Iwo Jima

The capture of Iwo Jima was ordered because Allied planners believed the volcanic island would ease later operations against Japan. Iwo Jima would be an emergency air base for heavy bombers attacking Tokyo and the other important industrial cities in Japan, while fighters based on Iwo Jima would supply cover for bombers enroute to the targets and back. The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima in February 1945, marked the culmination of two years of hard fighting that had progressed 3,500 miles across the Pacific.

The result of Japanese artillery and  mortar fire, Amtracs and other vehicles lie knocked out on the black sands of Iwo Jima beaches, with the Mt. Suribachi volcano looming in the background.  February/March 1945
The result of Japanese artillery and mortar fire, Amtracs and other vehicles lie knocked out on the black sands of Iwo Jima beaches, with the Mt. Suribachi volcano looming in the background. February/March 1945.

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Battle of Iwo Jima Background

Iwo Jima (Japanese for "Sulphur Island") is a small, pork-chop shaped volcanic island in the Bonin Group, about halfway between Saipan and Tokyo, four and a half miles long and two and a half wide at its widest point, a total surface of 8 square miles. The highest point is Mount Suribachi, a squat extinct volcano rising 550 feet above sea level on the southern end of the island.

In early 1945, General MacArthur was moving ahead in the Philippines and the British were driving the Japanese from Burma. Allied planners wanted Iwo Jima as a base of support for raids by B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers attacking Tokyo and other industrial cities and military targets in Japan from bases in the Marianas. Army Air Force fighters based on Iwo Jima could escort bombers to their targets and back. It would also provide an emergency landing field for B-29s in distress rather than force them to ditch at sea. Conversely, in Japanese hands, it was a danger to B-29 formations en route to Japan, a staging area for enemy aircraft strikes against B-29 bases in the Marianas, and a threat to air-sea rescue operations along the B-29's flight route.

By March 1944, as the island-hopping Americans approached from the east, the Japanese realized the importance of the island and began fortifying their defenses. The Japanese knew that the entire small island could be easily bombarded from sea. Therefore, their defenses took advantage of the rough terrain and included a network of concealed emplacements for artillery, mortars, and machine guns that covered every inch of the island in overlapping patterns of fire.. Volcanic ash mixed with cement made very durable concrete used widely to reinforce positions up to eight feet thick. The Japanese consolidated these positions with an intricate system of underground tunnels, excavated rooms, blockhouses and caves, intended to halt any invasion and destroy it.

The 21,000 defenders, like all Japanese, considered Iwo Jima part of mainland Japan, and no invader had set foot on Japanese soil for 4,000 years.

The Landings and Fighting in the Southern Half of Iwo Jima

5th Division Marines work their way up Red Beach No. 1 toward Suribachi Yama, the Mt. Suribachi volcano.  The smoke is from bombardment explosions and fires. Iwo Jima, 19 February 1945.
5th Division Marines work their way up Red Beach No. 1 toward Suribachi Yama, the Mt. Suribachi volcano. The smoke is from bombardment explosions and fires. Iwo Jima, 19 February 1945.

Nine hundred vessels sailed in support of the Allied invasion of Iwo Jima, including 17 aircraft carriers with 1,170 planes, transporting the Fifth Amphibious Corps, an expeditionary force of over 70,000 Marines, nearly 4,000 men in the U.S. Navy landing force, and over 36,000 garrison troops. 19 February 1945 was D-Day. Major General Harry Schmidt USMC was in command of the assault force that arrived off the southeast side of the island to make landings at seven predetermined beaches stretching over 3,500 yards, a limited front for so large a force.

For ten weeks prior to the amphibious assault, VII Army Air Force and carrier based planes subjected the island to the longest sustained aerial offensive of the war. On D-Day, three heavy cruisers offshore added an hour-long naval pounding. The ferocious bombardment had little effect. Hardly any of the Japanese underground fortresses were touched.

The well-orchestrated amphibious assault landed contingents of the 4th and 5th Marine divisions along with their gear, bulldozers, vehicles, rations, small arms, water, and everything else needed to support combat, reaching the beaches precisely at 0900 as planned. The landing went like clockwork, but once ashore, the Marines found themselves in a Japanese-made hell storm of fire coming from concealed positions across the entire front. As they stumbled up steep beaches composed of coarse, soft black volcanic sand that hampered movement by foot or machine, every yard of advance was paid for in blood and no position was safe from the mortars and artillery that rained down on the beaches, starting right after the landing and never letting up.

Despite the withering fire, by the end of 19 November, 30,000 troops had landed on the congested beachhead, 700 yards deep. Mt. Suribachi, at the southern tip of the island, west of the landing beaches, had been isolated by 5th Division Marines pushing across to the western shore of the island and south to the base of Suribachi. Part of Motoyama Airfield No. 1 had been captured. For the next 48 hours 4th and 5th Division Marines fought without sleep in drenching rain to cross the rocky slopes, knocking out Japanese positions one after another to finish capture of the first airfield, gain the plateau, and establish a front across the island. The 5th Marines also secured the top of Mt. Suribachi on the fourth day, 23 February, killing 600 Japanese to reach the summit and plant the flag (see below). Another 1,000 defenders remained on the mountain securely entrenched in the numerous caves and tunnels. Close and bloody fighting was required to kill them. By 24 February, after thousands of casualties, the Marines controlled the southern half of the island.

Fighting in the Northern Half of Iwo Jima

From there, the fighting on Iwo Jima was a grotesque slog of eliminating Japanese pillboxes and underground emplacements while taking casualties at a horrific rate. Flamethrowers and explosives were employed lavishly as the only way to neutralize many of the defenses, after artillery failed to dislodge them. The Japanese were burned out, blown up, shot or bayonetted but rarely captured. In an enveloping maneuver on the second airfield, three days were required to move forward a distance of 700 yards, eliminating about one pillbox per yard of advance. The fighting was tough beyond description, but the Marines made slow and steady progress.

The reserve force 3rd Marines completed landing on 24 February. Another intense bombardment was inflicted on the Japanese after which the three Marine divisions advanced abreast pushing northward. The 4th drove on the right (east), the 3rd in the middle, and the 5th on the left (west). Marines fought in places named "Meat Grinder", "Turkey Knob", "The Gorge", and "The Amphitheater" as the miles of interlocking caves, concrete pillboxes, and fortifications were eliminated along with their defenders. The Japanese did not accommodate the Marines with suicide attacks, rather they held on to every yard with a defense in depth. Nonetheless, by 11 March the Japanese had been reduced to two large pockets and numerous isolated points of resistance.

The Final Spasm on Iwo Jima

Fighting continued to eliminate the stubbornly dug in defenders, until the evening of 25 March when the last pocket of Japanese resistance was secured at Kitano Point on the northern tip of the island. But that night a very well-organized and disciplined enemy force emerged from northern caves and infiltrated down the length of the island. The 300-man force took much of the night to move into position around a rear base area adjacent to Motoyama Airfield No. 1 where pilots were housed in tents. With total surprise they attacked out of the darkness with swords, grenades, and automatic weapons wreaking havoc until Marines, Seabees, and others were able to organize a defense. At sunrise carnage was revealed: 300 dead Japanese, more than 100 slain Americans and another 200 wounded. It was a grotesque closing chapter to five continuous weeks of savagery.

That was the last gasp of the defenders. The island was declared secure on 26 March, although Japanese, in small pockets, continued their resistance for months.

It was the most savage and costly battle in the history of the Marine Corps. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz observed, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

The Iwo Jima Flag Raising Photo

On 23 February, a forty-man detachment of the 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division scaled Suribachi and after a short firefight, secured the top of the mountain. Lt. Harold Schrier and his men from the 28th Marine Regiment lashed an American flag to a piece of iron pipe and raised it on the summit at 1037. The flag, however, was too small to be seen for any distance. Later Schrier procured a larger flag, borrowed from the Navy LST-779. This flag, however, was too large and there was no pipe long enough to fly it properly. Schrier sent a Marine runner down the mountain to find a more appropriate flag. According to Robert Resnick, the quartermaster on duty on board the LST-758, Rene Gagnon from 28th Marine Regiment boarded the LST and requested an American flag. Resnick issued Gagnon a number 7 American flag from the ship's bunting box. Before leaving, Gagnon was also given a 21-foot-long piece of steamfitter's pipe to serve as the flagpole.

Gagnon struggled back to the top of Mt. Suribachi, and the Marines hoisted the flag. Marines all over the island saw it and cheered. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a few photos with a Speed Graphic camera, lens setting between f-8 and f-11, and speed at 1/400th of a second. He didn't know what he had until later.

Six men are seen in the photo, four in the front line and two in back. The front four are (left to right) Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley and Harlon Block. The back two are Michael Strank (behind Sousley) and Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley). Strank, Block and Sousley died shortly afterwards in Iwo Jima combat. Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon became national heroes.

The flag raising became the theme for the Seventh War Bond tour, led by the three surviving Iwo Jima flag raisers. The tour raised $220 million (in 1945 dollars) for the U.S. Treasury, more than any other bond tour. During the two month tour, everyone in America saw the picture over and over. Copies were hung in millions of locations all over the country, becoming the most famous photograph of the war. It won a Pulitzer Prize for Joe Rosenthal, appeared on a postage stamp and in hundreds of publications, was the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, and continues to symbolize strength, valor, and the heroism of the United States Marine Corps.

Aftermath of the Invasion of Iwo Jima

In the 36 day Iwo Jima campaign almost 7,000 Americans were killed in action. More than 25,000 Americans were wounded. Virtually all of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers involved in the battle were killed. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to sailors and Marines in the battle; more than any other single battle in U.S. history and one third of the 84 total awarded to Marines in World War II. In addition to combat Marines, hundreds of Navy corpsman became casualties in their efforts to save Marines.

On 4 March, while fighting still raged on Iwo Jima, the first B-29 made an emergency landing. On 7 April, Iwo Jima-based North American P-51 Mustangs flew their first B-29 escort missions to Japan and nine days later, began flying fighter sweeps to Japan in search of enemy aircraft and other targets on the ground. As intended, Iwo Jima saved many bomber crews from ditching at sea. By the end of the war, 2,400 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen had made unscheduled landings on Iwo Jima.

The capture of Iwo Jima breached the Japanese inner defensive perimeter. To keep up the momentum, the Allies next planned to move even closer to the Japanese home islands to capture Okinawa, only 360 miles from Japan.

Recommended Books and Movies about Iwo Jima

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