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 battle would take place for the control of Iwo Jima. The value it held in both communication and aviation made it a prize that the Japanese couldn’t lose and the Americans couldn’t pass up. The defense of the island was of upmost importance to the Empire of Japan and that duty was given to Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Kuribayashi was a veteran leader and respected by all he served with. Before the war, Kuribayashi traveled and briefly studied in the United States, creating a unique understanding of the American soldier not found among many Japanese commanders. When he arrived on Iwo Jima in June of 1944, the Lieutenant General immediately began making changes. Foregoing the Banzai (suicide) attacks and above ground defensive structures seen by Marines 100’s of times before, Kuribayashi concocted a masterful defensive strategy that could only come from the mind of a supreme military commander. He had his men build tunnels, 16 miles worth to be exact. Tunnels that ran so far underground that they were impervious to American artillery bombardments. Tunnels that connected hospitals to blockhouses to pillboxes. They stretched from the northern tip of the island to Mount Suribachi’s slopes in the south. The barren island came alive from the inside. Kuribayashi brought in artillery pieces and tanks as well, placing them strategically on the island in order to defend points of interest. The Lieutenant General had succeeded in turning the foul black island into a gauntlet of death.
There was a reason behind Kuribayashi’s defensive strategy of the island; he was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won. Japan understood that the “sleeping giant” they had awoken with the attack on Pearl Harbor was about to rear its ugly head in the direction of Iwo Jima. With Japanese fighter planes being called back to the mainland and the loss of Japanese naval strength at “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” the men on Iwo Jima would be on their own. In Tokyo months before the invasion, General Kuribayashi had been told “if America’s casualties are high enough, Washington will think twice before launching another invasion against Japanese territory.” He took the challenge of defending Iwo Jima with the knowledge that he and his men would not survive the battle. However, this did not phase the majority of Japanese soldiers stationed on Iwo Jima, as they had trained for this moment and were more than willing to give their lives for the Empire. Kuribayashi ordered his men to kill ten Marines before death took them and the 22,000 defenders obliged. The Americans were going to take the island, but they would pay for it in blood.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on February 19, 1945, Marines of the 4th and 5th divisions hit the black sand beaches of south-eastern Iwo Jima. They encountered no resistance, except for the coarse volcanic sand that bogged down both men and machines on the beach. Kuribayashi, knowing the island so well, had expected this to happen. He waited to give the order to fire until the Marines were bottlenecked on the beach between ocean and rock. When Kuribayashi saw the moment to strike, he called it in. The island erupted with Japanese gunfire focused solely on the Marines on the beach. Guns on Mount Suribachi and the surrounding area were already zeroed in on the beach, which made the killing that much more precise. It was a slaughter of the highest proportions for the U.S. Marines. They had no choice but to move forward, which meant moving right into the crossfire of a hidden enemy. Frantic radio calls reported back to the operations Head Quarters: “All units pinned down by artillery and mortars”, “casualties heavy”, “taking heavy fire and forward movement stopped”, and “artillery fire the heaviest ever seen”. By sun down, the Americans had incurred close to 2,500 casualties and the Japanese defenders were reaching their quota of ten Marines killed for every Japanese soldier. Even though Kuribayashi’s plan worked brilliantly, the Marines persisted on. By the end of D-Day, the 4th Division had captured strategic targets in the north and the 5th Division severed the head of the snake by surrounding Suribachi and isolating it from the rest of the island. If the Marines could take Suribachi, they could seal the fate of Iwo Jima.
As the 4th Marine Division moved northward in hopes of capturing enemy airfields, the 28th Regiment of the 5th Division (Sgt. Mike Strank’s Regiment) was tasked with seizing Mount Suribachi. The fighting only intensified. Kuribayashi and his men understood the strategic and emotional significance of holding the dormant volcano and they fought tooth and nail to defend it. The loss of American life for even a yard of ground is hard to grasp. Battlefield reporter Robert Sherrod noted that the advance had been nothing less than “a nightmare in hell…. The Marines died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay fifty feet away from any body.” Even in the face of such adversity, the 28th continued to move forward. Using flame-throwers and grenades to clear pillboxes and machine gun nests, the Marines moved closer and closer to Suribachi’s base. On the 3rd day of battle, American tanks joined the fray and assisted Marines in their climb of the mountain. By the end of the 4th day, Suribachi was surrounded by Marines and its fall was imminent. The Japanese soldiers left defending Suribachi understood the situation as well as the Marines did and reacted in different ways. Some groups attempted unordered Banzai attacks, others tried to escape to the northern part of the island only to be mowed down by the Americans, and many took their own lives in the name of the Emperor of Japan; an honorable thing among Japanese soldiers. On February 23rd, the 5th day of the battle, a 40 man patrol climbed Suribachi and planted the American Flag at its peak. Hours later, the flag was replaced by Sgt. Strank and company as the original was brought back to Marine Battalion commanders for safe keeping. As the American troops saw the flag flying above Suribachi, a vast cheer reverberated across the island. They had captured the most significant geographic feature on Iwo Jima, it commanded the battlefield, and surely meant American victory was near. They were wrong. The Battle for Iwo Jima raged on for over a month longer and Kuribayashi and his men fought every step of the way.
Days after the flag raising, the 3rd Division of Marines entered the battle. Along with the 4th and 5th Divisions, they began a slow move northward, trading ground for blood. Kuribayashi focused his men into the miles of interlocking tunnels and caves in the central and northern sections of the island. Here, the Marines faced one of the most impenetrable defenses seen in the Pacific. After taking a hill or destroying a pillbox, Marines found the position replenished with Japanese soldiers minutes after. “We were confronted with defenses being built for years,” explained Captain Haynes, who later commanded the 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions. “There were complex, subterranean levels, some two stories down. From these the defenders could approach the enemy on the surface virtually anywhere through warrens, spider holes, caves, and crevices.” Marines were being shot in the back from positions they bravely destroyed just minutes before. There were no front lines. The Marines were above ground and the Japanese were below them. The Marines rarely saw an alive Japanese soldier. The Japanese could see the Marines perfectly. Even through all of this, the Marines continued forward, capturing airfields, hills, and communication arrays. By March 9th, Marines reached the most northeast point of Iwo Jima, effectively cutting the island in two. All that was left was spread out clusters of Japanese defenders, the end was near for Kuribayashi and his men.
Between March 16th and 26th, the last ten days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi radioed his last transmissions to mainland Japan. On the 16th, Kuribayashi radioed, “The battle is approaching its end. Since the enemy’s landing, even the gods would weep at the bravery of the officers and omen under my command.” Five days later he reported, “We have not eaten or drunk for five days, but our fighting spirit remains high.” A day later, on March 22nd, 1945, the Lieutenant General sent his final transmission. “The strength under my command is now about four hundred. Tanks are attacking us. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention.” It is assumed by many that Tadamichi Kuribayashi died that day in defense of the country he held so dear. Like so many on Iwo Jima, his body was never found.
Finally on March 26th, 1945, the last remaining pockets of Japanese aggression were put to rest and the island of Iwo Jima was declared secure. Marines began departing, as occupation was handed over to the U.S. Army, and by April 18th the last remaining Marine combatants left the sulfur island. But for many, it was impossible to really leave Iwo Jima. Because for those who fought and killed at Iwo Jima, for those who watched fellow Marines be torn to pieces on its black sand, there was no true way to leave the island.
The price of victory was a costly one for the United States Marine Corps. The 36-day assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. One in three Marines who landed on Iwo Jima became a casualty. In fact, Iwo Jima was the only major battle in the entire Pacific Campaign where American casualties surpassed the Japanese dead. Captain Dave Severance of Easy Company (Mike Strank’s Company) illustrated the devastation felt by individual companies of Marines. “Easy Company started with 310 men. We suffered 75% casualties. Only 50 men boarded the ship after the battle. Seven officers went into the battle with me. Only one–me–walked off Iwo.” The loss of life was high, but taking Iwo Jima saved thousands of Allied lives in the process. With Iwo Jima secured, Allied bombers encountered no resistance around the skies above the island and could bomb Japan by surprise like never before. The Marines’ efforts provided a vital link in the U.S. chain of bomber bases. By the war’s end, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen made unscheduled landings on the island. Landings that would not have been possible without the sacrifices made on Iwo Jima.
While the Japanese viciously fought the Americans for the entire duration of the battle, they only succeeded in slowing down, not stopping, the now awakened giant. In the defense of the island, nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese stationed there perished during the battle. Only a few hundred were taken prisoner by the Marines. The Empire of Japan was reeling after the defeat and their presence in the Pacific slowly began to decline. After Victory in Europe in early May, America and its Allied brethren focused their combined power onto Japan. Though they threatened to fight until the bitter end, Japan’s will to fight was broke by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. On August 14, 1945, Japan unconditionally surrendered to Allied forces, effectively ending World War II.
The Legacy of the Battle of Iwo Jima
The Battle of Iwo Jima will always be remembered for the photograph of the second flag raising on top of Mount Suribachi. That fact will never change; which is okay. The photograph may be what draws people’s attention to Iwo Jima, but it is the heroic feats that occurred on the island that keeps it. The bravery, grit, and determination shown by the Marines on Iwo Jima is extraordinary. Over 1/4 of the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in World War II were given for conduct on Iwo Jima and more U.S. Marines earned the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima (mostly posthumously) than in any other battle in U.S. history. It might be impossible to put into words the respect and appreciation we owe as Americans to the Marines who fought and died on Iwo Jima, but I believe Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz came the closest.
“By their victory, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and other units of the Fifth Amphibious Corps have made an accounting to their country which only history will be able to value fully. Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”