Battle of Iwo Jima
American amphibious landing on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima
19 February - 26 March 1945
author Paul Boșcu, February 2019
During the Battle of Iwo Jima American marines landed on the island of Iwo Jima and eventually captured it from the Japanese Army. The main goal of the American campaign was the capture of the airfields located on the island so that they might be used as staging area for future campaigns against the Japanese. The battle is noteworthy for being one of the bloodiest in the entire Pacific war.
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.

The US landings on the small but strategically vital island of Iwo Jima proved that the Japanese had no intention of giving up simply because they could no longer win the conflict. The Americans needed Iwo Jima as a base from which to fly fighter escorts protecting bombers, and as a place where damaged bombers could return after smashing the Japanese mainland.

Dominated at the southern tip by the extinct volcano of Mount Suribachi, five hundred feet high, in the north the island rose to a plateau, thick with jungle growth. Iwo had been claimed by Japan in 1861, and used for growing sugarcane. A Japanese garrison officer described it sourly as ‘a waterless island of sulphur springs, where neither swallows nor sparrows flew.’

The perceived importance of this tiny island derived, as usual, from airfields. During the last months of 1944 and the early weeks of 1945, American aircraft pounded Iwo Jima on seventy-two days. As fast as Japanese squadrons reached the island, their planes were destroyed in the air or on the ground. The usefulness of the base to Tokyo thus shrank to the vanishing point. Yet, in the boundless ocean, the US Navy coveted Iwo Jima as one of the few firm footholds on the central axis of approach to Japan.

All battles break down into a host of tiny, intensely personal contests, but this was especially true of Iwo Jima. Each man knew only the few square yards of rock, vegetation and stinking sulphur springs where he sheltered, crawled, scrambled and fought with a shrinking handful of companions.

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.

In the autumn of 1944 the joint chiefs mandated the island’s seizure. After various American hesitations and delays, which served the defenders’ interests much better than those of the invaders, an armada was massed. Even as Douglas MacArthur’s soldiers battered their way across the Philippines, three Marine divisions were embarked.

The naval gunfire plan — four days of both pinpoint and area fire from battleships’ main batteries down to special rocket-armed landing craft — would have leveled any atoll or cleared the beaches of another Saipan and Guam. But Iwo Jima was neither. It was one huge, fortified volcanic rock. Throughout the four days of naval shelling, the Japanese sat tight and held their fire.

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.

Kuribayashi’s force of 21,000 officers and men consisted of one crack infantry regiment, a mediocre mixed brigade, a mediocre under-strength infantry division armed with ample artillery and mortars, and a good tank regiment. About 7,000 members of the defense force were sailors who brought gunnery skills as well as heavy weapons for base defense.

One of the island’s garrison, Lt. Col. Kaneji Nakane, wrote to his wife a few weeks before the US landing, with the banality common to so many warriors’ letters: ‘We are now getting enemy air raids at least ten times a day, and enemy task forces have struck the island twice. We suffered no damage. Everybody is in good shape, so you don’t have to worry about me. The beans brought from our house were planted and are now flowering. Harvest time is approaching, and the squashes and eggplants look very good. Yesterday we had a bathe, and everybody was in high spirits. We get some fish, because every time the enemy bombs us a lot of dead ones are washed ashore… We have strong positions and God’s soldiers, and await the enemy with full hearts.’

In essence, Kuribayashi turned a volcanic island of ten square miles, seething with hot sulfur gases, into a Japanese Maginot Line that could not be flanked. His concept of defense left no room for interpretation: all Japanese defenders would hold their positions and fire their weapons until they died. Kuribayashi did not outlaw honorable suicide, but he forbade futile banzai attacks that merely wasted lives and ammunition.

Kuribayashi had no illusions about the outcome of the struggle to which he was committed. He had served in Canada and the US in the 1930s, and knew the relative weakness of his own nation. ‘This war will be decided by industrial might, don’t you agree?’ he mused to a staff officer. Kuribayashi had opposed the conflict, because he did not think it winnable. Yet fatalism did not impair his meticulous preparations to defend Iwo Jima.

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.

Some of the men who began to land along the south-east coast had been at sea for six weeks, on passage to an objective initially identified to them only as ‘Island X’. Others had embarked at Saipan a few days earlier. When word came to ‘saddle up’, the Marines found it hard to climb the ships’ ladders, each of them being weighed down with at least fifty pounds, and sometimes a hundred pounds, of weapons, kit and ammunition. The clumsy clamber down scrambling nets from the ship’s side to an assault craft pitching on the swell was an alarming experience even for veterans.

As amtracs (amphibious tracked vehicles) splashed forth from the hulls of their parent transports, correspondent John Marquand likened the spectacle to ‘all the cats in the world having kittens’. The first wave of sixty-nine hit the beach at 09.02. From his landing craft, James Vedder glimpsed wrecked planes on the airstrip, terracing inland, and further south the sheer rock walls of Suribachi. Under the thunder of the bombardment, debris flew skywards, and great clouds of smoke drifted across the shore.

In order to maximize American losses, the 21,000 defenders permitted 30,000 US Marines to land unopposed on the south-east of the island before they suddenly opened fire after they were ashore. Marine Joseph Raspilair wrote: ‘In all my life I do not think I have been as miserable as I was that night. All you could do was lay in the water and wait for morning so you could get out of the hole.’

Some marine units were literally pinned down on the beaches, while others began to make their way inland slowly. The loose ashes of the island — which had only appeared above sea level due to volcanic action half a century before — made progress difficult and defense relatively simple. A shallow beachhead was obtained on the first day, and in the following days the Marines fought their way forward slowly and at great cost.

Corporal Jerry Copeland spent his first night ashore in a hole with two American corpses and four dead Japanese, praying incessantly: ‘God, if you save my life I’ll go to church every Sunday of my life—never miss.’ He later admitted: ‘It was my first time with God.’

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.

The defenders’ ingenuity seemed boundless: a Marine was amazed to see a hillside suddenly open before his eyes, to reveal three Japanese pushing out a field gun. It fired three rounds, then was dragged back into the cave. Mortars eventually destroyed the gun, but a hundred such positions had to be taken out before the defenses were overwhelmed. Officers learned to discourage men from seeking souvenirs, which the Japanese often boobytrapped.

Most Japanese positions were proof against shells and bombs. Guns were sited so that they could be rolled out from caves to fire, then withdrawn when the Marines responded.

The concentration of tens of thousands of men fighting over a few square miles of blasted rock and blackened vegetation created all manner of unwelcome problems. Radio nets became entangled. When phone wires were cut, it was often too dangerous to ask linesmen to search for the breaks. ‘It was necessary for officers to expose themselves constantly in order to maintain control,’ wrote Lt. Col. Joseph Sayers.

Within days, excrement, abandoned equipment and debris lay everywhere. Few men found it necessary to dig their own holes, because of the mass of craters and foxholes which pockmarked the battlefield. Armor was vital to forward movement, yet dangerous to nearby infantrymen. The lumbering monsters crushed foxholes and drew Japanese fire.

John Lane, a New York jeweller’s son, joined the Marines in the midst of the battle. ‘We replacements were despised and perhaps hated by the survivors of the company,’ he wrote, ‘because we were so green, untrained and innocent, hated because we were there because their buddies had been killed or wounded… All were so bearded, dirty, dusty and exhausted that at first I couldn’t tell them apart.’

Patrick Caruso found himself succumbing to silent reveries in the wary hours of darkness: ‘My mind traversed the spectrum of my past: school and college, and how final exams were so critical—until Iwo; why making the football team was so essential—until Iwo; how making a good impression on a date was so important—until Iwo; how getting a job during summer vacations was so significant—until Iwo; what’s in store for my future. My future? Iwo is my present and future…’

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.

Battalion after battalion, the Marines launched open-order assaults. Most petered out after one or two hundred yards, because so many participants fell. Armored bulldozers hacked routes uphill for tanks. Flamethrowers proved invaluable, lancing cave mouths to make way for explosive charges. Warship and artillery fire did something to suppress Japanese fire. But to occupy Iwo Jima, to stop the mortar bombs and shells scouring every American position back to the beaches, the Americans could discover no effective substitute for sending men forward again and again, to prise each cluster of rocks piecemeal from dogged defenders.

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.

Lt. Harold Schrier led forty men of the 5th Division onto the summit. When crews on the ships offshore witnessed the Stars and Stripes rising on the volcano’s summit, many raised a spontaneous cheer, as did the American people when they saw the legendary photograph of a second flag being raised.

When a Marine patrol raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the Battle of Iwo Jima had already achieved photographic immortality and seemed to be over. But three more long weeks of flame-throwers, dynamite in satchel charges, grenades, millions of shells and bullets, and the lives of hundreds of good men would be expended before the last Japanese died. Admiral Nimitz did not exaggerate when he said that on Iwo, ‘uncommon valor was a common virtue.’ After the battle, 27 Marines and sailors received the Medal of Honor, a wartime record. Thirteen medals were posthumous.

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.

‘We had a gross misconception of the enemy before we encountered them,’ wrote Marine Patrick Caruso. ‘They were not jokes; they were not inept. We hated them enough to kill them, but we did respect their ability. I often thought that if we had to go to war again, I would want them on our side.’ After several days of combat, wrote Arthur Rodriguez, ‘we had not seen any of the enemy to shoot at. It made us feel frustrated and angry, because we had almost nothing to show for all our casualties.’

‘The terrain was most favorable to the defense… The uncanny accuracy of enemy rifle fire caused many casualties,’ wrote Lt. Col. Joseph Sayers. He thought Japanese artillery poorly directed, but noted that the defenders did not squander men in futile charges, as they had done in earlier Pacific battles. ‘The enemy is a much improved fighter.’ Sayers delivered a bleak after-action verdict on a typical day for the Marines on Iwo: ‘Low morale, fatigue, an average strength of 70 men per company,’ and next evening: ‘Morale was very low, and the strain of many days in the line was evident. It was noted that the men became more careless, and exposed themselves more to fire when fatigued.’ He urged a halt to the practice of dispatching replacements to join units on the line, for there was no opportunity to instruct them in even the basic skills of survival. Ten out of seventeen replacement medical corpsmen sent to his battalion were killed or wounded within days simply because, in the view of their commander, they were ignorant of fieldcraft.

Firepower alone was incapable of destroying Japanese positions. ‘The most discouraging thing was, right in the middle of this tremendous barrage you’d hear the damned enemy open up their machine guns,’ wrote Lt. Col. Robert Cushman. ‘It wasn’t knocking out those bunkers. So it was just a painful, sluggish business with tanks, H.E. and flamethrowers. And then the infantry with their flamethrowers and grenades and pole charges, digging them out.’ Cushman’s battalion went through two complete changes of platoon leaders. Once, when his battalion was reduced to two hundred men and he ordered a charge, ‘nobody got out of their foxholes. So I picked up a rifle and bayonet and went round and got everybody out the hard way, and eventually they got moving along with the tanks.’

As an operations officer with the 24th Marines, Maj. Albert Arsenault was responsible for making a nightly situation report, characteristically exemplified as: ‘Progress a hundred yards, casualties thirty-seven. Tied in for the night.’ Regimental headquarters demanded: ‘How many Japanese did you kill?’ ‘None that we could be sure of.’ ‘None! Thirty-seven casualties and you haven’t killed any Japanese! You’ve got to do better than that.’ Arsenault thereafter projected Japanese losses at least double those of his own unit: ‘One day was pretty much like another: small advances, heavy casualties.’

Each day, American battalions lunged forward, sometimes gaining a few hundred yards, more often declaring themselves pinned down after suffering substantial casualties. The combination of thirst, rain, filth, cold food and fear ate into the spirits of even the best. Lt. Ken Thomson, a former sergeant commissioned following heroic performances on Guam and Bougainville, said: ‘Once I get back home to Minnesota and marry my girl, I’ll never leave.’ He was killed a few days later.

Sometimes, when Japanese perceived their own positions as hopeless, or simply grew weary of enduring bombardment, a handful of screaming figures hurled themselves at the Americans, to be cut down. But most of Kuribayashi’s men obeyed orders to hug their positions and die where they lay.

‘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.

Corporal Robert Graf noticed that when his platoon encountered an intensely unpopular officer prostrate on a litter, the whole file of men passed without speaking. Graf’s own turn came a few days later. A shell fragment struck him in the buttock—the ‘million-dollar wound.’ As he was carried back to the beach for evacuation, ‘not only alive but leaving this godforsaken island… so many prayers of joy and happiness sprang to my lips.’

Lt. John Cudworth of 9th Marines saw his close friend Bill Zimmer, a former Marquette University baseball and football player, ride past on top of a tank, smoking a cigarette. Zimmer told him: ‘I got hit in the balls and I guess I’m doing OK. Can you get me a couple more cigarettes?’ Cudworth handed up half a pack and waved ‘So long.’ Next morning the doctor told him: ‘Zim didn’t make it.’

‘Before getting on the ship in Guam, and on passage to Iwo, little “Oiky” Erlavec was all excited, he was going to get to shoot some Japs,’ wrote John Cudworth. ‘After seeing dead Marines on the island and having artillery land near us, he blew higher than a kite and had to be sent back. A sorry event for such a young kid.’

Dr. Robert Watkins hated operating on men with stomach wounds, because each case took at least four hours, together with many more hours of postoperative care, and half died anyway: ‘In the time that one belly wound is being operated on, I can save half a dozen lives and limbs with other wounds. And I am a lousy belly surgeon.’

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.

Harunori Ohkoshi shared his hole with three other men. He felt closest to his runner, Hajime Tanaka, a Tokyo type like himself in a unit of farm boys: ‘He was a good bit older than me, maybe twenty-five, a real family man, and wonderfully steady whatever was happening.’

At intervals Harunori Ohkoshi’s unit was dispatched in small groups on reconnaissance or fighting patrols. These were nerve-racking affairs. On terrain where rocks and vegetation restricted visibility to a few yards, as they crept forward they knew their lives hung upon whether they spotted Americans first. Only once did they clash directly, with a small group of Marines whom they surprised and wiped out with grenades and bayonets. One American got close enough to hit Ohkoshi with the barrel of his pistol before the Japanese killed him.

In the first days of March, the Marines on Iwo Jima started direct attacks on the positions of Harunori Ohkoshi’s naval group. Incoming fire was devastating. Ohkoshi and his companions found that in daylight they dared not raise their eyes to the weapon-slits of their bunkers. They were forced to fire their heavy machine gun blind, pulling a lanyard from beneath. After two days of American assaults, the navy men were ordered to withdraw into the dense network of tunnels and bunkers at the summit of the position.

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.

By the time Ohkoshi and his group emerged, the ground was piled with bodies. ‘The attack was a shambles,’ said the young sailor. ‘The whole thing never had a chance.’ Not every Japanese sought martyrdom eagerly: ‘We had to push a lot of men out of the tunnels, because they knew what was waiting for them on top.’

Though most of the navy men died running forward towards the American positions, a few survivors remained in the open. Harunori Ohkoshi and his group crawled some three hundred yards, inch by inch, attempting to regain their tunnels under the American fire raking the battlefield. At intervals the seventeen year-old called softly to those behind him, checking who was left. Each time, fewer voices answered, as machine guns silenced them one by one.

One senior soldier, Lt. Col. Baron Takeichi Nishi, tried in vain to dissuade the naval officers. Nishi was a legendary figure who had won an equestrian gold medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Ohkoshi had glimpsed him a couple of times before the battle, riding by on a horse as he and his comrades dug trenches. Now, Nishi commented contemptuously on the navy men’s futile action: ‘Anyone who wants to die can do it any time. It’s only fifty metres to the American positions.’ Uncertainty shrouded Nishi’s end. Some said that he shot himself, others that he was led into an attack by his orderly, having been blinded by blast.

Dawn found Ohkoshi pinned down with just three others, amid a jumble of Japanese bodies. They adopted desperate expedients, smearing handfuls of human debris onto themselves to simulate convincing corpses. ‘The blood and guts of the dead kept us alive,’ said Ohkoshi. They lay in the open for forty-eight hours, in plain sight of the Americans. When their water was gone, they sucked blood. The noise of firing was deafening, scarcely ever stilled. At last, American activity in their vicinity seemed to slacken. The battle had moved on. The four Japanese crept back into the tunnel system.

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.

Lt. Robert Schless expressed uncommonly sensitive emotions when he wrote to his wife, Shirley: ‘I was never once sore at the Japs. The more I learned of them, the more I could understand their motives. They were scrupulously clean, despite living underground. They carried photos of their families with them, and those families had a nobility which would be difficult to match. Many of their personal objects—their fans and swords and other things—are of great beauty. If Japan is at present going through a Victorian period of bad taste nevertheless there is taste among all her people. I believe the symbol of the rising sun has for them a great beauty of a pristine, virginal nature.’

Copeland, who described himself as a San Francisco juvenile delinquent until he joined the Marines, had loved training on Parris Island, South Carolina, and was among the few who now found the experience of combat rewarding: ‘The first guy I ever killed, I got so much joy, so much satisfaction out of it… Flamethrower’s great to get guys out a cave, but boy, the guy who’s got to approach the cave has a problem. You don’t move too well with a flamethrower.’

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.

Most surviving Japanese were thereafter fugitives like Harunori Ohkoshi rather than combatants, though they continued to harass American mopping-up operations with small arms and occasional wild, hopeless charges.

In his underground headquarters, General Kuribayashi found time to send a signal to the General Staff in Tokyo, offering advice gleaned from the Iwo Jima experience: ‘However strongly you build beach defenses, they will be destroyed by battleship bombardment. It is better to erect dummy defenses on the shoreline. It is essential to maintain eavesdropping watches, since the enemy communicates in plain language. The violence of enemy fire is beyond description. It can take more than ten hours for a junior officer to move a single kilometre to pass information. Where telephone links are used, cables must be buried. Radios should be located at a distance from headquarters, to protect these from bombardment following enemy radio location. Enemy headquarters are often noisy, and sometimes use lights at night. Defense against armor is critically important—anti-tank ditches must be dug. It is essential to stockpile ammunition, grenades and mortar bombs on isolated islands which are to be defended. The enemy’s ground control of aircraft is very good. Snipers should regard flamethrower operators as priority targets.’

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.

The capture of the island saw some of the most bitter hand-to-hand fighting of the Pacific War, in which no quarter was given or received, and where the Japanese made a number of suicide attacks by land, sea and air. The Anglo-American Lethbridge Commission, set up to study the tactics and equipment required to defeat Japan, even recommended the use of mustard and phosgene gas against underground enemy positions, and was supported in this by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur, but it was vetoed by President Roosevelt.

Though it often seemed to the Americans that the battle would never end, they prevailed at last, occupying the entire island. A Marine had fallen for every Japanese, a most unusual balance of loss in Pacific battles. Some 350 Japanese staged a final banzai charge in the northwest. Startled Americans found themselves fighting hand-to-hand with swordsmen. The assault was broken up, the Japanese killed.

General Kuribayashi emerged from his headquarters bunker one night, marvelling to see that the trees and foliage which had once covered the hillside were all gone, leaving only blackened rock and scorched stumps. He sent a last signal to Horie, his staff officer on neighbouring Chichi Jima: ‘It’s five days since we ate or drank, but our spirits are still high, and we shall fight to the last.’ Then he and his staff killed themselves. The senior naval officer, Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru, walked at the head of sixty men into the path of American machine guns outside his cave — yet survived. He shot himself soon after Kuribayashi’s death.

At the end of the battle for Iwo Jima, only 212 defenders – that is, 1 percent of the original garrison – were still alive to surrender. Meanwhile, the US Marines had lost 6,891 dead and 18,070 wounded. Yet these terrible figures need to be placed beside the fact that by the end of the war 24,761 US airmen’s lives had been saved by American possession of the island, receiving the 2,251 B-29s that had to make emergency, and on occasion crash landings on the only viable runway in the region for planes of that size.

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.

Commander Stephen Juricka, navigating officer of the carrier Franklin, was one of thousands of shocked witnesses of the devastation wreaked by suicide bombers: ‘I saw … destroyers get hit, burst into flames, men jumping over the side to avoid flames … It did not take long for the crews of the picket destroyers to feel that they were being put out there as bait.’ Then it was Franklin’s turn to fall victim. Two Japanese bombs struck the flight deck, prompting a huge explosion below: ‘The planes just behind the elevator were spotted, ready for take-off, engines going, fully loaded with Tiny Tim [rockets], 500-and 1000-pound bombs. Sheets of flame came up and then we really started to smoke … Men were jumping off the flight deck … Two destroyers were picking people up out of the sea directly behind us… a lot of them injured, burned … We were exploding and on fire until the middle of the next afternoon.’ Most of the 4,800 crewmen on Franklin were evacuated in the first hours after the attack, but 772 stayed aboard, waging an epic struggle to keep the ship afloat. The US Navy had learned much about damage control since 1941, and all of it was put to use saving the carrier.

Stephen Juricka said: ‘I was amazed at some of our big, good-looking officers whom you would expect to be towers of strength turned out to be little pipsqueak people who needed bucking up all the time, and some other little nondescript 135-pounders turned out to be real tigers … It was the little people who really came through … Seven officers left the Franklin over the highline [a breeches-buoy link to the cruiser Santa Fe] in spite of orders to return to the ship, and Captain Gehres reported every one of them and recommended court martial.’

For the sailors aboard the ships offshore, it was a harrowing experience to find themselves so close to and yet so remote from the horrors which their fellow Americans were enduring. True, a handful of kamikaze aircraft broke through to the fleet, sinking the escort carrier Bismarck Sea and damaging Saratoga, but for the most part sailors were embarrassed by the comfort and safety in which they witnessed the battle. Coastguard Lt. Paul George never experienced personal fear because he had no cause to, ‘other than feeling sorry for the guys who were ashore.’ Surreally, from a distance of a few hundred yards ‘we could just watch the war going on. Through the glasses I could see tanks trying to get through the sand and not having a whole lot of luck, Marines diving into foxholes.’

Dr. Robert Watkins was operating shipboard: ‘Sometimes we were so close to shore that we could see the infantry and tanks fighting as though they were in our backyards. Some days were clear and lovely; on others the chill wind and fog whipped across the scudding whitecaps, raising waves that almost wrecked our landing boats. Some days the sun shone and I did not know it. Some nights the moon was bright, but not for me. Some sunrises I watched through the portholes as I washed the blood of the night’s work from my hands and clothes.’

The faces of forward observers, directing naval guns alongside the infantry, remained unknown to ships’ crews, yet their voices became intensely familiar down the radio. When one destroyer’s FO at last paid a visit to the ship, its crew cheered him aboard. Ben Bradlee, the gunnery officer, wrote of the Marine: ‘He turned out to be my age, and even younger-looking, all jerky gestures and haunted eyes… I didn’t know how to tell a man I loved him in those days, but I sure loved him.’ The visitor ate so much ice cream that he threw up.

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.

Men of the army’s 147th Infantry poured a hideous cocktail into the defenses. They pumped 700 gallons of salt water into one of the biggest tunnel complex entrances, then added 110 gallons of gasoline and 55 of oil. The deadly flow, ignited by flamethrower, raced through the underground passages, starting a string of ammunition fires, incinerating many Japanese and causing others to kill themselves amid the choking, clogging smoke. Some men embraced each other, then pulled pins on grenades held between their bodies.

After three months of subterranean animal existence, Ohkoshi decided that he would rather die in the sun. The Americans had sealed the tunnel entrances, but by frenzied labor some Japanese clawed passages to the surface. Ohkoshi was the first to burst forth. He was at once seen and shot by an American, and fell writhing with two bullets in the leg. His surviving companions were more fortunate — or not, as the case might be — and were captured uninjured. Nursing shame and exhaustion, they were taken away into captivity.

When Ohkoshi, after being taken prisoner, saw his own features in a mirror on Guam, he did not recognize the skeletal ruin of a human being he had become. A US officer’s report on the episode concluded dryly: ‘Fifty-four were eventually taken into custody with some difficulty. Two of these subsequently committed suicide.’

A survivor from the 26th Tank Regiment, Lieutenant Yamasaki, wrote afterwards to the widow of his commanding officer, in a letter which reflected a sense of the futility of what he and his comrades had endured: ‘In ancient times our ancestors said: “Bushido, the way of the warrior, is to die.” This may have sounded wonderful to knights of old, but represents too easy a path. For both the living and the dead Iwo Jima was, I think, the worst of battlefields. Casual words about “bushido” did not apply, for modern war does not make matters so easy. Unfeeling metal is mightier than warriors’ flesh. Where, when, how, who died nobody knew. They just fell by the wayside.’

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.

The island base was useful not only as an emergency landing strip for the B-29s, but it also helped with the organization of the elaborate air-sea rescue system being established to rescue crews from crashed or ditched bombers on the long routes to and from the targets in Japan. This was of special importance both to save large numbers of highly trained crew members and also because the Japanese had earlier publicly announced their killing of captured American air crews who had bailed out over Japan, and now ordered that crew members who crashed at sea were also to be killed as a matter of policy. This was known to the Americans, who had intercepted and decoded the message.

Some historians highlight a simple statistic: more American aircrew landed safely on its airstrips in damaged or fuelless B-29s than Marines died in seizing it. This calculation of profit and loss, first offered after the battle to assuage public anger about the cost of taking Iwo Jima, ignores the obvious fact that, if the strips had not been there, fuel margins would have been increased, some aircraft would have reached the Marianas, and some crews could have been rescued from the sea. Yet to say this is to ignore the fact that in every campaign in every war, sacrifices are routinely made that are out of all proportion to the significance of objectives.

As part of the bombing campaign against Japan, Iwo Jima proved every bit as valuable as Arnold predicted. But as an omen for the future siege of Japan, Iwo Jima dampened any incipient American over-enthusiasm contracted during the conquest of the Marianas in the autumn of 1944.

Neither then nor later did the Americans perceive much useful to be learned from Iwo Jima and its notorious killing grounds, save about the soldier’s capacity to inflict and endure suffering. The experience renewed the usual fierce criticism from the army about the Marines’ allegedly sacrificial tactics. Maj. Gen. Joseph Swing of the 11th Airborne Division, for instance, wrote an angry letter home in response to rumors that Nimitz rather than MacArthur was to command the invasion of Japan. Swing regarded the admiral as standard-bearer for Marine methods which he held in low esteem: ‘It makes me sick when I read about the casualties on Iwo Jima. It can be done more scientifically. We laugh at the fruitless method of the Jap in his banzai attacks and yet allow that fanatic’ — he was referring to Lt. Gen. Holland Smith of the Marines — ‘to barge in using up men as if they were a dime a dozen.’

There were those, including Holland Smith, who persuaded themselves that a longer preliminary bombardment of Iwo Jima would have made the early days, especially, less costly. There was agreement that more heavy artillery was needed. Yet there is no reason to suppose that any alternative tactical method would have changed anything, in that close and densely fortified area. Many Marines argued that the only effective means of shortening the battle would have been to pump poison gas into the Japanese underground complexes. They derided the brass in Washington for being squeamish about such methods.

Captain Kouichi Ito, an army officer who remained a lifelong student of Japan’s wartime campaigns, believed that Iwo Jima was the best-conducted defensive operation of the Japanese war, much more impressive militarily than the defense of Guadalcanal, or the subsequent action in which he himself participated on Okinawa.

Unless Nimitz had made an implausible decision - to forgo land engagement while the army fought for the Philippines, to await the collapse of the enemy through bombing, blockade, industrial and human starvation - the assault on Iwo Jima was almost inevitable. The Japanese valued the island, and took great pains for its defense. It would have required a strategic judgement of remarkable forbearance to resist the urge to destroy the garrison of the rock, a rare solid foothold in the middle of the ocean. If some historians judge that America’s warlords erred in taking Iwo Jima, the commitment seemed natural in the context of the grand design for America’s assault on the Japanese homeland.