By 1945, the days of Japanese conquest in the Pacific are long over, and Allied forces are advancing in the entire theatre. For two years, US Admiral Chester Nimitz’s “island hopping” strategy has brought the Americans ever closer to Japan. Only those islands deemed strategically significant are being be seized, while all others are simply bypassed. In November 1943, the Americans take Tarawa, followed by the Marshall Islands in February 1944, and the Marianas in June. The costly landings at Peleliu in September 1944 show just how bloody such island battles could become. https://youtu.be/p_p53XwTs_E
US commanders selected the tiny island of Iwo Jima as the next target. Only 7.2 kilometers long, and from 0.8 to 4 kilometers wide, it’s an insignificant speck in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. But since it’s located halfway between Tokyo and US airbases in the Marianas, Iwo Jima could become a vital support base for B-29 bombers, escort fighters and search and rescue craft. Importantly, Iwo Jima is also part of the Tokyo Prefecture and is sovereign Japanese soil. The Americans hope its capture will deliver a severe psychological blow to the Japanese.
The US Marines’ V Amphibious Corps, consisting of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, is assigned the task of capturing the island, codenamed Operation Detachment. All told, 100,000 men and 700 ships will partake in a battle the Americans expect to last 5 to 10 days.
Defending Iwo Jima are the 21,000 Japanese troops of the 109th Infantry Division, commanded by Lt Gen KurIbayashi TadAmichi. KurIbayashi has studied the battle of Peleliu closely and instead of holding the Marines on the beach - or relying on costly banzai attacks - he plans to allow the Marines ashore and grind them down in attritional warfare on two main defensive belts. Each consists of hundreds of caves, tunnels and expertly hidden pillboxes which the Japanese are to hold to the end. Kuribayashi’s “Courageous Battle Vows” order each of his soldiers to kill 10 invaders.
D-Day (February 19th)
The preparatory bombardment of Iwo Jima starts 3 days before D-Day - February 19th. This is much less than the 10 days requested by V Amphibious Corps Commander Major-General Harry Schmidt.
But as the first Marines move onto the 6 landing beaches at 9am, Japanese resistance seems light. The biggest obstacle is a 4.5-meter high terrace of volcanic ash which hinders the men and prevents their supporting LVTs from moving ashore. Just as bulldozers are brought in to make a path, Kuribayashi unleashes his artillery. It’s been pre-sighted to bracket the landing beaches, and pounds the Marines, inflicting heavy casualties.
Now, Japanese machineguns open up from Mount SurIbachI, a semi-active volcano and the highest point in the island. But the heaviest Japanese fire of all comes from the Quarry on the extreme right of the landing beaches. Even before the invasion, 4th US Division commander Major General Clifton Cates had worried about it:
“You know, if I knew the name of the man on the extreme right of the right-hand squad of the right-hand company of the right-hand battalion, I’d recommend him for a medal before we go in.” (Leckie 21)
By 11am, bulldozers have cleared a path from the beaches, and the Marines begin to threaten Airfield No. 1. Meanwhile, the 28th Marine Regiment moves to cut off Mount Suribachi, creating a tenuous blockade (1). Colonel Harry Liversedge reports on conditions: “Troops ashore and moving to isolate volcano. Resistance moderate but terrain awful.” (Allen 25)
By the early afternoon fighting dies down, but by the end of D-Day, only a third of the first day’s objectives have been taken.
D+1 (February 20th)
The Marines capture Airfield No. 1, but elsewhere it’s becoming clear Japanese resistance is stiffening. In the east, Marines grind up against the Quarry, while the 28th moves around the base of Suribachi and its 70 reinforced concrete emplacements. Kuribayashi tries to stiffen his men’s resolve:
“Each man should think of his defense position as his graveyard, fight until the last and inflict much damage to the enemy.” (Rottman 157)
D+2 (February 21st)
February 21st, D+2, brings the Americans a new enemy - the weather. Rain and wind shut down the beaches, while kamikazes attack the US naval vessels offshore and sink an escort carrier. On the island, the bloody fighting continues. In the west, the flatter terrain allows for the use of tanks and the Americans make better progress (2), but against the Quarry US casualties mount (3). One company of 240 Marines is reduced to just 18 men fit for duty.
Around 5,300 Marines have been killed or wounded in the first three days, so the reserve, the 3rd Marines, is sent in ahead of schedule.
D+3 (February 22nd)
Things did not improve as the rain turning Iwo Jima’s volcanic sand into a sticky goo that clung to boots and fouled weapons. The 28th Marines reports:
“Bad weather and poor visibility throughout the day hampered our operations considerably. The rain mixed with volcanic dust caused stoppages in practically all automatic weapons, reducing them to single shot...” (Allen 68)
Nonetheless, the Marines push ahead. The 28th now begins to scale Suribachi, while elsewhere the Marines attack Kuribayashi’s main defensive belt (4).
Kurbayashi has turned Iwo Jima into a complex network of interconnected and mutually supporting hardpoints of all shapes and sizes. Some are simple snipers’ nests made from natural cracks in the rocks, while others are large reinforced blockhouses that seem impervious to even heavy artillery. The larger bunkers are well stocked with supplies and facilities.
Japanese soldier Tsuuji Akikusa recalls:
“The Southern Islands Naval Air Station Headquarters bunker… was the largest bunker on the island, and it was rumored that it would be able to hold out for about three months. There were about 800 people in the bunker. There were no fewer than 500 drums filled with heavy oil, light oil, gasoline, and drinking water.” (Akikusa p. 41)
With the aid of tunnels, Japanese soldiers can move around the battlefield undetected and launch their feared night attacks, which increase in frequency with each passing day. As a result, after dark American forces fire lamination shells to constantly bathe the island in light.
D+4 February 23
The tunnels also allow the 800-man Japanese garrison at Suribachi to withdraw to the north just as the 28th begins its final assault on February 23rd. After meeting light resistance on the summit, Marines raised two US flags on the mountain to signal its capture - and in doing so they create one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century.
D+5 February 24
But the capture of Suribachi does not mean the US has won the battle. The next day, US forces assault Airfield No. 2, but Japanese mines and anti-tank guns prevent the use of tanks. So it’s up to American infantrymen armed with grenades, flamethrowers and small arms to lead the assault (5). The Japanese stubbornly hold on at the north end, and US troops are only able to make serious advances in the west (6). Although the 4th Marines clear the Quarry in the east, they now clash against the toughest enemy position yet.
D+6 February 25
On D+6, the Marines in the east enter the ‘Meatgrinder’, a complex of Japanese defences centred on three locations: Hill 382, Turkey Knob, and a low basin known as the Amphitheatre. Defenders in these positions can mutually support each other with machine guns, artillery and dug-in tanks. American progress slows, with advances measured in 100-yard dashes – which the men call “touchdowns.”
D+7 - D+8 February 26 - 27
The 4th Marines continue to struggle with the Meatgrinder over the coming days, while the other divisions also come up against their own hardpoints. On February 27th, the Americans consolidate their gains (7), but progress northwards is still being measured in ‘touchdowns’. The Japanese are stubbornly defending their positions, which often hold until US armor assaults them from point blank range, sometimes with Zippo Sherman flame-throwing tanks. American tankers also ram or churn their treads over cave entrances to collapse them. Japanese soldier Okoshi Harunori recalls his fears:
“Even if you pretended to die and fell over, on level ground American trucks and tanks would drive over you… Some of the soldiers hid in foxholes to avoid being run over, but when the American tanks found a foxhole, they would roll around on top of it and crush the people inside. If they got you like that you were doomed to gurgle until you died.” (Shuzaihan pp.132–3)
D+9 February 28
On February 28th, which US command originally expected to be the last day of the battle, victory still seems a distant prospect. With the east becoming a stalemate, Schmidt orders the 3rd Division to push in the center towards the coast, to split the Japanese defenders’ last belt. With the aid of a massive artillery and air bombardment, the Marines surge forward and seize the remains of Airfield No. 2 (8).
D+10 March 1
By the next day, American forces are threatening the unfinished Airfield No. 3, while in the west, the 5th Marines now clash against Nishi ridge (9), another prepared defensive position. In the east, Hill 382 is partially captured (10), but the Japanese on Turkey Knob and Amphitheater continue to hold out. As American casualties and exhaustion mount, more and more NCOs take command of Marine units - in some cases privates lead their units in assaults.
D+11 March 2
But just as US forces are making progress in the east, the central drive bogs down. Japanese defenders on Hills 362B (11) and C(12) are holding up the Marines, with the summits heavily contested in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.
D+12 March 3
By the following day, D+12, a stalemate sets in. Marine casualties have been extremely high so far: 3,000 dead and 13,000 wounded. The Japanese have lost 14,000, almost all dead, and only have about 7000 men left. In the west the Americans capture Nishi and Hill 362A (13) and fully surround the Amphitheater (14). As the battle continues, the Marines also begin to note deceptive Japanese tactics:
“[Japanese] Snipers dressed in Marine uniforms and armed with M-1’s [sic] were encountered, also, it was discovered that the enemy was booby-trapping their dead.” (Allen 153)
D+13 - 14 March 4-5
In anticipation of future offensives, Schmidt now orders two days of rest except for smaller attacks to straighten the line. Fresh American replacements arrive, but many of them have no combat experience. Airfield No. 1 sees some unusual activity today as damaged B-29 bomber Dinah Might makes an emergency landing.
D +15 March 6
The next day's American attack is preceded by a massive artillery bombardment – the guns fire over 22,500 shells in the first hour alone. However, their impact and the advance in general is disappointing from the US point of view. Fierce Japanese resistance limits the Marines to advances of only 50 to 100 metres across the whole island (15).
D +16 March 7
It’s become clear the Japanese are now well versed in the method and schedule of Marine attacks – an artillery barrage followed by infantry assault. So 3rd Divison’s General Graves Erskine suggests a dawn attack at 5am without artillery. Graves’ troops won’t advance straight ahead as previously, but into a Japanese sector facing the neighboring 4th Division. The Americans try the new method for the first time on March 7 – and it seems to work, as by the end of the day they take Hill 362C (16). This advance started to create a pocket of Japanese resistance known as Cushman’s Pocket which continues to hold out.
At midnight of the same day, senior Japanese commander Captain Inouye Samaji ignores Kuribayashi’s orders and leads a 1,500-man banzai attack from around Tachiiwa Point (17). He hopes to pierce the US lines, destroy equipment, and even scale Suribachi to raise the Japanese flag. But the Marines’ fire decimates his men, some of whom are only armed with bamboo spears or explosive vests, from range. The Americans suffer few losses.
D +17 - +19 March 8 - 10
The wasteful banzai charge marks the end of major resistance in the east. Over the next three days, the marines bypass Japanese hardpoints in Cushman’s Pocket (18) and finally reduce the Meatgrinder (19). In the north, a US patrol reaches the sea before the Japanese push it back (20). Kuribayashi knows the battle is coming to a close, but he radios to Tokyo that he has no intention of surrendering:
“All surviving fighting units have sustained heavy losses. I am very sorry that I have let the enemy occupy one part of Japanese territory but am taking comfort in giving him heavy damages.” (Allen 161)
FD +20 - March 11
On D+20, Japanese resistance only exists in three isolated pockets: Cushman’s Pocket, the eastern coast, and part of the northwest coast. Kuribayashi now falls back to a gorge, later dubbed Bloody Gorge, with his last 1,500 men (21). The Marines are exhausted and many are incapacitated by a psychological condition they call combat fatigue, today known as PTSD. So they call on the Japanese to surrender, and announce on loudspeakers that prisoners will be treated well and suicidal resistance is senseless. The Americans also distribute a translated letter from Japanese prisoner of war Momoda Hideo:
“Comrades, I myself would never have believed that things could be this way if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. At first I was embarrassed to have been taken by the enemy, but when I learned that several officers… had the same experience I felt better. In our conversations we agreed that it is more honorable to live for the Emperor and work for a greater Japan in the future than merely to die like rats underground.” (Sandberg 114)
Messages like that one, though, have little impact. The Americans continue to advance and eliminate all Japanese strongpoints except for Bloody Gorge. Although US authorities declare Iwo Jima secure on March 14 Kuribayashi continues to hold out for 9 more days in a seemingly impregnable blockhouse. US artillery couldn’t be used for fear of friendly fire, so marines armed with flamethrowers, grenades, and demolition explosives take on the job of reducing it.
On March 23rd, Kuribayashi issued his final communication to the Japanese garrison on nearby Chichi Jima:
“All officers and men of Chichi Jima, good-bye from Iwo.” (Allen 217)
Kuribayashi’s ultimate fate is not known. It’s possible that he commits suicide, or that he dies in one of the banzai attacks that become more common in the final days. On March 26, around 200-300 Japanese troops sneak out of the Bloody Gorge and strike at Airfield No. 2, attacking mostly airmen and construction personnel. This charge, which US troops quickly destroy, signals the end of the battle.
It’s now D+35. Marine casualties are around 23,000, including 6,800 dead, while the navy loses about 2800 dead and wounded. 19,000 of the 21,000 Japanese troops on the island are killed. Only 216 surrender during the battle, and up to 2000 continue to struggle in small groups until they are mopped up by US troops.
Although the later battle of Okinawa will prove even costlier for the Americans, Iwo Jima is still the deadliest single battle for the Marines, and the only battle in the US Pacific Campaign where American casualties outnumber those of the Japanese.
Iwo Jima is also a battle with a controversial legacy. The US Army and Navy will later claim the operation was of little use, especially for the price paid. But for its intended practical purposes it does provide immediate benefits. Through the last months of the war, 2,251 B-29s make emergency landings on Iwo, potentially saving the lives of 24,000 US airmen.