Iwo Jima
In the late winter of 1945, a tiny spec of an island in the Pacific Ocean named Iwo Jima was driven into the forefront of American awareness. Before this time, the island was inconspicuous to the everyday citizen. The “Sulfur Island” sat silently in the Pacific, its razor-sharp rocks and rotten egg stench unknown to most. All was quiet, until the Empire of Japan awoke with the desire for global dominance. Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, Japan and the United States warred over islands in the Pacific. After three bloody years of fighting, dozens of islands such as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Saipan were captured by American Marines. As American forces moved closer to mainland Japan, the island-hopping strategy of the Marine Corps put them on a crash course with destiny. In their way was Iwo Jima, the once desolate island now gushing with 22,000 Japanese troops ready to defend their Empire. The Battle of Iwo Jima would rage on for over a month, resulting in one of the most brutally violent yet heroically poetic battles the world has ever seen.
Why Iwo Jima?
How could an island so small and barren play such an important role in the outcome of the war in the Pacific? The answer varies between the opposing sides in the battle. For the Unites States, it was strategically significant for many reasons. As American forces attempted bombing missions on the Japanese mainland, fighter planes from Iwo Jima would attack American planes. At the same time, Iwo Jima acted as an early warning station for Japan, giving Tokyo two hours of warning before the American bombers reached their targets. If American forces could capture the airfields and communication infrastructure on Iwo Jima, they would disable the warning system and create clear skies for American pilots. The airfields could also be used to make emergency landings for American bombers returning from missions in Japan. The capture of Iwo Jima was critical to Americas end game; destroying the Empire of Japan.
While the island was militarily important for Japan, their underlining motives for the protection of Iwo Jima better explains why so many died in its defense. Prior to the Battle of Iwo Jima, every conflict fought between the opposing forces were over islands that Japan captured after the start of the war. Iwo Jima, however, was part of Japan’s Empire long before the start of World War II. The Japanese saw the attack on Iwo Jima as a direct invasion of their homeland, almost as if the Americans were invading Tokyo itself. This emotional attachment to the island gave the Japanese soldiers an extra incentive to fight, kill, and die for their country.
American Preparations for Battle
Before the name “Iwo Jima” became engrained into the hearts and minds of so many around the world, it went by a much simpler name, “Island X.” The island- hopping strategy (in which you only attack strategic islands instead of all occupied ones) used by the Marine Corps led them directly into Island X. While only the highest ranking of Marines knew that Island X was codename for Iwo Jima, all the enlisted men knew that their next target would not be easy. Training in the Marine Corps was always tough, but training for the invasion of Island X was downright hellacious. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Division Marines (those who would attack Iwo Jima) began their training at Camp Pendleton. Pendleton was hot, dirty, and unforgiving to the Marines training there. Located in California, it was built specifically to turn green soldiers into Marines and to prepare those Marines for every possible challenge they could face when storming the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima. The training at Pendleton created a deep sense of camaraderie and brotherhood among the three divisions of Marines, something that would be greatly needed during the intense fighting on Iwo Jima. After Camp Pendleton, the Marines spent four more months training at Camp Tarawa. Located in Hawaii, Camp Tarawa shared very similar terrain to Iwo Jima as they were both formed by volcanic activity. The sharp rocks and rigid cliffs that the Marines were training on in Hawaii were sure to be found when they attacked Iwo Jima. The Marines worked with weaponry, practiced boarding/ getting off naval craft, and stormed faux enemy pillboxes over and over again. The United States Marine Corps was ready for war, but they would not be going at it alone.
Starting on December 8, 1944, the United States began 74 straight days of aerial bombings over top the island of Iwo Jima. While it was bombed periodically before this, the bombing that began on December 8th was unlike anything ever seen in the Pacific. It became the longest sustained aerial offensive of the war and as Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy Chester Nimitz put it, “No other island received as much preliminary pounding as did Iwo Jima.” Sadly, this unending bombing created a false sense of security among the men leading the mission. When the Marines asked the Navy for ten days of bombing before they invaded, the Navy only granted them three (which bad weather cut short). Though Navy high command regretted the fact that they could not provide the sustained bombing requested, they still believed the Marines “could get away with it.” Little did they realize that the bombing of Iwo Jima had a minute effect on the Japanese positioned there. How could so many men survive such ferocious bombing while being stationed on a small spec of an island like Iwo Jima? It was because the Japanese weren’t on Iwo Jima, they were in Iwo Jima, ready to defend their island to the last.
Japanese Preparations for Battle
Japan knew, even before the Americans, that a b