A Brief History
On February 19, 1945, the most cracked battle in history of the United States Marine Corp (USMC) began with 30,000 Marines hitting a beach.
Digging deeper, and we mean digging deeper, we find the small Pacific Island of Iwo Jima fortified by about 22,000 Japanese soldiers who had spent the previous year creating an amazing array of tunnels and fortifications to prepare for the inevitable American assault.
The battle that would follow would result in the only time in USMC history where Marine casualties would outnumber those of the enemy! Although only 216 Japanese would survive the battle as prisoners (the other 22,000 having died), Americans suffered 26,000 casualties, of whom 6,821 were killed.
Despite targeting Iwo Jima with bombardment by air and sea for months in advance, the Japanese and their equipment were dug in so effectively that the preparation had little effect. Marine commanders had stated a requirement of 10 days of heavy naval bombardment (especially by the heavy guns of battleships), but always overestimating the effectiveness of their guns, the skeptical Navy brass only agreed to 3 days’ worth, and even then poor visibility resulted in even less pre-invasion “softening up,” which would have dire consequences as Japanese defenses were left mainly intact.
In this surreal battle of concealment, many Marines never saw a live Japanese soldier! Few Japanese were killed by bullets, with almost all of them killed by explosives, flame weapons or by being entombed in the tunnels!
Fighting to the death, neither side was interested in taking prisoners, and the ferocity and brutality of the fighting is considered the most extreme in Marine Corps history. Of the 82 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in World War II, 22 were earned at Iwo Jima! (5 Navy corpsmen also were awarded Medals of Honor.)
Among the most famous photographs in all of history is the photo of Marines (and a corpsman) raising the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. A little known part of that historic event is that the photo and moving-picture film taken at the same time are actually of the second flag raising!
The first flag was deemed too small, so a second larger one was raised. Three of the six men raising the flag died in battle at Iwo Jima. A famous statue based on the flag-raising photo and known as the Iwo Jima Memorial stands in Washington, D.C. and bears the words of Admiral Nimitz, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
The legacy of this horrific battle includes the very survival of the Marine Corps as a distinct branch of the armed forces, with Secretary of the Navy Forrestal saying, “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years!”
Taking Iwo Jima meant Japanese fighter planes lost a base to attack American B-29 bombers that were on their way to bomb Japan, and conversely, American fighters could now be based there to protect the bombers. It also provided an emergency landing place for damaged U.S. planes.
So many books and movies and cultural references have been made about Iwo Jima that it is impossible to list them all here! Among the most notable include the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), the two sister films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), both of which are based on the book Flags of Our Fathers, and the Johnny Cash song “Ira Hayes” (native American flag raising Marine). Semper Fidelis.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did you or any of your relatives fight in the Pacific Theater of World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For both sides of the battle, please see…
Eastwood, Clint, dir. Letters from Iwo Jima [Blu-ray]. Warner Home Video, 2007. Blu-ray.