World War Two’s Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 has been remembered as one of the most brutal and infamous of all. This is not without reason. On the tiny Pacific Island 21,000 Japanese soldiers fought tooth and nail to the bitter end against the might of the United States and their US Marines. We have now released our second video on Youtube covering this infamous 36 day ordeal.
In describing his experience of World War 2's Pacific theatre US Marine Robert Leckie wrote:
"It was a darkness without time. It was an impenetrable darkness. To the right and left of me rose those terrible formless things of my imagination, which I could not see because there was no light. I could not see, but I dared not close my eyes lest the darkness crawl beneath my eyelids and suffocate me".
Any misconceived notions that the soldiers of the Empire of Japan were in any way an ill fitting, underclass of peoples not prepared for the modern technological might of the West were soon provided a sobering reality check.
As old Empires crumbled, the brutal, unforgiving tenacity of Japan’s way of war was clear.
There would be no easy victories given to those in the Pacific theatre. Every square inch of jungle, every grain of sand would be paid for in blood.
Following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour their military quickly took advantage of the success. Much to the dismay of the Allies, Japan continued to expand their holdings throughout the Pacific and westward toward India.
This was until their decisive loss at the battle of Midway in 1942. Outplayed in the strategy of battle by the US Navy, Japan lost an irreplaceable 3 aircraft carriers and in doing so lost the ability to dictate the theatre of war.
Japan prepared to go on the defensive.
The next few years in the Pacific would pit allied forces against well defended Japanese islands that would otherwise be insignificant specs of land in the world’s largest ocean.
With overwhelming naval superiority the US forces hopped from island to island towards Japan. By October 1944 the massive new B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers had a range capable of reaching mainland Japan but the journey was fraught with danger. The aircraft were being intercepted by Japanese fighters and many B-29s would be in such bad shape after their raids they would break down over the ocean before making it home.
Despite the direction the war was taking, the pacific campaign raged on. Japanese resistance was stiffening rather than softening as its defensive chain of islands became pierced.
Pushing onward, the US set its sights on the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima.
At just 660km away from Tokyo Iwo Jima offered a crucial staging post for future invasion of the mainland and a much needed base for not only fighter escorts but somewhere for the B-29 crews to land if their aircraft were too damaged.
These points were not lost on the Japanese. Nor was it lost on the Japanese the sheer weight of warfighting resources their enemy could bring to bear. The honour of protecting this island fell to General Kuribayashi Tadamichi. Rather than take the US head on where they were sure to be outgunned, Kuribayashi elected for defence in depth. Fight from underground and concealment. Dig as deep as possible and keep as low profile as possible.
A complex series of pillboxes, bunkers, tunnels, trenches and cave systems riddled the island. The defenders were tasked to fight from cover, to hold out as long as possible, not to surrender.
23,000 Japanese soldiers were dug into the volcanic rock like a tic ready to make the US Marines pay for every inch of the black sand with blood.
On the 16th February 1945 with the island encircled by naval assets the Pre-landing bombardment began. Six battleships and five cruisers relentlessly let loose on the island with a constant barrage of shell fire. As early as June 1944 the island was bring heavily attacked from sea and air. A total of 7,000/14,000 tons tonnes of explosive was dropped to provide support to the invasion. The 8-square-mile island would suffer the longest, most intensive shelling of any Pacific island during the war.
More than 450 ships massed off Iwo with the First wave of Marines arriving at the beach, as salvos fired overhead, one minute early at 8.59am.
The hope for a straightforward landing were dashed when Marines were faced with 15-foot-high slopes of soft black volcanic ash, allowing for neither a secure footing nor the construction of foxholes to protect themselves from hostile fire. The volcanic sand also bogged down the supporting vehicles.
An ever increasing number of marines collected on the beach and yet the level retaliation was minimal. This was no mistake on the Japanese part. They were placed exactly where Kuribayashi wanted them.
After allowing the Americans to pile up men and machinery on the beach for just over an hour, Kuribayashi unleashed fire and brimstone on the invaders. Japanese artillery positions blasted the shoreline whilst concealed Japanese machine gun nests shot down anyone exposing themselves for too long.
Despite the chaos of the first day against well-coordinated Japanese resistance, the Marines succeeded in isolating Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island as night fell. 30,000 men had landed on the shore. This was at a heavy cost with some units cut down to a fraction of their previous size.
Out of the 900 men of the 25th Marines' 3rd Battalion who had landed in the morning on the right flank, only 150 Marines were left in fighting condition at the end of the day. An 83.3% casualty rate.
The most famous moments of the battle, and one of the defining images of the war was the raising of the flag on top of Mount Suribachi. It took 3 days after landing to reach the summit of Siribachi.
Marines twice raised the American flag on Suribachi’s summit with the first flag considered too small to be effectively seen.
The second flag raising was photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. Six Marines from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines were involved in the photo but such was the ferocious reality of Iwo that three of the six; Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley, were killed in action just days after.
Whilst the high ground of the island had been successfully taken, the most dogged defence was in the central and northern sectors of the island where the crucial two airfields were located. Kuribayashi concentrated his energy here with miles of interlocking caves, concrete block houses and pillboxes yet to be discovered as the 23rd, 25th, and 27th regiments began to measure their advances in yards.
Marines expected the usual Japanese banzai charge during the night. This had been the standard Japanese final defense strategy in previous battles against enemy ground forces in the Pacific, such as during the Battle of Saipan. Whilst utterly horrifying, the Marines were prepared and these human wave tactics ultimately greatly reduced the number of defenders left to deal with. Kuribayashi had strictly forbidden these "human wave" attacks by the Japanese infantrymen because he considered them to be futile. Japanese defenders would force the Americans to take on their well entrenched defensive positions.
Determined fighting had put the airfield nearest the landings under Marine control by the end of the second day but it was in the push to the second airfield that would prove most treacherous.
The Japanese had sighted their guns down the runways and the flat expanse of this second airfield with artillery zerod in and ready for the inevitable assault. This was overlaid with the continuation of a well fortified multitude of machine gun nests and riflemen hidden in strategic positions designed to take advantage of the increasingly rough terrain, and to protect the two northernmost airfields.
With this deep belt of fortifications running from coast to coast the only solution was by way of brute force through the terrain and its defenders. After six full days of battle, 1,605 Marines were dead and 5,496 wounded. Kuribayashi still controlled two thirds of Iwo Jima.
Each division fought hard to gain ground against a determined defender, with engagements often ending with the death of the last Japanese soldier. Many Japanese positions proved impervious to close air support bombing and strafing, and had to be taken by direct ground assault or by sealing off entrances. The Marines learned that the most effective way to nullify strongpoints was through use of explosives and flamethrowers to flush out Japanese troops in the tunnels, or bury them under the ground.
The complexity of these underground mini-fortresses was such that even a position that had been seemingly knocked out may only have been for a short time before its occupants returned from the underground passageway, or relocated to an entirely different position to start the process all over again. Despite the initial issues with making effective use of them, tanks were ideal for taking out pillboxes. However the effectiveness meant they drew the attention of the defenders as a priority to be taken out.
Mortars and rockets would inevitably cascade down on them, creating a ring of havoc for anyone caught nearby. Their advance would often be minimal and in single file, moving carefully through minefields, partially cleared by engineers and bulldozers under the cover of artillery fire.
This tug of war continued for some time until finally on the 9th March, after 18 days of some of the most hellish combat experienced in the war. A far cry from the two day prediction, the waters of Iwo Jima’s northern shoreline had been reached.
Japanese resistance was still heavy and desperate in all sectors. With certain defeat only a matter of time, banzai charges and suicide by explosive were a tragic and ultimately futile gesture to an otherwise inevitable lost cause.
On 16 March, the island was officially declared secure although small pockets of organized Japanese continued to resist for several weeks with the official end of the battle on the 26th March 1945.
Through this 36 day ordeal 6,871 US lives were lost with 19,217 wounded. A total of 27 Medals of Honor, the highest and most prestigious military decoration available, were awarded to 22 Marines and five Sailors, 14 of them posthumously (13 Marines, one Sailor). This is the most awarded in any single battle ever.
Of the roughly 21,000 Japanese defenders, 216 survived the battle to be taken prisoner, and an estimated 3,000 went into hiding during the U.S. occupation of the island.