February 19, 1945, sixty-six years ago today, a force of over 70,000 U.S. Marines landed against a Japanese garrison of over 22,000 men, on the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima, igniting one of the greatest and bloodiest battles of World War II.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (February 19 – March 26, 1945), or Operation Detachment , was a battle in which the United States fought for and captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Empire of Japan. The U.S. invasion, charged with the mission of capturing the three airfields on Iwo Jima, resulted in some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Campaign of World War II
The Imperial Japanese Army positions on the island were heavily fortified, with a vast network of bunkers, hidden artillery, and 18 km (11 mi) of underground tunnels. The Americans were covered by extensive naval and air support, capable of putting an enormous amount of firepower onto the Japanese positions. The battle was the first American attack on the Japanese Home Islands, and the Imperial soldiers defended their positions tenaciously. Iwo Jima was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American overall casualties exceeded the Japanese,although Japanese combat deaths numbered three times that of Americans. Of the more than 18,000 Japanese soldiers present at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner. The rest were killed or missing and assumed dead. Despite heavy fighting and casualties on both sides, Japanese defeat was assured from the start. The Americans possessed an overwhelming superiority in arms and numbers—this, coupled with the impossibility of Japanese retreat or reinforcement, ensured that there was no plausible scenario in which the United States could have lost the battle.
The battle was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the raising of the U.S. flag on top of the 166 m (545 ft) Mount Suribachi by five Marines and one Navy Corpsman. The photograph records the second flag-raising on the mountain, which took place on the fifth day of the 35-day battle. The picture became the iconic image of the battle and has been heavily reproduced.
The Invasion: At 02:00 local time, on 19 February 1945, D-Day, the formidable 16-inch (406 mm) battleship guns from USS North Carolina , USS Washington and later added USS West Virginia signaled the commencement of the invasion of Iwo Jima. American naval craft used nearly everything available in their arsenal to shell the island, from the main guns to the anti-aircraft guns to unguided rockets. Soon thereafter, 100 bombers attacked the island, followed by another volley from the naval guns. Although the bombing was consistent, it did not deter the Japanese defenses, since most of the Japanese positions were well-fortified and protected from shelling. Many were sheltered by Mount Suribachi, as the Japanese had spent the months prior to the invasion creating an elaborate system of tunnels and firing positions that ran throughout the entire mountain. For instance, some of the Japanese heavy artillery were concealed by reinforced steel doors in massive chambers built inside of Suribachi, which were nearly impenetrable to projectiles from the American bombardment.
At 08:59, one minute ahead of schedule, the first of an eventual 30,000 Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions, under V Amphibious Corps, landed on the beach. The initial wave was not hit by Japanese fire for quite some time; it was the plan of Japanese General Kuribayashi to hold fire until the beach was full of Marines and equipment. Many of the Marines who landed on the beach in the first wave speculated that perhaps the naval artillery and air bombardment of the island had killed all of the Japanese troops that were expected to be defending the island.In the deathly silence, they became somewhat unnerved as Marine patrols began to advance inland in search of the Japanese positions. Only after the front wave of Marines reached a line of Japanese bunkers defended by machine gunners did they take hostile fire. Many cleverly concealed Japanese bunkers and firing positions lit up and the first wave of Marines took devastating losses from machine guns.Aside from the Japanese defenses situated on the beaches, the Marines faced heavy fire from Mount Suribachi at the south of the island. It was extremely difficult for the Marines to advance because of the inhospitable terrain, which consisted of volcanic ash. This ash allowed for neither a secure footing nor the construction of defensive foxholes to protect the Marines from hostile fire. However, the ash did help to absorb a portion of the fragments that were expelled by the Japanese artillery. The Japanese heavy artillery in Suribachi would open their reinforced steel doors to fire and then immediately close their doors following to prevent counterfire from the American forces. This made it extremely difficult for American units to destroy a piece of Japanese artillery. To make matters worse for the American troops, the bunkers were connected to the elaborate tunnel system so that bunkers that were cleared with flamethrowers and grenades were reoccupied shortly afterwards by Japanese troops moving through the tunnels. This Japanese tactic caused many casualties among the Marines, as they walked past the reoccupied bunkers without expecting to suddenly take fresh fire from them. The Marines advanced slowly while taking heavy machine gun and artillery fire. Due to the arrival of armored units, and heavy naval artillery and air units maintaining a heavy base of fire on Suribachi, the Marines were eventually able to advance past the beaches. 760 Marines made a near-suicidal charge across to the other side of Iwo Jima that day. They took heavy casualties, but they made a considerable advance. By the evening, the mountain had been cut off from the rest of the island, and 30,000 Marines had landed. About 40,000 more would follow.
The Flag Raisings: “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” is a historic photograph taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal. It depicts five Marines and a U.S. Navy Corpsman raising the flag of the United States atop Mount Suribachi. The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and ultimately came to be regarded as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time. Of the six men depicted in the picture, three (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, and Micheal Strank) did not survive the battle; the three survivors (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) became celebrities upon the publication of the photo. For a while, it was believed that the man now known to be Block was actually Hank Hansen, but Hayes set the record straight.
By morning of the fourth day of the battle (February 23), Mount Suribachi was effectively cut off from the rest of the island—above ground. By then, the Marines knew that the Japanese defenders had an extensive network of below-ground defenses, and knew that in spite of its isolation above ground, the volcano was still connected to Japanese defenders via the tunnel network. They expected a fierce fight for the summit. Two four-man patrols were sent up the volcano to reconnoiter routes on the mountain’s north face. Popular legend (embroidered by the press in the aftermath of the release of the famous photo) has it that the Marines fought all the way up to the summit. The American riflemen expected an ambush, but none materialized. The Marines did encounter small groups of Japanese defenders on Suribachi, but the majority of the Japanese troops stayed in the tunnel network and only occasionally attacked in small groups and were generally all killed. The patrols made it to the summit and scrambled down again, reporting the lack of enemy contact to Colonel Chandler Johnson. Johnson then called for a platoon of Marines to climb Suribachi; with them, he sent a small American flag to fly if they reached the summit. Again, Marines began the ascent, expecting to be ambushed at any moment, but reached the top of Mount Suribachi without incident. Using a length of pipe they found among the wreckage atop the mountain, the Marines hoisted the U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi: the first foreign flag to fly on Japanese soil.A photograph of this “first flag raising” was taken by photographer Louis R. Lowery
As the flag went up, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had just landed on the beach at the foot of Mount Suribachi and decided that he wanted the flag as a souvenir. Popular legend has it that Colonel Johnson wanted the flag for himself, but, in fact, he believed that the flag belonged to the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, who had captured that section of the island. Johnson sent Sergeant Mike Strank to take a second (larger) flag up the volcano to replace the first. As the first flag came down, the second went up. It was after the second flag went up that Rosenthal took the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” of the replacement flag being planted on the mountain’s summit.
Pushing North: Despite the loss of Mount Suribachi on the south end of the island, the Japanese still held strong positions on the north end. The rocky terrain vastly favored defense, even more so than Mount Suribachi. Coupled with this, the fortifications constructed by Kuribayashi were more impressive than at the Southern end of the island. Remaining under the command of Kuribayashi was the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, two artillery, and three heavy mortar battalions. Also he had about 5,000 gunners and naval infantry. The most arduous task left to the Marines was the overtaking of the Motoyama Plateau with its distinctive Hill 382 and Turkey knob and the area in between referred to as the Amphitheater. This formed the basis of what came to be known as the “meatgrinder”. While this was being achieved on the right flank, the left was clearing out Hill 362 with just as much difficulty. The overall objective at this point was to take control of airfield no. 2 in the center of the island. However, every “penetration seemed to become a disaster” as “units were raked from the flanks, chewed up—sometimes wiped out. Tanks were destroyed by interlocking fire or were hoisted into the air on the spouting fireballs of buried mines”. As a result the fighting bogged down with Americans casualties piling up. Even capturing these points was not a solution to the problem since a previously secured position could be attacked from the rear by the use of the tunnels and hidden pillboxes. As such, it was said that “they could take these heights at will, and then regret it”.
The Marines nevertheless found ways to prevail under the circumstances. It was observed that during bombardments, the Japanese would hide their guns and themselves in the caves only to reappear when the troops would advance and lay devastating fire on them. The Japanese had over time learned basic American strategy which was to lay heavy bombardment before an infantry attack. Consequently, General Erskine ordered the 9th Marine Regiment to attack under the cover of darkness with no preliminary barrage. This came to be a resounding success with many soldiers taken out while still sleeping. This was a key moment in the capture of hill 362. It held such importance that the Japanese organized a counterattack the following night. Although Kuribayashi had forbidden the suicide charges familiar with other battles in the Pacific, the commander of the area decided on a banzai charge with the optimistic goal of recapturing Mount Suribachi. Captain Samaji Inouye and his 1,000 men charged the American position inflicting 347 casualties (90 deaths). The Marines counted 784 dead Japanese soldiers the next day.
Although the island was officially declared secure at 18:00 on March 26, 35 days after the landings, the 5th Marine Division still faced Kuribayashi’s stronghold in a gorge 640 m (700 yd) at the northwestern end of the island. On March 21, the Marines destroyed the command post in the gorge with four tons of explosives and on March 24, Marines sealed the remaining caves at the northern tip of the island. However, on the night of March 25, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final coutnerattack in the vicinity of Airfield No. 2. Army pilots, Seabee and Marines of the 5th Pioneer Battalion and 28th Marines fought the Japanese force for up to 90 minutes but suffered heavy casualties (53 were killed, and another 120 were wounded).Although the island was officially declared secure at 18:00 on March 26, 35 days after the landings, the 5th Marine Division still faced Kuribayashi’s stronghold in a gorge 640 m (700 yd) at the northwestern end of the island. On March 21, the Marines destroyed the command post in the gorge with four tons of explosives and on March 24, Marines sealed the remaining caves at the northern tip of the island. However, on the night of March 25, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final counterattack in the vicinity of Airfield No. 2. Army pilots, Seabee and Marines of the 5th Pioneer Battalion and 28th Marines fought the Japanese force for up to 90 minutes but suffered heavy casualties (53 were killed, and another 120 were wounded).
The Aftermath: Of the 22,785 Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island, 21,569 died either from fighting or by ritual suicide. Only 216 were captured during the battle. The Americans suffered 6,821 deaths out of 26,038 total casualties. The number of U.S. casualties was greater than the total Allied casualties on D-Day (estimated at 10,000, with 125,847 U.S. casualties during the entire Operation Overlord). Iwo Jima was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded the Japanese, although Japanese combat deaths numbered three times as many American deaths. The USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) had also been lost, as the last U.S. aircraft carrier sunk in WWII.
article courtesy of: Wikipedia
photos courtesy of: Life