up an unimpeded path to the Japanese Home Islands just as the crossing of the Rhine presented the gateway to Hitler’s Third Reich. Iwo was an almost miniscule sliver of land in the central Pacific yet it posed an enormous impediment to the flight course of American bombers softening up Japan’s defenses from the Marianas Islands. Iwo was the linchpin in Japan’s early-warning radar system that warned its air defense network of the imminent approach of American bombers nearly three hours in advance. Certainly the significance of Okinawa held a more strategic value for the eventual fight to subdue the Japanese Home Islands but the taking of Iwo Jima was a necessary evil that had to be undertaken in order for the allies to dictate the further progression of the war on their own terms. Its strategic importance was compellingly affirmed by the enormous amounts of time, energy and resources the government in Tokyo was expending to prepare its impressive defenses.
|Rear Admiral Harry Hill|
The conceptual plan for investing the island of Iwo Jima emanated from the offices of Admiral Chester Nimitz’s planning staff at CinCPOA headquarters in Hawaii. Nimitz, as Commander-in-chief of the Pacific Oceans Area command saw in the interval between mopping-up operations on the Philippines and the commencement of joint army-navy operations on Okinawa, scheduled for April 45’ as an opportune time to complete the conquest of the strategically important Iwo Jima. The order to commence comprehensive planning of the operation was forwarded to Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in whose area of operations the invasion would take place. Spruance’s command was subdivided into eight separate task forces numbered 51 through 58. All eight sections would play a contributing role in the planning of Operation Detachment, which came under the overall command of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner as the joint expeditionary force commander of Task Force 51. But the tactical planning and operational command of the assault elements fell to Rear Admiral Harry Hill, as attack force commander of Task Force 53 and his Marine Corps counterpart General Harry Schmidt, the commander of the V Amphibious Corps.
|Gen. Harry Schmidt CO V Amphibious Corps|
Hill and Schmidt worked well together when they weren’t being interfered with by their often egotistical, supporting cast members. Hill would control the navy’s attack force elements while Schmidt directed the ground advance of more than 60,000 Marines; split between three reinforced infantry divisions. With eight Marine regiments under his command Schmidt would control the highest number of Marines ever assembled on one battlefield during WWII. Many of these Marines were seasoned, combat veterans from the numerous amphibious assaults the US had conducted over the last twenty-eight months. They were considered the cream of the crop of the Marine Corps’ island-hopping fraternity. The Marine 4th Division, commanded by Maj-Gen. Clifton Cates and the Marine 5th Division, led by Maj-Gen. Keller Rockey would spearhead the assault-landing force on D-Day, Feb. 19. Maj-Gen. Graves Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division served as a floating reserve until it was wholly committed to the battle less than a week after the initial landings. Both the 3rd and 4th Marine Divisions were fresh off successful deployments on the Marianas Islands where they liberated the islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian. In the months between the two battles all the assault force battalions had been brought back up to full strength and subsequently reinforced with additional mortar and machine gun detachments, sapper teams and amphibious bulldozers.
Behind the Marines sat an armada of more than 450 capital warships, landing craft, command and service vessels, artillery platforms, cargo ships and a host of top-of-the-line, floating hospital boats ready to tend to Marine casualties. More than 400 attack aircraft flying from the decks of 12 fleet and escort carriers were available to the Marines for close air support throughout the battle. The air support was enhanced considerably for the initial landings and preparatory bombardment with the presence of Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 fleet of fast carriers, cruisers and destroyers. However Spruance made the call to send Mitscher’s carriers off to the north after just three days on station, taking with them all eight of the Marine Corps’ veteran fighter squadrons and leaving the Marine’s air support to a host of untested navy pilots with little experience flying in the ground attack role. It was only after the first harrowing weeks of combat that the Marines began to feel comfortable calling in the navy flyboys to assist in reducing some of the more formidable obstacles. But the navy made a considerable impact on the battlefield by running the whole logistics train from beginning to end and providing more than 2,000 doctors and corpsmen to the battlefield, in which close to 900 were to also fall on the field of battle. Another 5,000 Navy Seabees would prove instrumental in bringing the island’s two airfields on line despite deadly accurate enfilading fire and constant shelling from Japanese strongpoints.
|Maj-Gen. Graves Erskine 3rd MAR Div|
Preparatory bombing of Iwo Jima began almost eight months before the actual landing force embarked for the amphibious assault. These sporadic bombing runs gradually increased as D-Day approached but it wasn’t until the last three days before the assault began that the navy commenced round-the-clock, precision bombing of the island with both aircraft and naval gunfire. Schmidt of course pleaded for a more comprehensive, 10-day preparatory bombardment but he was overruled by Spruance, who was wary about depleting his ammo stocks so close to the start of operations on Okinawa. The Japanese on the other hand had been more than prepared for the aerial onslaught. More than 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors under the command of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi had been fast at work over the last six months preparing an extensive network of underground tunnels, strongpoints and interconnected concrete bunkers that transformed the tiny island into one of the strongest defensive bastions on the planet. Kuribayashi was under no delusions as to the fate that awaited him and his men on the island. They were all expected to fight to the death while defending every inch of ground beyond the landing beaches. Once the Marines reached beyond the outer beach berm they would be left exposed to a dizzying array of interlocking field fire zones, machine gun nests, minefields, mortar traps and prearranged, artillery kill zones that could reach every square inch on the island. Kuribayashi’s whole defensive scheme was predicated on holding out as long as possible thus bleeding the attackers white while forcing them to pay dearly for their entrance onto hallowed, Japanese ground.
D-Day February 19, 1945
|Iwo Jima looking N at Suribachi|
Iwo Jima rose out of the Pacific like a hungry serpent looking to devour everything around it. Its south-facing head featured the island’s highest point, Mt. Suribachi. At 528 ft. above sea-level Suribachi held a panoramic view of the whole island and was known to be laden with dozens of natural caves and caverns as well as more than fifty man-made bunkers and firing points at nearly every level of altitude. Below the head and the northern slope of Suribachi was the narrow neck of the island; a shallow basin that ran roughly 700 yards from the east to west coast of Iwo. The bowl-shaped neck was the lowest point on the island and held all kinds of inherent dangers because of its susceptibility to crossfire from Suribachi and the gradually rising northern half of the island. To the north of the neck sat the island’s main airfield and after a 200 yard craggy gap, the second airfield rose up from the Motoyama Plateau. Kuribayashi’s most formidable defenses were situated on this plateau, which held four of the other highest points on the island; a set of ridges known in military parlance simply as Hill 382 and Hill 362 A, B and C. Because of the volcanic nature of the land the island was dotted with hundreds of sulfuric cisterns that oozed eerie smoke spirals during the night and brought an apocalyptic haze over the bomb-cratered moonscape. Its formidable cliffs on the north and northeast shore punctuated the island’s forbidden landscape and truly hellish environment.
Due to the prevailing wind and sea currents surrounding the island the only suitable place for the primary landings was on the southeast facing beaches just to the north of Suribachi. The black, volcanic sand on these beaches presented the first major obstacle to the assault teams because the coarse powder was like quicksand, which wreaked havoc on both wheeled and tracked vehicles unloading from the LST’s and other transport vessels and tended to jam the firing mechanisms on the Marine’s rifles and machine guns. The 2000 yards of beach was divided into four separate landing zones, labeled from south to north: green, red, yellow and blue. Schmidt allotted the southern half of the beachhead to Rockey’s 5th Marine Division and allocated the northern half to Cates’ 4th Marine Division. Four separate Marine regiments would land at each landing zone, three of them heading north and one of them wheeling to the left in order to invest Suribachi. This grim task was given to Col. Harry Liversedge’s 28th Marines, which would have to cut across the 700 yard neck of the island first so that it could safely isolate the Japanese defenders on Suribachi. The two middle regiments, Col. Thomas Wornham’s 27th Marines and Col. Walter Wensinger’s 23rd Marines were tasked with moving on and around the main airfield, with Wensinger’s group acting as the hinge of a northward wheeling motion away from the beachhead. However the grimmest assignment of the day inevitably fell on Col. ‘Pat’ Lanigan’s 25th Marines, which had the unenviable task of securing the far right flank below a set of formidable cliffs known as ‘the quarry’.
|Beach Red 1 D+0030|
At 0900 hours the first landing craft pushed ashore and began carving out a long, continuous beachhead between Beach Green and Beach Blue. The landings were surprisingly free of gunfire and the only major mishaps occurred when the troop transports began pitching in the surf because of the loose volcanic sand, causing their exit ramps to jam and forcing the Marines to bail over the sides. But once the assault troops moved over the berm at the edge of the beach all hell broke loose. All the lead units were swiftly pinned down in carefully prepared kill zones and cut down by deadly accurate enfilading fire from the highlands to the north and from the slopes of Suribachi. Frantic calls were being sent from all the assault battalions pleading for air support, counter-battery fire and most importantly, medics. The 28th Marines made the longest immediate advance as they grinded away across the narrow neck of the island. But for the first hour of the landings the beachhead remained relatively free from any concentrated counter-fire. Unbeknownst to the Marines ashore, Kuribayashi had purposely held back his heavy guns until the Marines started their push inland. The crafty Japanese general was just waiting for all the incoming assault craft and second-wave motor vehicle transports to begin bunching up on the beaches before he unleashed his heavy guns.
|Chaos on the beach amid black volcanic sand|
Roughly an hour after the first assault group came ashore the whole island erupted in fantastic explosions of fire and molten steel. Kuribayashi unleashed the first sustained salvo of an unprecedented artillery barrage from every heavy gun he had concealed on the island. The Japanese artillery wreaked havoc on the beachhead as the second wave of assault troops was just reaching shore. Kuribayashi’s 150mm howitzers and 120mm mortars rained down on the beachhead from every point on the island. His 47mm anti-tank guns and horizontally firing AA flak guns smashed through the incoming transports and armor, shattering bodies and vehicles alike. Then there was the dreaded 320mm “spigot mortars”, whose loud screech at its approach earned it the nickname “the screaming Jesus”. These five foot barrels of molten steel could wipe out half a platoon in one salvo. For the next two to three hours the Japanese gunners fired non-stop at all the Marine positions beyond and below the beach berm. And as the Marine casualties began to pile up the beachhead broke down into chaos as hundreds of tanks, amtracks, jeeps, artillery guns, construction equipment and transport craft lay burning and twisted in the surf or abandoned axle-deep in the sand. To make matters worse some of the Marine’s fire-control parties were completely wiped out on the beach, leaving the frontline troops temporarily blind and unable to direct counter-battery fire. By the end of the day both Rockey and Cates were committing reserve units all throughout the island.
|bivouac for 24th Marines outside "the quarry"|
Yet through all the hellish explosions, rocket fire, shell bursts and flying lead whizzing across the battlefield, the Marine assault battalions grinded ahead platoon by platoon. Before noon the 28th Marines had cut across the neck of the island and began the process of isolating Mt. Suribachi. Wensinger’s 23rd Marines bore the brunt of the enemy’s first concentrated counterattack but still managed to reach the eastern side of the main airfield and were steadily engaged along with the 27th Marines in neutralizing the enemy’s individual strongpoints dotting the tarmac. Exactly as Schmidt had predicted, Lanigan’s 25th Marines found themselves in the fight of their lives as they attempted to scale the cliffs leading to the quarry. The quarry was one of the Marine’s main objectives for D-Day since a failure to take its imposing heights would leave the northern side of the beachhead directly in the line of fire. Lt.-Col. Justice Chambers’ 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines had suffered nearly fifty percent casualties during numerous attempts to reach the heights; at one point losing nearly every one of his company commanders. Chamber’s eventually had to cede the initiative to his XO Capt. James Headley because of battlefield wounds yet it would not prevent him from earning the Medal of Honor only three days later as he rallied his decimated platoons to push beyond the quarry.
|Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi|
Sensing the Marine’s vulnerability without their own organic artillery at their backs, Schmidt ordered all his artillery regiments onto the beach during the afternoon despite the growing carnage that was swiftly piling up along the waterline. It was a controversial decision because of the added chaos it brought to the already confused beachhead and resulted in tons of weapons and equipment losses but the additional firepower that eventually made it onto firing positions was a welcome development that greatly boosted morale on the frontline. By nightfall both Marine divisions had their artillery regiments firmly in place and in firing positions throughout the beachhead and beyond. The Marines could now concentrate on knocking out the more formidable obstacles at their immediate front, as well as reducing the enemy’s firepower on the imposing heights of Suribachi. Coupled with a concentrated strike by carrier based aircraft at twilight and the Marines finally began to overcome their numerous D-Day misfortunes. But the nights on Iwo Jima only brought more unseen dangers to the exhausted grunts at the front. Kuribayashi used the evening hours to infiltrate his “prowling wolves” assault teams into the Marine lines rather than inundate the battlefield with costly and useless ‘banzai’ attacks, which had become the norm during the earlier battles in the South Pacific. Kuribayashi hadn’t the manpower at his disposal to affect such wasteful methods so he used these company-sized infiltration teams to wreak havoc among the Marines at night while they were most vulnerable.
The first 24 hours on Iwo Jima was literally hell on earth. More than 2400 Marines were lost including some 548 KIA, 48 missing and 99 troops declared unusable because of nervous stress. With some 70,000 troops at his disposal Schmidt knew these were casualty numbers that the assault force could not sustain for long. The Marines had occupied less than one-third of the island yet they had still to reach Kuribayashi’s main defense line along the ‘meat-grinder’ and there was still the imposing task of reducing the Japanese forces on Suribachi. The dome-like caldera now became the main focus for Schmidt, Rockey and Col. Liversedge. Although the beachhead could never be shielded from all the Japanese artillery on the island, the taking of Suribachi would surely eliminate its most daunting threat. Over the next 24 hours Adm. Hill turned all his naval gun-sights onto the rocky, volcanic massif and unleashed a steady barrage of high explosives from his battleship’s 16-inch guns and his cruiser’s 12-inch guns in preparation for the coming assault. Inside the mountain lay Col. Kanehiko Atsuchi and his garrison of some 2,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors and a plethora of medium and heavy caliber artillery, mortars and well-camouflaged machine gun nests. With his communications to Kuribayashi effectively cut by the advance of the 28th Marines, Atsuchi was completely isolated yet fully prepared to die a samurai’s death while goading his troops to fight to the last man.
Suribachi: A Tale of Two Flags
|Gy-Sgt. John Basilone|
For the next three and four days on Iwo the fighting could not have been any more difficult. There were now six Marine regiments on Iwo inching forward under debilitating fire and artillery from all across the island. The veteran Marine forces had never experienced such a horrific network of enemy strongpoints, kill zones and booby traps. On those first few days on Iwo three Marines were falling every minute as casualties. Indeed their discouragement continued to amplify as news filtered across the island that Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, one of the Marines first Medal of Honor recipients of the war for his gallant actions on Guadalcanal, had himself fallen on the field of battle as he stormed the main airfield with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines. The fighting for the airfield had gotten so heavy that Rockey began feeding in piecemeal the battalions of the 26th Marines. On the far right, the 24th Marines were needed to reinforce Lanigan’s decimated 25th Marines as they slowly scaled the quarry amid furious fire from Kuribayashi’s camouflaged bunkers and pillboxes. As was usually the case in such a closely contested battle, jubilation and tragedy was often joined at the hip. When Maj. Paul Treitel’s 1st Battalion, 24th Marines finally made it to the top of the quarry their celebration was short-lived when the Marines were inadvertently strafed by “friendlies” and then subjected to heavier ordnance from their own navy’s big guns. More than 100 Marines fell during this unfortunate case of fratricide.
|Landing craft unloading at Beach Yellow|
After neutralizing the substantial Japanese defenses on the bottom slope of Suribachi, Col. Liversedge made his first concerted effort to take the massif on the third day of battle. He sent Lt.-Col. Jackson Butterfield’s 1st Battalion behind the mountain on the western edge and pushed Lt.-Col. Chandler Johnson’s 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines up the eastern slope. Butterfield’s group encountered less resistance as they battled along the south-facing cliffs and swiftly made a lunge for a level outcrop three-quarters up the side of Suribachi. But Johnson’s battalion was stymied considerably by the extensive bunkers and hidden caves along the eastern face and quickly got bogged down in heavy close-quarter combat and hand-to-hand fighting. While the fighting for Suribachi was taking place Schmidt sent the first complement of Marines from the 3rd Marine Division into the fray and temporarily allotted them to Cates, whose forces were taking horrendous casualties maneuvering through the airfield and the quarry. During the third night of the battle the Japanese launched another shocking surprise on the America fleet anchored offshore with a massive ‘kamikaze’ raid with fifty planes that had been hidden away underneath the second airfield on Iwo. In one of the first concentrated kamikaze attacks of the Second World War the suicide bombers sank the escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea and did considerable damage to the fleet carrier USS Saratoga and several destroyers. Adm. Hill was livid at the lax defenses and ordered an immediate realignment of the naval covering force, which somewhat diminished the number of warplanes available for ground support.
Finally on D+4 Liversedge got the break he was looking for when his 2nd Battalion broke free from the maze of interlocking bunker complexes carved into the eastern face of Suribachi. Anticipating that the peak of Suribachi was now within reach, Lt.-Col Johnson sent a runner with a parade flag up the mountain to give to 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, whose 3rd Platoon of Company E was closest to the peak. Several hours later Schrier’s group fought their way to the precipice and hoisted the stars and stripes on a makeshift flagpole to the raucous cheers of the Marines below. This original flag-planting was duly recorded by combat photographer Staff-Sgt. Lou Lowery, who was swiftly blown off the peak by an incoming Japanese shell-burst, although miraculously his film was left undamaged. An hour later Liversedge ordered a larger flag to be sent up the mountain to replace the original banner. It was the planting of the second flag, caught through the lens of AP war photographer Joe Rosenthal that garnered worldwide attention for its magnificent portrayal of the patriotic passion of the American soldier in battle. Sadly, three of the original flag planters would be dead by the end of hostilities, although Schrier survived both flag ceremonies and later went on to command Company D of the battalion for the remainder of the fighting. With both Suribachi and the quarry in American hands the navy was finally able to bring a sense of normalcy to the shell-shocked landing beach. Every one of Atsuchi’s 2,000 fighters was killed in action defending Suribachi.
The Turning Point
As great as the momentous capture and subsequent flag-waving ceremony atop Mount Suribachi was it was still merely a brief footnote in the 36-day struggle to conquer Iwo Jima. A full month’s worth of fighting still remained for the worn and battle-scarred Marines of the V Amphibious Corps and much of it was to prove even more difficult than the first, loathsome week on the hellish island. After a full day of regrouping Schmidt realigned his forces for the long, hard drive north to capture the remaining two-thirds of the island. On D+5 Schmidt brought the 9th Marines ashore and inserted them into the line with the rest of Gen. Graves Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division, at the center of the northward moving front. Erskine’s division was minus its 3rd Marine Regiment because Gen. Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith, the overall commander of the Fleet Marine Force, made the decision to return the regiment to the Marianas ostensibly over his concern with the high number of casualties that were swiftly accumulating on Iwo. Once again Schmidt voiced his objections to both Smith and Adm. Turner even though his original mandate had clearly allocated eight instead of nine Marine regiments to accomplish his mission. The 3rd Marine Regiment had been preserved solely as an emergency stopgap measure to be used only if the original assault forces had met catastrophe on the beaches. Since this was no longer the case Schmidt would have to make do with the forces at his disposal, which meant he was compelled to delve into the pool of new and inexperienced, replacement troops to replace his losses sustained on the battlefield. This ominous development would prove quite demoralizing since the average lifespan of a replacement soldier on the battlefield at Iwo Jima was less than 48 hours.
|Maj.-Gen. Keller Rockey 5th MAR Div.|
Schmidt made his first push north on D+5 using three regiments abreast from west to east. In the west on his left flank and in the 5th Marine Division’s sector, Col. Chester Graham’s 26th Marines had taken the baton from the 27th Marines and began advancing along the west coast toward the craggy outcrop known as Hill 362A. In the center of the line Gen. Erskine had assigned his spearhead assault force to Col. Hartnoll Withers’ 21st Marines; charged with investing the second airfield along with the landmarks, Hill Peter and 199-Oboe. On the eastern or right flank, Gen Cates had pushed the 24th Marines, under Col. Walter Jordan, through the badly decimated 25th Marines’ line and assigned them the ominous and quite formidable obstacle of Hill 382. The hill itself, known as ‘turkey knob’ by the grunts in the field, was a series of slightly rising, rocky and jagged ridges that gradually rose out of a loud expanse of volcanic moonscape dotted with craters and crevices, which was appropriately dubbed ‘the amphitheater’. Collectively, the whole area was known as ‘the meatgrinder’ because of the ease at which it sucked in reinforcements and the pleasure it derived from chewing them up and spitting them out. To open up the offensive Schmidt collected all his tank strength and assembled them into their own armored regiment under Lt.-Col. William ‘Rip’ Collins. After all the equipment losses in the beachhead because of heavy surf, violent enemy shelling and the implacable volcanic sand, Collins was able to garner almost one hundred light and medium tanks for the impending onslaught. But the tanks most called upon were the two dozen or so M4A3 Sherman flamethrowers, which the Marines’ had affectionately nicknamed ‘Zippos’. These novel tank hybrids interchanged with the navy’s Mark 1 flamethrower would become the preferred weapon-of-choice for the Marine infantry for the remainder of the battle.
It was in the northern part of the island where Kuribayashi had his main defenses constructed. Although the real estate on this side of the island was approximately four or five miles square, the Japanese had carved out nearly ten miles of tunnels, which interconnected strongpoints to individual bunkers, pillboxes and gun nests. The cratered landscape was also pockmarked with hundreds of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, which the Marine engineers were obliged to exhume with their bare hands because the sulfur content in the soil rendered their magnetic mine detectors useless. Scarier still was the fact that the defenders were nowhere to be seen. The Japanese had made just as great of an effort to conceal themselves as they did in masking their artillery and machine guns. Many an ethereal image was conveyed by an awestruck surveillance plane pilot who was often startled to look down and see thousands of Marines and all their mechanical weapons of war pushing forward against a ghostly landscape devoid of any movement or human habitation. Consequently the Marines daily advance would be measured in yards from here on out as they resorted to backtracking to retake lost real estate thought to have been neutralized hours earlier.
|Landing Beach Red II looking north|
After the offensive got going Graham’s 26th Marines made the swiftest advance as they skirted the western shore between the coast and the second airfield. But both regiments on the right ran into a virtual brick wall when they reached Kuribayashi’s outer defense perimeter. Withers’ 21st Marines immediately got bogged down on the runways of the airfield while Jordan’s 24th Marines were channeled into the amphitheater and cut down by the interlocking fields of fire from Hill 362B and 362C. It would take Erskine’s Marines more than three days to completely clear the second airfield and even then their extensive losses precluded them from moving forward any further. Col. Howard Kenyon’s 9th Marines began replacing the 21st Marines one week after the offensive began. Jordan’s group suffered equally attempting to provide flank protection to Withers’ battalions while simultaneously attempting to charge ‘turkey knob’. Lt.-Col. Alexander Vandergrift Jr., the namesake son of the recently appointed Marine Corps commandant and unfortunate commander of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, became one of the 4th Marine Division’s 10,000 casualties during the weeks-long fight in the ‘meatgrinder’. Graham’s initial fortunes proved short-lived as well when his 26th Marines began hemorrhaging manpower attempting to move around Hill 362A. Yet through it all the Marines inched forward, yard by yard, rock by rock and acre by acre.
|enemy cave complex on Iwo|
Iwo’s turning point was more or less reached when the Marine’s finally chewed through Kuribayashi’s outer defense perimeter along the high plateau line that made up the ‘meatgrinder’. The taking of Hill 382 and its ‘turkey knob’ extension by the assault forces of the 24th Marines released the pressure on the Marine units caught in the ‘amphitheater ‘ and allowed Cates to push through the 23rd Marines and brought the 26th and 21st Marines to bear on Kuribayashi’s shrinking perimeter. It was fatal for the
defenders because Kuribayashi’s artillery was now deprived of their most potent firing points on the Motoyama Plateau. Most of the larger guns were now being steadily tracked and neutralized by counter-battery fire and concerted attacks from Collins’ armor. After the fighting in the ‘meatgrinder’ fell silent the Japanese were compelled to match bullet for bullet with the Marines because most of their heavy ordnance had been lost or expended. Indeed, this positive development began registering immediately when Marine casualties started coming back with less critical gunshot wounds rather than the hideous shrapnel wounds that only heavy ordnance can produce. The Marines got an additional boost on March 4 when the first B29 bomber returning from Tokyo made an emergency landing on Iwo’s main airfield. This is what the Marines had spilled so much blood for and no one was happier than the anxious bomber crews that were no longer obliged to ditch their crippled aircraft into the ocean. On the next day Schmidt sanctioned a 24 hour pause in the fighting to regroup for the last push into Kuribayashi’s final defense line.
Climax, Conclusions and Casualty Counts
On March 7 and only hours before Schmidt commenced his final drive to smash the Japanese defenses, the first P-51 Mustangs from the USAAF 47th Fighter Squadron began deploying on the runways of Iwo’s No. 1 airfield. With this Admiral Hill began withdrawing his escort carriers away from the island and turning over air support duties to the army. The Marines welcomed the change because it drastically diminished the call times for incoming air strikes and as the air support umbrella increased so too did the Marine’s confidence grow that all their aviation needs were being met. Even the supply situation improved somewhat with regular airdrops being parachuted in to Marine units on the more remote parts of the island. For the final strike into Japanese lines Schmidt gave most of the honors to Gen. Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division, which was to spearhead the attack along with the 26th Marines on Kuribayashi’s inner defense line anchored on Hill 362. In conceiving the tactical plans for Kenyon’s 9th Marines spearhead force, Erskine contrived of a daring night attack that bypassed the preparatory artillery barrage and infiltrated its attack elements into strike positions utilizing stealth and ambush rather than raw firepower. No doubt he was aware by now of the enemy’s clever penchant for evading the Marine’s heavy ordnance by waiting out the initial volleys and counterstriking the attackers after the barrage had been lifted. Erskine reasoned that every attack the Marines had commenced so far had nearly met with disaster because of the losses sustained by the assault elements. These extensive losses only served to sap the momentum from each attack before they ever got started. By attacking at night and without artillery Erskine was hedging that the element of surprise would be more than enough to sustain the attack momentum, just as long as his losses could be kept down.
|M4A3 "Zippo" on Iwo|
This eventually held true as the 9th Marine’s nocturnal assault ended up becoming a smashing success. Infiltration teams slipped into the Japanese lines and in some cases entered their caves and tunnels while the enemy was fast asleep. The Marine units, spearheaded by future commandant Lt.-Col. Robert Cushman’s 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, winded its way around the landmark known as 199-Oboe, which constituted the ridge between Hill 362A and C, and began herding the now exposed Japanese defenders into a tightly controlled salient known as ‘Cushman’s pocket’. Fighting was fierce and at times subject to violent hand-to-hand combat but Kuribayashi’s whole defensive anchor began to unravel once Col. Graham’s 26th Marines slipped in behind the Japanese lines just north of the unfinished runways of the 3rd airfield. From here on out Japanese resistance was no longer centralized. Scattered pockets of defenders had been corralled toward the northern reaches of the island yet were unable to coordinate interlocking fields of fire against the Marines. The battle had now digressed into a short-range, shooting gallery as the Japanese desperately tried to hold back the Marine onslaught with small arms, swords, grenades and other improvised explosive devices. On March 11, Erskine called forward his medium artillery and flamethrower tanks and began to fire into the remaining Japanese strongpoints at point-blank range.
Perhaps out of desperation or more than likely because they had lost contact with Kuribayashi, but on the night of March 12-13 the Japanese resorted to their time-tested, sacrificial battle-cry, the banzai charge, in order to retake the 2nd airfield. Capt. Samaji Inouye led a battalion-sized force of Japanese soldiers, sailors and pilots in a concerted, suicide charge into Erskine’s lines outside the 3rd airfield. In an hour-long, fight-to-the-death the Marines suffered more than 350 casualties before they snuffed out the final enemy attackers. Inouye’s whole battalion was wiped out to the last man; all 784 of them. As bad as the attack was it was also a sign that the Japanese defenses were coming apart at the seams. Kuribayashi was no fan of the banzai charge and it was precisely this divergence from Japanese doctrine which had enabled the general to preserve his frontline troops for so long under the crushing effects of American firepower. Now as the Japanese strongpoints all began to lose contact with one another individual officers began taking matters into their own hands by implementing the primitive tactics that inevitably came with the glorification of the samurai way of war. Suicide bombers and sacrificial charges into Marine lines occurred more regularly as the final Japanese defenses were pierced. On March 16 the Marines relayed news to Spruance that Iwo Jima had been secured although there was still an eerie and unpredictable, weeks’ worth of fighting to be completed.
|Rare surrender on Iwo|
The last script written into the pages of the epic battle on Iwo Jima occurred during the third week in March when Rockey’s 26th Marines corralled Kuribayashi’s remaining forces into a shallow, volcanic depression known as ‘the gorge’. In Marine parlance ‘the gorge’ was known unforgettably as ‘the valley of death’. Three days of vicious, close-quarter fighting were needed to strangle the last breath out of Japanese resistance, which was finally consummated through the concerted attacks of Lt.-Col. Dan Pollack’s 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and Lt.-Col. Jack Butterfield’s 1st Battalion, 28th Marines. Butterfield’s group took part in the attack solely because Rockey’s other formations were already spent. However Kuribayashi had one last surprise in store before tranquility swept across the battlefield. On the night of March 25-26 Kuribayashi’s last ‘prowling wolves’ detachment; a 300-strong outfit of raiders and quasi-commandos slipped through the Marine lines and descended upon the No. 2 airfield. In a last-gasp attack the Japanese inflicted serious losses on the army pilots of the 47th Fighter Squadron and the navy Seabees’ and Marine pioneer battalions stationed at the airfield. Indeed the sacrifice of Marine blood in the taking of Iwo Jima was indelibly inked in the annals of the Marine Corps’ storied history when 1st-Lt. Harry Martin of the 5th Pioneer Battalion was posthumously awarded the last Medal of Honor given out on Iwo for rallying the inexperienced and combat-starved service troops to defend the airfield from this unprecedented attack.
Throughout the 38-day battle to secure the island of Iwo Jima the US Marines had suffered approximately 24,053 casualties, including 6,140 who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It was the Marine Corps’ most costly victory in all of WWII. In one of the Marine Corps’ more conspicuous firsts, the Battle of Iwo Jima was the only engagement of WWII where Marine casualties exceeded the enemy’s. Overall American casualties among Marines, USN and USAAF personnel surpassed 26,000, with some 6,821 having been killed in action. Roughly 22,000 Japanese troops participated in the defense of Iwo Jima, in which 18,844 were listed as being killed in action or died by ritual suicide at the close of hostilities. Only 216 Japanese troops voluntarily surrendered on Iwo Jima; that is, 216 captives taken from the start of the battle on Feb. 19 to the day on which Schmidt declared an official end of combat operations on March 26. The Marines estimated that no more than 300 Japanese stragglers were still hidden throughout the island and had not yet acquiesced to their formal captivity. In fact there were more than 3,000 holdouts that continued to surrender to US Army authorities well after the official Japanese capitulation on September 2, 1945; the last one finally turning himself in on January 6, 1949.
|Original cemetery on Iwo Jima|
To punctuate the extreme sacrifice and courage of the Marine’s heralded performance on Iwo Jima it is only fitting to put some of their losses in perspective. Captain William Ketcham was the commander of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines. He landed on Beach Blue 2 on February 19 with 131 grunts in tow. His company was taken out of the line with just nine survivors. Captain Frank Caldwell lost 221 men in his Company F, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. The losses to his lieutenants and NCOs became so acute he was forced to place PFC’s in command of two of his three platoons. Captain Tom Fields began the battle in command of 250 Marines from Company D, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. He relinquished his company command to become battalion XO when that officer fell in battle. At the conclusion of the battle he returned back to lead his company once again only to find that there were just 17 survivors. Company B, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines went through nine separate commanders and twelve different Marines served as troop leader of the 2nd Platoon, the last two of whom were buck privates. Gy-Sgt. John Basilone’s 1st Battalion, 27th Marines had four different officers commanding throughout the battle. 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and 1st Battalion, 21st Marines went through three different commanders apiece. These were just brief examples of the losses sustained by the Marine’s low to mid-level officer corps and their precious collection of senior and battle-seasoned NCO’s, which at this stage of the war were considered irreplaceable.
Though controversy continued to surround Adm. Chester Nimitz’s decision to commence combat operations on the remote and some would say, strategically insignificant island in the central Pacific; the fruits of the Marine’s labor were duly confirmed when some 2,251 American B29 bombers and their P-51 Mustang escorts used the island’s three runways for emergency landings in the remaining 22 weeks left in WWII. Consequently it could be surmised that the 6800 Marines and sailors who gave their lives on and around Iwo Jima were instrumental in saving the lives of nearly 25,000 pilots and aircrew who would find their salvation on Iwo’s hard-earned airfields. Perhaps this was the reason why 27 Medals of Honor were awarded to both Marines and sailors—14 of them bestowed posthumously—for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the normal call of duty; save for their overriding desire to end the war as quickly as possible and return home safely and with as many of their brothers-in-arms at their side as humanly possible. Iwo accounted for more than a quarter of the US Marines, Medal of Honor recipients in all of WWII, which is one of the reasons why the battle is so venerated by Marine veterans, past and present. Perhaps the most fitting testament bestowed upon the Marines for their unequaled contribution to the American victory at Iwo Jima was submitted by Admiral Chester Nimitz with his gracious salutation, “of the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue”. So on the 70th Anniversary of that brave undertaking which quickened an end to the war in the Pacific, we salute the gallant Marines and sailors and the dwindling number of aged survivors that fought in the epic clash on Iwo Jima. And of course we salute the real heroes, those who died on the field of battle for their country but most importantly, for their brothers-in-arms. Semper Fidelis!!!