The Battle for Iwo Jima

The attack on Pearl Harbor, a US Naval Base in Hawaii, by Japan drew the United States into the crucible of war. For the next six months Japan went undefeated, taking Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. One day after the fall of the Philippines, 7 May 1942, the US finally made strategic progress at the Battle of Coral Sea, while it was not a victory for the US, it did take several Japanese Naval ships out of action. The first victory for the US came a month later at the Battle of Midway, Japan had tried to draw the US Pacific fleet out into a fight, especially the undestroyed carriers from Pearl Harbor. The United States had broken the Japanese code and knew where the Japanese were going to attack. The US had their fleets ready and waiting for the Japanese and were able to counter attack, sinking four of its carriers. The US navy had adopted a strategy known as island hopping where they would take islands of strategic significance, mainly the islands that had usable airfields and ports that could be seized to be used to advance closer to Japan. The islands that had no strategic value, small garrisons that would be of no use, would be bypassed and ignored. In August of 1942, US Marines landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, they fought for control of the island for six months and by February 1943 they declared the island secure. After Guadalcanal, the Japanese military would be on the defensive for the rest of the war. The next two years would see the Japanese military defeated in hard fought battles at Tarawa, Peleliu, the Philippines, and the Marianas Islands. As the Japanese were pushed closer to their homeland, the more ferocious their fighting became. In the Pacific Ocean, a tiny island halfway between the Japanese main islands and the Marianas Islands that was able to warn Tokyo of approaching American bombers, and the US needed to take control of the island. Iwo Jima lies south of Tokyo and is part of the Tokyo prefecture or district, meaning the Marines would be fighting the enemy on their home islands.
February 19, 1945, Marines from the Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions began landing on Iwo Jima. Their initial objectives were to seize the airfields, and to cut off Mount Suribachi off from the rest of the island. The Marines landings went unopposed, giving some the illusion that the Japanese had been eliminated. After close to an hour after landing, the Marines had packed the beachhead and began moving forward, and that is when the Japanese counterattacked. The Marines were caught in an exposed position, taking heavy fire from Mount Suribachi to the south and the high ground from the north. The Marines had to fight for every yard they gained, systematically knocking out an intricate network of Japanese fighting positions. The Marines would learn that even if a position had been neutralized that a tunnel system would allow Japanese soldiers to reoccupy it. Two divisions landed on the nineteenth with a third division in reserve, the brutality of the fighting and the high attrition rate caused the Marine commander, General Holland Smith, to land the reserve force on the third day of the battle, something that had not happened yet in the Pacific theater. The Marines in the Fifth division had cut across the island at the base of Mount Suribachi and seized the volcano by the fifth day and turned their attention to pushing to the north, joining the Fourth and Third Divisions. As they made their way north, the Marines encountered the Japanese main line of resistance, which the Marines nicknamed “the meatgrinder,” some units had gone into it with several hundred men and emerged with just a handful. The Japanese had finally been broken and the Third Division in the center of the American lines had reached the shore and split Japanese resistance into two sections. The Japanese mounted one more final assault against the Americans, which ended in failure on 26 March, after which the island was declared secured with nearly seven thousand Marines dead, nearly twenty thousand wounded and most of the twenty two thousand Japanese defenders dead. This battle was the only battle that the Marines had suffered more casualties than the Japanese and it was the battle that had the most Marines killed in their entire history.

“The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”

-Secretary of Navy James Forrestal

On 23 February, the fifth day of fighting on the island the 28th Marine Regiment had cut off Suribachi and began the arduous task of climbing up its steep sides. Chandler Johnson, a battalion commander had ordered a patrol to the top of the volcano. He handed a small flag to one of his lieutenants, telling him “if you get to the top, put it up.” The entire way up the side the Marines were anxious, fearing a Japanese attack at any moment. When they got to the top, they got the Japanese view of the island, the landing beaches, and the American armada off shore. After setting up their perimeter , the Marines found a pole that had been used for collecting water and that would be ideal for putting the flag up. When the flag went up, the Marines on the beach began to cheer and the ships began blowing their whistles in celebration. The Secretary of Navy, James Forrestal, had been present to witness the invasion and was on the beach with Marine Corps Commander, Holland Smith, when the flag was raised and ordered him to get the flag. Chandler Johnson did not agree with the order because the flag belonged to his battalion not the Navy. Johnson sent another Lieutenant to retrieve a bigger flag and sent it up with a patrol that was to also run a telephone wire up the mountain. A correspondent with the Associated Press, Joe Rosenthal, had missed his chance to get a picture of the flag raising, but was persuaded to go up anyways. When the patrol arrived at the top, Rosenthal started to set up a position to at least get a picture of the second flag, but while he was getting his camera set up the Marines started to raise the flag and he snapped a picture from his chest unsure if he had even captured anything. His picture would be the defining picture of the war, and one of the most famous images in history. While the flag raising symbolized victory on Iwo Jima, the battle lasted another thirty days with most of the heaviest fighting occurring later. The second flag raising had barely been noticed, and the Marines in the picture were unaware that it had even been taken. Of the six flag raisers, only three would get off the island, the other three were killed in action.

 “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

-Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz

During the month long battle, twenty seven people were awarded the Medal of Honor. Twenty two were awarded to Marines and accounts for over a quarter of all the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in all of the Pacific. Eleven Marines were awarded the medal posthumously, meaning they were killed in the action that warranted awarding them the medal.

“The legend of Basilone, a legend born in the jungles of Guadalcanal, the hero I had read about in boot camp, whose stature had grown larger on the black and bloody sands of Iwo as I held the machine gun belt for him, was gone.”

-Chuck Tatum 

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone had earned the Medal of Honor in battle on Guadalcanal. On 24 October 1942, the Japanese Army tried to overrun the Marines lines in an area that was referred to as Bloody Ridge. Basilone was in charge of two sections of machine guns with two guns per section, during the fight his guns kept having issues, either running out of ammo or malfunctioning. Basilone kept running to the rear and getting more ammo for his gun crews. At one point in the battle, two guns went down and Basilone carried an operational weapon weighing around ninety pounds to replace the downed gun. After he got into position he set his weapon on up and began firing into charging Japanese soldiers with great effect. During the Japanese assaults, Basilone kept switching between gun positions to clear malfunctions and to allow the guns to cool off. After the battle, it had been noted that his companies pert of the line had been the main concentration of the assaults. After the Marines were pulled off of Guadalcanal and sent to Australia to recover from the fight, Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was then sent back to the US to participate in a bond drive tour. His actions on Guadalcanal had gained him a lot of fame. He had been given an office job working as an aid to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, but he wanted to train Marines on how to fight. The Marine Corps stationed him at Camp Pendleton California to help form the Fifth Marine Division. The division along with Basilone landed on Iwo Jima in the first several waves on 19 February 1945. When the Japanese opened fire on the Marines, Basilone had been seen moving up and down the beach and taking cover to get other Marines to move. He was kicking them and cursing them to get them off the beach. Basilone’s unit had the task of taking the airfield that sat right off of the landing beaches. He had one of several of his machine gunners begin moving towards their objective, and trying to silence Japanese machine gun nests as they moved forward. He led them to a point just outside the airfield, told them to hold that position while he went back to the beach to get more men and ammunition. As he made his way back to his Marines near the airfield a mortar exploded near him, killing him. John Basilone was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award for valor, for his actions on Iwo Jima.

“Of all our adversaries in the Pacific, Kuribayashi was the most redoubtable.”

-Lieutenant General Holland Smith, USMC

Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was the commander of Japanese forces at Iwo Jima when the US Marines launched their assault against the island in February 1945. In all the previous battles in the Pacific, the Japanese had a doctrine of meeting the Marines on the beach to prevent them from getting a foothold, but this tactic had failed every time. Kuribayashi wanted to fight a battle of attrition, and he wanted the Marines to bleed. Kuribayashi was well aware that the island would fall to the Americans, but he wanted to fight to the last man. His reasoning was that the longer he kept the Marines busy at Iwo Jima, the longer it would hold off an invasion or bombings of the home islands. He had his soldiers build a defensive network of tunnels that would connect the entire island underground. During the first waves of Marines landing, he had all of his gunners hold their fire until the beaches were crowded. After nearly an hour when the beaches were filled with men and equipment his soldiers opened fire, devastating the Marines on the beaches. His tunnel network allowed soldiers to reoccupy positions that had been previously taken out, and come up behind the enemy. He would not permit for his soldiers to commit to banzai charges or commit suicide, he wanted every soldier to fight and not waste their lives. When Kuribayashi had only several hundred men under his command left he ordered a final attack against the Marines. In the early morning hours of 26 March 1945, Kuribayashi led his men within close range of US lines and began his attack, the Marines were caught off guard and fought hand to hand for several hours before all resistance from the Japanese had ended. Kuribayashi had been killed in the attack, but his body could not be recovered due to all Japanese soldiers removing their rank insignia and burning it before the final attack. Tadamichi Kuribayashi was a unique commander in the Japanese military, he went against the notions of suicide charges or committing suicide himself. For his defense of Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi was posthumously promoted to full General by the Imperial Japanese headquarters in March 1945.


For Further Reading

Ambrose, Hugh. The Pacific, New York: NAL Caliber, 2010

Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers, New York: Bantam Books, 2000

Kakehashi, Kumiko. So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War Based on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Letters From Iwo Jima, New York: Ballantine Books, 2007

Leckie, Robert. The Battle for Iwo Jima, New York: iBooks, 1967

Tatum, Chuck. Red Blood, Black Sand, New York: Berkley Caliber, 2012