20. February 2005 · Comments Off on Iwo Jima: Tribute to Bravery of an Uncommon Kind · Categories: General

February 19 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of a horrific battle for the tiny island of Iwo Jima. The battle would ultimately last 36 days and take the lives of 6,825 brave American Marines and nearly 22,000 – virtually all – of the Japanese defending the island.

Iwo Jima, located in the western Pacific, at 24.3N/141.5E, is a small, uninhabited island in the Ogasawara, or Volcano, Islands chain. It is some 650 miles southeast of Tokyo, about halfway between the Mariannas (Guam, Tinian, and Saipan) Islands and the Japanese capital. The island chain was administered by Tokyo, was considered Japanese turf, and no foreign army had ever set foot on Japanese territory in the 5,000 year existence of the nation. In World War II, the location of Iwo Jima translated into a highly coveted prize for the US Forces on their drive toward the Japanese home islands. And the Japanese were just as determined that the United States would not capture the island.

Japanese General Kurabayashi, commander of the 21,000 + troops on the Island, is reported to have said to his wife, upon being notified of his posting to the command, that she should not expect his return. The historic attitude of the Japanese at the time was such that death, even by suicide, was much preferred over surrender or capture in battle. And Kurabayashi prepared his troops and his defenses brilliantly. During their preparation for the long-awaited American invasion, they dug some 1500 rooms out of the volcanic rock, connected by 16 miles of tunnels. About the only protuberances above the surface were the machine gun and mortar positions inside pillboxes constructed of reinforced concrete, up to one meter thick in places. They were ready – or so they thought – for the onslaught of the Gai-Genes (foreign devils).

On February 19, at 2 AM, a one-hour barrage of naval gunfire left the island a smoking hell-on-earth. This was followed by one hundred ten bombers, dumping maximum bomb loads on the small target. Nothing on the surface could have been left alive. And all of this had been preceeded by 72 hours of naval bombardment without letup. At 8:30 AM, the Marines received the order to begin landing on the island. One hundred ten thousand Marines in 880 ships, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, began heading for shore. For these men, who had sailed 40 days earlier from Hawaii, the moment of truth had come. The landing, on a scale hardly imaginable today, was the largest to date in the Pacific war.

The fighting was brutal. Carnage was everywhere. Men died before they could even get to shore. Mortar rounds, well-calibrated before arrival of the Americans, fell on the landing craft with deadly accuracy, leaving burning hulks on the shoals, sending men and equipment to the bottom between ship and shore. On shore, the Marines established their beachhead, but they were terribly exposed to heavy enemy fire, as the volcanic sand was too loose to allow for the digging of foxholes. The Japanese, fighting from their pillboxes and from caves, would come to the surface, fire, and retreat to their cover, while Americans had to treat their wounded, establish firelanes, and, it seemed, move heaven and earth to construct viable fighting positions with suitable cover. Historians have described the American attack as, “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.” It has also been noted that one-third of all Marines who died in WWII were killed on Iwo Jima.

Other statistics show that the total American casualties (dead and wounded) were 25,851, and that some 48,000 survived either unscathed or with minor injuries. This was a battle unique in history: 100,000 men fighting for possession of an island the size of Manhattan. The battle was won by the inch-by-inch tenacity and bravery of the foot soldier. Not technology, not anything else but by uncommon valor of United States Marines.

The one act most remembered today was the raising of our flag on Mt. Suribachi. Suribachi, or “Suribati-Yama” in Japanese, stands 548 feet high, and is an active volcano. Iwo Jima itself is a submarine caldera, historically with some 10 eruptions, all recorded in the 20th century, the last in 1982. The island’s name means, in Japanese, “Sulfur Island.” The task of capturing Mt. Suribachi fell to the men of the 28th Regiment of the 5th Marines. They reached the base in the afternoon of the 21st, and by nightfall of the next day they had surrounded the mountain. On the morning of the 23rd, men of “E” Company, 2nd Battalion, started trudging up the treacherous slopes of the volcano. At around 10:30 AM, men all over the island erupted in a cheer heard all the way up to the summit as the US flag was hoisted into the air. Later that same afternoon, a larger flag was raised, and it was during the hoisting of this flag that AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph which later was used in constructing the US Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The benefit realized by the US Forces in the capture of Iwo Jima was huge. Throughout the rest of the war, some 2400 B-29’s made emergency landings at Iwo, resulting in the saving of 27,000 American lives. With the three airfields on Iwo Jima active, fighter aircraft stationed there would be able to escort bombers on raids over Tokyo, protecting them from attack by Japanese fighters, resulting in untold lives saved. Was the battle for Iwo Jima worth the sacrifice of over 6,800 American servicemen’s lives? Just ask the survivors of the B-29’s that were saved by landing there, or the men who were protected by the fighter escorts, or their children, grandchildren, or their wives.

A Google search for Iwo Jima is worth the effort. A wealth of information, some of which was used in this article, can be found there. Another site, referenced earlier, is here. It is maintained by the family of John Bradley, one of the men who raised the flag that day sixty years ago. We today owe a great debt of gratitude to brave, courageous Marines who placed themselves in harm’s way to secure not only this island, but to win a war that was forced upon us, and to win it with unsurpassable honor.

What else can be said, but

Semper Fi!

UPDATE: Watch a program about Iwo Jima on the Military Channel at 8PM on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005, entitled, “Return to Iwo Jima.”

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