THE BATTLE OF IWO JIMA
The First Flag Up – Photo by Lowery
D-Day and Desperation
The ‘softening up’ of Iwo Jima began in December of 1944 with high altitude bombings. The island was battered for 72 consecutive days. It did no good. Intelligence photos showed that the number of defenses actually grew during the massive air strikes. Then it was the Navy’s turn – and it didn’t do a very good job. Commanding the Marines was General Holland ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith. A veteran of amphibious landings, he demanded a ten day close-in naval bombardment – but many of the Navy’s big ships were too busy conducting somewhat useless – but good for newspaper headlines – coastal bombardments of the Japanese home islands. They were unavailable. The Marines would get parts of three days of shelling before hitting the beach. Smith would blame the Navy for many of the Marine deaths.
In the words of James Bradley, General Kuribayashi had “transformed Iwo Jima into one large blockhouse.” Steel doors, multiple entrances on gun positions, underground rooms, tunnels, hospitals, command posts, hidden artillery and mortar positions, sniper holes. The list goes on and on. And every inch of the island was covered by cross fire. Hell awaited the young men on February 19th.
30,000 men and boys of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit Red, Yellow, Blue and Green beaches at 0900 hrs, with the 3rd Division in reserve. The volcanic sands were difficult to move in. Thus, men and equipment stacked up on the two mile wide landing area creating a confusion of landing craft, amphibious vehicles and personnel. Yet for an hour nothing happened. Were all the defenders dead? Then, as more and more Americans unloaded or were seasick in Higgins boats waiting their turn at the beach, all hell broke loose. Kuribayashi had refused to be drawn into a defense at the water’s edge. The Japanese defenders on and in Mt. Suribachi in the south, and in emplacements to the north interlaced the whole area with massive artillery, mortar, rifle and machine gun fire. The results were devastating. Desperate Marines trying to dig foxholes got nowhere in the volcanic ash. Tracked vehicles bogged down. Marines were killed as they left the landing craft. Landing vessels were blown out of the water and the Marines inside vaporized. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal landed with the 4th Division and ran for his life. He later said that “not getting hit was like running through rain and not getting wet.”
Somehow, the Marines took a toe hold. One by one, pillboxes fell. But time and time again, Marines would be shot down after taking Japanese fortifications. Underground tunnels allowed defenders the ability to re-enter what was presumed to be a secured area. In a suicidal charge, Company A, 28th Marines, charged across 700 yards of exposed ground and severed Mt. Suribachi from the rest of the island. By noon, there were 9000 Marines on Iwo Jima. Defensive tunnels from Suribachi to the rest of the Japanese defensive network had not been completed, but Kuribayashi had expected this, and Suribachi had been designated a semi-autonomous defensive area.
By noon on D Day, annihilation was no longer an issue. But the shock of the devastation and loss of life was profound. The American public would discover that more American lives had been lost in the first four days than in five months of fighting at Guadalcanal!
At Normandy, the Allies had pushed inland, and the landing zones became safe within a reasonably short time frame. Not so on Iwo. The landing zone would remain ‘hot’ for days. Correspondent Robert Sherrod came in at 1700 hrs on D Day. Another correspondent warned him, “I wouldn’t got there if I was you. There’s more hell in there than I’ve seen in the rest of the war put together.” Sherrod, who was no stranger to combat, was shocked by what he saw. He called the fighting on Iwo “a nightmare in hell.” Writing of the landing, he stated, “About the beach in the morning lay the dead…. They died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay fifty feet away from the body.”
The Landings and Advances by the Marines
Carnage on the Beaches
Yet somehow, as James Bradley states in Flags of Our Fathers, “the Marines kept advancing. Somehow, discipline held. Somehow, valor overcame terror. Somehow, scared young men under sheets of deadly fire kept on the doing the basic, gritty tasks necessary to keep the invasion going.”
Hundreds of Marines Never Got Off the Beach
You Couldn’t Dig in the Volcanic Sand
By D-Day Plus Two the tentacles of American persistence were reaching further from the beachhead. But it was a terrible thing to see. Recalling a doomed charge some 80 years before, “Howlin’ Mad” Smith later told a reporter, “Watching the Marines cross that island reminded me of the charge of Pickett at Gettysburg.”
The carnage would continue unabated. There wasn’t time or space to accommodate individual graves. Men were buried 50 at a time in bulldozed graves. Unsure of whether the dead Marines were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, one chaplain, Gage Hotaling could only recite, “We commit you into the earth and the mercy of Almighty God.” He would do this for 1800 young men.
On February 23, 1945, D-Day Plus Four, Mt. Suribachi was finally surrounded. A patrol was told to try to climb to the top, and given a small American flag, told that IF they made it up, to hoist the flag. There was no guarantee they would get up or back alive as the area was still honeycombed with Japanese filled caves. At the top, a piece of pipe was found in the wreckage of a water catchment system, and Sgt. Lou Lowery took several pictures of the men involved. James Bradley says that as the flag became noticed, “Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into Times Square on New Year’s Eve….Here was the first invader’s flag every planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan.” Lockhart resident Rev. George Goodman was a Coast Guard radio technician on an LST that had run equipment and men into the beach. He saw the flag go up and recalls, “We were thrilled. We knew the island was going to be ours – but taking it was going to be a long way off.”
It only lasted a minute, and all hell broke loose again. But for reasons unknown, the Japanese in caves immediately below the peak didn’t kill the interlopers, even though they outnumbered them in overwhelming numbers.
Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was with the invasion fleet. Seeing the flag raised on Suribachi, he decided he wanted it as a souvenir. This didn’t set well with Col. Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander of the 2nd Bn, 28th Marines. “To hell with that,” he said, ordering a larger and more easily seen flag to be brought up. He would secrete the first flag, and a much larger flag, the iconic one whose raising was shot by photographer Joe Rosenthal, was retrieved from a landing ship – tank (LST) at the beach. Fittingly, the flag had been recovered from a ship sunk by the Japanese at the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Marines again braved the hidden Japanese in caves and bunkers, with the new flag and instructions: “Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high so every son of a b____ on this whole cruddy island can see it!”
Rosenthal’s Iconic Shot
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal accompanied the second flag up to the top of Suribachi. Rosenthal nearly didn’t get perhaps the most famous photo in history, as he stumbled as the first flag went down and the second one went up. He snapped the picture without looking through the viewfinder, and had no idea whether he’d even caught the raising of the flag. He took several other “gung ho” shots of the Marines surrounding the newly raised flag, and then headed back to the beach to turn in his developed film to be sent stateside. The image of Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley – five Marines and a Navy Corpsman, shoving a flag on a pole into the rocks of an insignificant dot in the ocean would prove symbolic.
It was and is the singular memory many of us have of Iwo Jima. But battle had hardly begun. It would rage for another month, and thousands more Marines, including three of the flag raisers in Rosenthal’s shot, would not leave the island alive.
Next: A Battle of Attrition and Its Consequences
Much information for this article comes from Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley