THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA – PART THREE
Attrition and Its Consequences
Press coverage of the raging battle on Iwo Jima reached a crescendo with the raising of the flags on Mt. Suribachi. The Marines’ bravery despite a ferocious enemy and having suffered horrific casualties was first page, ‘above the fold’ news across the country. But unfortunately, many reporters saw the symbolism of the flag raising as a convenient end point to their narrative of the battle. The island’s conquest seemed assured. There were other stories to cover. Vanishing news coverage did a disservice to the sacrifices that thousands of unsung American heroes would make over the next month.
At the end of the first five days the US forces had pushed across Airfield One and toward Airfield Two. However, Japanese resistance had just begun.
Advance Toward the North and East
Historically, Japanese troops penned up would, rather than surrender, make banzai charges. If successful, the charges would overrun American positions, but if not it usually led to the wholesale slaughter of the Japanese attackers. Kuribayashi forbade these types of attacks, and instead ordered his troops to remain under cover and to sell their lives with the highest cost to the attackers. By waging night attacks on Marine foxholes, using the elaborate tunnel network to infiltrate behind the American lines to attack advancing Marines from behind, and employing well-sited machine gun, artillery, and mortar positions to unleash murder cross fire took thousands of Marines’ lives.
The Marines’ small arm fire proved ineffective against these positions and tactics. The attackers soon discovered that flamethrowers, satchel charges, gasoline, and grenades were the most effective ways to kill the hidden defenders. Marines with flamethrowers packed 68 pounds of highly flammable gasoline in pressurized backpacks, would shoot a stream of flame into suspected enemy areas. These Marines had an even shorter life expectancy than the riflemen.
Marine artillery units quickly deployed and fired from presumably secured areas, with forward observers like Luling resident Alton Rodenberg stationed on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi. Naval artillery was called in from battleships and cruisers offshore. The Marines landed Sherman medium tanks fitted with flamethrowers. The “Ronson” or “Zippo” tanks (named after cigarette lighter brands), were particularly effective. Navy and Marine aviators, flying off aircraft carriers, unloaded rockets, and napalm that allowed a slow and painful advance toward the northern tip of the island, where Kuribayashi’s headquarters were presumed to be.
From the beginning, the war in the Pacific had been typified by its unprecedented brutality, but napalm and flamethrowers and white phosphorus grenades incinerating human flesh brought war’s inhumanity to a new level. But Marines who had seen their buddies slaughtered on landing beaches or blown up by mortars, or shot in the back by snipers saw these weapons as indispensable equalizers against a hidden and ruthless enemy.
USMC Photographer Douglas Page Shot of Flamethrower in Action Marine with Flamethrower
Japanese Cave Complex on the North End of the Island-Photo by Douglas Page
In the midst of the carnage, the Navy was on the receiving end of kamikaze attacks. The USS Saratoga was struck by two suicide dive bombers, putting it out of action for the rest of the war. The escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea was struck as well. It blew up, capsized and sank, taking hundreds of her crew to the bottom with her. It was a harbinger of what was to occur a month later during the invasion of Okinawa, where more kamikazes would kill thousands more sailors.
Kuribayashi’s war of attrition seemed to be working according to plan. Marine units were held up and drained of manpower. Companies were commanded by captains, then lieutenants, then sergeants –there seemed to be no end in sight as the slaughter continued.
Japanese defenders retreated into increasingly rugged terrain. Their lairs were often immune from heavy bombardments attempting to ‘soften up’ an area before infantry advances. When the bombardment stopped and Marines advanced, the Japanese returned through their tunnel network into their pillboxes and machine gun emplacements to unleash withering fire on the attackers. Although still under constant fire, a group of 14 small unarmed aircraft used the airfield as a staging ground for round-the-clock artillery spotting, which proved invaluable.
USMC Photographer Douglas Page Photo of Fighting in the Rugged Terrain
Heat and Rugged Terrain Made a Horrible Combination – by Douglas Page USMC
The three invading American divisions pushed north across the island. The 4th Division fought a battle of attrition against Hill 382, ‘The Amphitheater’, ‘Turkey Knob’ and an area aptly dubbed ‘The Meatgrinder.’ The 5th Marine Division attacked the Nishi Ridge, Hills 362A and362B and ‘The Gorge’, and the Third Division attacked across the unfinished third airfield and into an eerie killing ground that became known as ‘Cushman’s Pocket’.
A retired Marine officer remembers: “At one point we had 60,000 men occupying less than three-and-a-half square miles of broken terrain.” It produced a schizophrenic scenario. A command post a kilometer from Japanese lines, artillery still firing in the area near the landing beaches, and Seabees using heavy equipment to repair the airfields for the arrival of the B-29s. And all the while, the men in combat had to keep going – until they were killed or wounded. As James Bradley puts it: “Their daily routine – impossibly dull and impossibly terrifying – was turning them into human robots. Each day was the same: a morning artillery bombardment, then a crawling, slow advance over exposed terrain, then an afternoon bombardment, then another advance. At dusk the boys scuttled into shell holes or ravines for shelter. The next morning, it all started over again.”
In the first nine days attacking north, the Marines advanced a total of 4000 yards – and suffered over 7000 casualties. Medical attention for the Americans was as good as it got in the Pacific – with Marines taken to aid stations, hospitals, hospital ships, and the more seriously wounded on to Guam for care from physicians like Lockhart resident Dr. Philip Wales. But the problem was getting the wounded out of the combat zone. The Japanese had no compunctions about killing corpsmen, stretcher bearers, or the wounded themselves. Twenty-three doctors and 827 corpsmen were wounded or lost their lives on the island.
By March 4th, thirteen days after the landing, the first crippled B-29 landed on the re-constructed Airfield Number 1 and a large portion of Kuribayashi’s defenses had been taken. But the cost was so staggering, and the need for replacements so desperate, that the next day, March 5th, a ‘stand down’ order was issued to give depleted front line units some time to catch their collective breaths – and receive badly needed reinforcements. Then the fighting continued. Finally, on March 11th, the Japanese forces were split in two, with Kuribayashi’s main force in the north backed against the sea at Kitano Point.
On March 14th, the island was declared “secured” by Admiral Chester Nimitz. “Who does the admiral think he is kidding?” scoffed one Marine. “We’re still getting killed.” The fighting continued unabated in the center of the island, but on March 16th, the Japanese pocket on the eastern side of the island was finally wiped out. Further north the 5th Division fought toward Kuribayashi’s headquarters in what became as “Death Valley.” This was an exceptionally deadly labyrinth of caves, bluffs, cliffs, and sulfurous emissions from the volcanic rock. The end was near for Kuribayashi, who radioed Tokyo, on March 22nd, “We are still fighting. The strength under my command is now about four hundred. Tanks are attacking us. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention.” On the night of March 25th, what appeared to be last of the organized resistance ended. But not quite. Three hundred of Kuribayashi’s men infiltrated American lines and attacked unsuspecting airmen and reserve troops near the airfield. The enemy’s last gasp took another 100 American lives before the Japanese were wiped out. Kuribayashi presumably took his own life. His body was never found.
Colonel Joseph Alexander USMC (Ret) states, “In its 36 days of combat on Iwo Jima, the V Amphibious Corps [the Marines fighting onshore and the Navy offshore] killed approximately 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors. The cost was staggering. The assault units of the corps—Marines and organic Navy personnel—sustained 24,053 casualties, by far the highest single-action losses in Marine Corps history. Of these, a total of 6,140 died. Roughly one Marine or corpsman became a casualty for every three who landed on Iwo Jima.” Twenty-seven men received the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima – half of them posthumously. Americans were shocked at the cost. There were more Marine casualties than Japanese.
But the Army Air Force got its emergency landing field. By war’s end, a total of 2,251 B-29s had made forced landings on the island. Those planes carried 24,761 crewmen, many of whom would have perished at sea without Iwo Jima as a safe haven. Said one B-29 pilot, “Whenever I land on this island I thank God for the men who fought for it.”
In the word of Admiral Chester Nimitz, on Iwo Jima, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” In its aftermath, many Marines have stated simply, “I know when I die I am going to heaven, because I’ve already been in hell.”
Iwo Jima taught the Japanese America’s resolve to take the war to the Japanese heartland. General Douglas MacArthur’s troops were retaking the Philippines, and the invasion of Okinawa was next. But the tenacious defense by the Japanese, and the very real fear that the American losses at Iwo Jima (and soon after on Okinawa) were a foretaste of what would lay in store in the event of an invasion of the main Japanese islands confirmed to many, including President Truman, that the atomic bomb, recently perfected and soon to be tested in the New Mexico desert, was the only way to force an end to the war.
Much information for this article has been gleaned from CLOSING IN: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), and Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley.