Iwo Jima, which translates to “Sulfur Island,” is the very picture of its name. It is a remote, inhospitable volcanic island. On 19 February 1945, Iwo Jima presented U.S. Marines with an especially unwelcoming and foreboding landscape. American Intelligence predicted that the battle would last for no more than a week. With American forces set to mount an amphibious attack on the island, Japan resolved to ensure that the engagement would be a long, bloody, and dispiriting one, plotting their defense to make the ashen and rugged terrain work to their advantage. The Japanese defenders were, as always, prepared to fight to the last man. They had dug a series of tunnels by which to launch attacks and be shielded from the inevitable shelling and bombing of the invading force. Thirty six-days of World War II’s most intense fighting lay ahead.
As the Allied forces closed in on Japan, Naval construction battalions were already clearing land for air bases suitable for the new B-29 “Superfortresses.” These huge bombers had a range capable of reaching the Japanese home islands. The first B-29 bombing runs began in October 1944. But there was a problem: Japanese fighters taking off from tiny Iwo Jima were intercepting B-29s, as well as attacking the Mariana airfields. The U.S. determined that Iwo Jima must be captured. Most of the islands in the Pacific would have been insignificant had it not been for their strategic value or the materials that could be wrought. In American hands, Iwo Jima would serve as an emergency landing or refueling field for B-29s and the escort planes along the route to and from Tokyo.
Iwo Jima is a small, afterthought of land roughly eight square miles making it all the more surprising that the battle lasted 36 days. American intelligence experts concluded that the island could support no more than 13,000 defenders because of the acute water shortage. Kuribayashi had many more men than that, but all of them were on half rations of water for weeks before the invasion began. America had 70,000 troops pitted against 22,060 entrenched Japanese defenders. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was commander of the defense. His strategy involved the construction of 11 miles of fortified tunnels that connected 1,500 rooms: artillery emplacements, bunkers, ammunition dumps, and pillboxes (a defended gunnery position.) This enabled the Japanese soldiers to conduct their stubborn defense from concealed positions and limited the impact of the American air and naval bombardment. Vastly outnumbered, Kuribayashi ensured that every part of the island was subject to Japanese fire with little the Americans could do to defend themselves.
Ahead of the amphibious assault, Major General Harry Schmidt requested a 10 day heaving shelling of the island, however, that was significantly shortened to three days. The bombardment had limited impact due to the Japanese troops being so thoroughly dug-in, but this was not yet known. The U.S. Intelligence also seriously underestimated the beach terrain that their landing force would meet at Iwo Jima. Rather than the “excellent” beaches and “easy” progress predicted by planners, the invading force faced black, volcanic ash that failed to provide safe footing, burying and clogging up the landing crafts, and steep 15 foot high slopes. The light response to the initial U.S. Marine beach landings led the Americans to presume that their bombardment had seriously impaired Japanese defences. In fact, the Japanese were holding back. Once the beach was full of troops and landing craft, Kuribayashi signalled the commencement of a heavy artillery assault from all angles, exposing the invading force to a nightmarish barrage of bullets and shells, pinning them down on the crowded beach.
Yard by agonizing yard, they made progress up the beach over the next several days. The Marines were frequently surprised to find that bunkers they’d apparently cleared with grenades and flamethrowers were swiftly reoccupied thanks to the network of tunnels that were yet to be discovered. The M2 flamethrower was considered by U.S. commanders to be the single most effective weapon in the Iwo Jima engagement. Each battalion was assigned a flamethrower operator and the weapons became the most effective means of attacking Japanese troops in pillboxes, caves, and bunkers.
Another effective “weapon” in the American arsenal were the Navajo Code Talkers who had been heavily utilized since May 1942. Because the Navajo grammar is so complex, their code would never be broken. The speed and accuracy of the Navajo Code Talkers was indispensable at Iwo Jima: Six Code Talkers sent and received over 800 messages, all without error, throughout the 36 day campaign.
The summit of Mount Suribachi, which has an elevation of 528 feet, marks the island’s highest point. The American flag was famously raised there on 23 February 1945, five days after the battle had begun, but the U.S. wouldn’t claim victory in the battle until more than a month later, on 26 March. The photograph was quickly wired around the world and reproduced in newspapers across the United States. To a nation exhausted by the war, this photo brought hope and helped lift up the Allies to continue to victory. An enduring tribute to the fortitude of young Americans who served in WWII and who surpassed themselves under conditions we today can hardly imagine, is now embodied in the world’s largest bronze sculpture in Arlington, Virginia. It is modeled after the famous photo taken by Joe Rosenthal on the summit of Mount Suribachi.
Over the course of the 36-day engagement, there were at least 26,000 U.S. casualties, including 6,800 dead. This made Iwo Jima the only battle of the Pacific War in which American casualties outnumbered Japanese, although the number of Japanese soldiers killed, 18,844, was almost three times greater than the U.S. death count. The ferocity of the fighting at Iwo Jima led to 22 U.S. Marines and five members of the U.S. Navy being awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in America, for their bravery during the battle. That figure makes up more than a fifth of the total 82 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines, posthumously or otherwise, over the course of the entire war.
After the battle, Iwo Jima served as an emergency landing site for U.S. bombers. During the remainder of the Pacific campaign, 2,200 B-29 planes landed on the island, saving the lives of an estimated 24,000 U.S. airmen. One pilot said, “Whenever I land on this island, I thank God and the men who fought for it.”
Japan surrendered 160 days after its defeat at Iwo Jima.
“Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”–Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Atkins, Harry. 18 Facts about the Battle of Iwo Jima. History Hit. 2018. https://www.historyhit.com/facts-about-the-battle-of-iwo-jima/
Alexander, Joseph. The Battle of Iwo Jima. Military Times. 2018. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/2018/02/17/the-battle-of-iwo-jima-a-36-day-bloody-slog-on-a-sulfuric-island/
The National WWII Museum. The Battle for Iwo Jima. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/iwo-jima-fact-sheet.pdf
Sommerville, Donald. Battle of Iwo Jima. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-Iwo-Jima
History.com. Iwo Jima. History. 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-iwo-jima