The battle of Iwo Jima was a conflict on the Pacific Front of World War Two in which American forces landed on the island of Iwo Jima and, after heavy fighting, defeated the Japanese forces that were defending the island. The battle was significant because the capture of the island, with its three airfields, enabled the Americans to use Iwo Jima as a staging area for future attacks against the main Japanese islands. The battle is also notable for being one of the bloodiest of the Pacific Theater of World War Two.
None of the senior commanders thought Iwo Jima would be easy, but at least they would have weeks to bombard the island while they waited for the navy to reorganize their task forces after the Philippines landings. Carrier aircraft on wide-ranging raids and B-24s based in the Marianas would ensure air superiority. General Henry Arnold reassured the admirals and Marine generals that Iwo Jima would be worth the price of an estimated 10,000 Marine casualties, since its seizure would eliminate a Japanese fighter base and radar station. In American hands, Iwo Jima would provide an emergency landing site for B-29s, an airfield for escort fighters, and a base for air-sea rescue operations.
The US invasion of the Philippines only accelerated plans in Imperial General Headquarters, now dominated by senior army officers, to transfer the army’s best units and commanders from Japan and China to the outworks of Fortress Japan. To Iwo Jima, only 625 miles north of the Marianas, the army sent Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi from a command in Manchuria to organize the island’s defense. Kuribayashi pressed forward with his major construction plan to transform Iwo Jima into a massive system of caves, tunnels, bunkers, and covered trenches. The defense of Okinawa went to the Thirty-Second Army under Lieutenant General Ushijima Mitsuru.
During the initial landings, three US Marine divisions began their attack on Iwo Jima, a tiny island 3,000 miles west of Pearl Harbor and less than seven hundred south of Japan. But the defenders were well prepared and deeply dug in. Carnage was severe: at nightfall, 30,000 Marines were ashore, but 566 were already dead or dying. The living trudged through volcanic ash up to their knees, in a moonscape devoid of cover; a rainstorm worsened their plight. Weeks of painful fighting followed.
Kuribayashi turned Iwo Jima into a giant fire sack in which three Marine divisions were trapped and almost destroyed, especially their infantry regiments. His plan spared no one: the rough landing sites, where the terraces met the raging surf, received a deluge of shells as well. Artillery, tanks, service units, and headquarters felt the weight of the bombardment for days, and landing craft turned to blasted wreckage as they brought ammunition and supplies to the beach and evacuated casualties. By the time survivors reached hospital ships, they often had more wounds than they took at the front.
In the days which followed, the sole tactical option available to the Marines was frontal attack. They were obliged to advance across Iwo Jima yard by yard, bunker by bunker, corpse by corpse. This is what they did, at a cost of much blood and grief, through the next five weeks of February and March 1945. The more exposed Japanese positions around the airfields were overrun in the first days, as Kuribayashi had anticipated, but their navy occupants accounted for significant numbers of Americans before perishing.
After five days of hard fighting, the Americans reached the crest of volcanic Mt. Suribachi, planting a flag which encouraged the Marines struggling for control of the airfields. Due to a famous news picture of the triumphant moment, they also inspired the monument to the Marines which is found in Arlington today. The seizure of Mt. Suribachi gave the Americans control of the southern end of the island and good observation on major portions of the rest, but the fight went on. In the most bitter fighting, the Marines slowly inched forward, first splitting the defenders and then destroying the remaining pockets of resistance.
American triumph in the south left most of the 22,000-strong Japanese garrison still entrenched in the north, with an overwhelming advantage. Since they were neither willing nor able to leave Iwo Jima alive, their immobility conferred priceless invisibility. The Japanese held a small area in which even infantry bunkers were impervious to anything less than a direct hit, and in which there was no scope for outflanking maneuvers. The onus was entirely upon the Americans to move, and thus to expose themselves.
‘At times, it appeared that the only sure way of leaving Iwo Jima alive was to be wounded,’ said Marine Patrick Caruso. For almost every man who was hit, comrades had a word of consolation. It was often hard to tell how bad a wound was. Men especially feared the hours of darkness, because they knew that if they were hit, it was unlikely that any help could reach them before dawn. Some cracked. Combat fatigue cases mounted alarmingly.
For the defenders, of course, each day of the battle was as terrible an ordeal as for the Americans — worse, because they had far more meager supplies of food, water, medical equipment, or hopes of victory. Through the first ten days, cooks and water carriers made circuits of their positions before dawn and at dusk, but thirst remained a chronic problem. During the long, tense time of waiting, with the thunder of the battle a few hundred yards distant, they made desultory conversation, mostly about home.
The Japanese were told that they were to sortie for a mass night attack, to regain the lost summit of Mount Suribachi. It was plain from the outset that this was suicidal, and initiated by officers disobeying the stringent orders of General Kuribayashi. Their objective was more than two miles distant. Some of the navy’s officers, knowing they must face death anyway, chose to indulge themselves by doing so on their own terms. They sprang from tunnel entrances at the head of their men, into the path of overwhelming fire. Darkness offered the Japanese no protection, for flames and American flares lit the battlefield. Around eight hundred navy personnel perished, for negligible American losses.
Most men on Iwo Jima felt a dull, bitter loathing for the enemy who inflicted horrors upon them. Commonplace was the attitude of the group of Marines whom eighteen year-old Corporal Jerry Copeland encountered poised over an oil drum in which they were boiling Japanese skulls, which earned them $125 apiece.
As Kuribayashi predicted, he and his defenders died before the senior American admiral declared the island secure. Organized Japanese resistance went on for ten more days. Kuribayashi had made an impressive point: for the first time in the Pacific War, a Japanese garrison had inflicted more casualties on a landing force than it had suffered.
By the time Iwo Jima was secured, the Americans had suffered 24,000 casualties, including 6,891 dead, to capture an island one-third the size of Manhattan. Its airfields proved useful to B-29s returning from missions damaged or short of fuel. Geographically, Iwo Jima seemed a significant landmark on the way to Japan; but strategically, like so many hard-won objectives in every campaign, it is hard to argue that its seizure was worthwhile – the Marianas were vastly more important.
During this period, the US Navy’s almost absolute command of the sea made it impossible for the Japanese to move forces from Iwo Jima, or indeed anywhere else, to impede American operations. Because of this the Japanese sought to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy. They sought to emphasize this by mounting a rising tempo of kamikaze air attacks against the US Navy.
It was six weeks before American troops addressed themselves systematically to clearing the caves in which such survivors such as Harunori Ohkoshi clung on. First, they tried tear gas. Then they sent captured Japanese to broadcast by loudspeaker, who sometimes called on men by name to come out. One POW approached Ohkoshi’s tunnel entrance, bearing water and chocolate, only to be shot by the occupants. ‘We were doing him a favor,’ claimed Ohkoshi laconically. ‘His honor was lost.’ Yet it would be mistaken to suppose that most Japanese defenders of the island found their experience, or their sacrifice, acceptable.
The terrible price of victory pointed to ever higher casualties as the Americans approached the home islands. But the island had been won, and even before the last Japanese had been killed in the underground bunkers, the first American bombers were using the airfields on the island, which had been repaired and extended by the Seabees, the American navy's construction experts. In addition, the American planes flying from the Marianas to attack Japan no longer had to skirt the Bonin Islands or worry about fighters from there. When Marine veterans got back to Hawaii, one group marched triumphantly down the street waving a Japanese skull and taunting local Japanese-Americans: ‘There’s your uncle on the pole!’ The experience of Iwo Jima had drained some survivors of all human sensitivity.