Insider Details About Iwo Jima Are Shedding The Brutal Battle In A Whole New Light

At the start of 1945 the ferocious six-year global conflict that was World War II was beginning to move towards its conclusion. France had been liberated by the Allies the previous year, and the Soviet Union was now edging closer and closer to Berlin, ultimately forcing the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. But the work of the Soviet and United States forces was far from done. Indeed, the Americans were about to become embroiled in an epic battle for a small volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. That island was, of course, Iwo Jima. The 36-day battle that followed would be one of the most intense of the entire war for the Americans. Overcoming the Japanese enemy to take the island was militarily vital, but what ensued was one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway

By February 1945 the United States had gained a strong foothold in the Pacific theater. After the surprise attack by Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that had catapulted the nation into World War II and direct conflict with the Japanese, the U.S. had routed the Asian country’s naval and air forces in numerous battles.

These military skirmishes included the June 1942 Battle of Midway, six months on from the shock Pearl Harbor assault. The U.S. was able to score a major victory, and gain a considerable measure of revenge. It sank all four of the Japanese carriers — Soryu, Hiryu, Akagi, and Kaga — which had been involved in that unprovoked attack.

America goes on the offensive

The Battle of Midway success enabled the U.S. to go on the offensive in the Pacific theater, turning the tables on Japan after that initial wave of aggression. The U.S. was emboldened after its victory and was making serious headway in the Pacific, but the Japanese would not give up without a serious fight.

Indeed, like the numerous battles that had come before it, the Battle of Iwo Jima proved a major but not decisive victory. Japanese naval and air forces had taken a considerable beating, but the empire’s men were determined to stop the U.S. and Allied forces from reaching their mainland.

Earmarking Iwo Jima

In order to be able to strike at the Japanese mainland, the U.S. would have to make an incursion that brought them significantly nearer, securing them a platform for a sustained assault. As a result, U.S. commanders set their sights on one of the small, rocky islands some 1,300 km south of the Japanese mainland.

That island was Iwo Jima. One of the Japanese Volcano Islands lying south of the Bonin Islands that together make up the Ogasawara Archipelago, Iwo Jima is situated halfway between the mainland of Japan and the Mariana Islands. Its favorable location saw it eyed up as a potentially significant capture for the American — and by extension the Allied — cause.

Strategic importance

Why did the U.S. want Iwo Jima so badly? Well, for starters, if they could take it over, the Americans would be able to stop the Japanese from intercepting their Boeing B-29 Superfortresses when they were out on bombing raids.

Not only that, control over Iwo Jima would enable the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to set up a strategic military base, from which those aircraft could attack the Japanese mainland, and make emergency landings when necessary. Taking it could turn the tide of the war still further in favor of America and the Allies.

Japanese fortifications

Of course, the Japanese weren’t stupid, and were well aware of the threat posed to them should the Americans take control of Iwo Jima. Even so, Japanese high command wasn’t 100 percent convinced the U.S. would try and take the tiny island, which is only 8 square miles in size.

All the same, the Japanese weren’t unprepared for an attempted attack. They fortified Iwo Jima with a sophisticated and sizable network of tunnels, bunkers, and artillery positions just in case of an American invasion.

Unaware of tunnels and bunkers

Unfortunately the U.S. was not aware of the considerable fortifications the Japanese had installed on Iwo Jima, whose name translates into English as “Sulfur Island.” They knew there were some forces stationed there and an air base, and they could obviously spy any surface installations on the island.

But the U.S. did not know about the sophisticated network of tunnels and bunkers, nor the concealed artillery positions. In fact, Iwo Jima’s tunnels spanned 11 miles around the tiny island and connected some 1,500 rooms, bunkers, artillery placements, ammo dumps, and pillboxes.

Japanese planning

Building such sophisticated defenses would have been extremely labor-intensive, given the hardness of the volcanic rock on the island. Fortunately for them, the Japanese had displayed enough foresight to have planned and then undertaken this mammoth task at least seven to eight months ahead of the invasion.

The fortification of Iwo Jima was carried out under the watchful eye of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. At his behest, from May 1944 accomplished Japanese engineers toiled to carve out that astonishing labyrinth of underground bunkers, pillboxes, barracks, artillery emplacements, and command posts. As a result, all of the island’s defensive positions were linked, heavily fortified, and well camouflaged.

Lieutenant General Kuribayashi

Kuribayashi was regarded as one of Japan’s foremost field commanders. The highly respected military leader was given command of the island in May 1944; he was determined to adopt a new strategy of military engagement in the wake of several humiliating defeats.

Kuribayashi came from Samurai lineage, and he was an experienced and decorated veteran: it’s fair to say that letting down the Emperor of Japan in battle was not a prospect he could countenance. Kuribayashi was determined to serve his country and empire with all he had.

Learning from past defeats

Yes, the U.S. had soundly defeated Japan on the beaches of the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands. This success had come when the Japanese had opted to defend those territories in a more direct and traditional manner, facing U.S. troops toe-to-toe and getting outfought, outgunned, and ultimately overpowered.

Being the canny field commander that he was, Kuribayashi recognized these mistakes. Taking on the might of the U.S. military in that manner whilst trying to stop an invasion inland was almost impossible and likely doomed to failure. So, Kuribayashi used his brain and dreamed up a more intelligent strategy.

Tactical masterplan

Kuribayashi reckoned the best chance the Japanese had to defend Iwo Jima was to draw the enemy into invading — effectively fooling them that the coast was clear — and then surprising them. After instigating the building of the tunnel network and related defences from May 1944 onwards, he worked on his tactical masterplan.

It’s worth remembering that Kuribayashi was willfully ditching a long-standing and proud Japanese doctrine when it came to defense, and in particular that for taking on amphibious assaults. And he encountered plenty of opposition from subordinate commanders. But he knew his nation would be at a considerable disadvantage in terms of the hardware and sheer numbers of the United States.

Bombing campaign

Before launching an amphibious assault to capture Iwo Jima, the U.S. began by inflicting a heavy bombing campaign on the island. As mentioned above, the Americans were aware of the troops and radar installations on the island, and the two airfields from which the Japanese could attack U.S. planes and ships.

It was decided that preparatory attacks would soften up the island for the later assault, and a three-day, relentless bombardment of Iwo Jima was undertaken. Major General Harry Schmidt and his counterpart Lieutant General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith — two of the military leaders put in direct charge of the Iwo Jima campaign — had actually asked for ten days of heavy shelling, but after much butting of heads between the Marines and the Navy, their request was rejected.

Heaving bombing and shelling

All the same, it was believed that the shorter but still-ferocious bombing campaign would surely neutralize much of the Japanese resistance on the island, and destroy much of what constituted a threat or problem to the United States, including the airfields and radar installations.

Iwo Jima was pounded from the air and sea. Army B-24 Liberators dropped copious amounts of bombs on the island, in an assault that actually began in December 1943. Meanwhile, under the command of Rear Admiral William Blandy, the big guns onboard the Arkansas, Idaho, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, and Texas Navy ships blasted the island for three days from February 16.

Go-ahead for Operation Detachment

As it turned out, the Americans were badly mistaken in thinking that their relentless bombing and shelling of Iwo Jima would cripple enemy forces and destroy most of the Japanese installations there. In reality, it had a pretty limited impact on the defenses: they had only damaged what lay on the surface.

But the U.S. forces and their leaders were — if not unanimously — now largely convinced that after the bombing campaign, they would take Iwo Jima with relative ease. As such, Operation Detachment was given the green light.

The invasion begins

That operation would begin on February 19, 1945, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, when approximately 30,000 U.S. Marines landed on the black beaches of Iwo Jima. Admiral Raymond Spruance had overall command of the men involved in Operation Detachment, which would greatly increase after the initial 30,000.

Smith, meanwhile, assumed command of the landing forces, whilst the direct field command of the three divisions — the so-called V Amphibious Corps — was assigned to Schmidt. The battle for control of Iwo Jima — and its two strategically located airfields — was on.

Troublesome beaches

But the U.S. Marines would effectively be walking into a death trap that had been expertly laid out for them by Kuribayashi. With the forces under his command hidden and well fortified in bunkers, tunnels, and pillboxes amid the volcanic rock, the invading Americans were in for a horrible surprise.

The U.S. commanders hadn’t done their homework well enough, and the difficult landscape of Iwo Jima proved troublesome right away. For instance, the black beaches that the U.S. Marines landed on were not “easy,” as had been predicted, but proved extremely tough to clamber across. Their soft, black volcanic ash and steep dunes did not allow soldiers to get a decent footing, and vehicles also found it hard to gain traction.

Kuribayashi waits

As noted, Kuribayashi’s plan was to allow the U.S. forces to arrive on the hard-to-traverse beaches without a major confrontation. Then, his men would defend Iwo Jima with all they had from deeper, heavily fortified positions.

It’s likely that the Americans had been heartened by the lack of resistance to their initial landing. Perhaps the bombing campaign on the island had rendered the Japanese defenses almost inconsequential after all?

Firing the heavy artillery

Kuribayashi did not give the order to fire his heavy artillery until the beach was filled with the U.S. forces that had been selected for Operation Detachment. As soon as that was the case — at just after 10:00 a.m. local time — he signaled to his men to unleash Hell on the invading Americans.

The Japanese defenses were so meticulously set up that the artillery could fire upon the beached U.S. Marines from all possible angles. The Americans were stunned and pinned down in a terrifying onslaught of bullets and mortar shells, on ground where it was hard to get a good foothold.

Anti-ship and tank mines

In the event, the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima proved far-reaching. Kuribayashi’s elaborate set-up had seen anti-ship and anti-tank mines placed along the beach where the Marines had landed, plus several depth charges and torpedo heads too.

The Japanese also unleashed another of their now-infamous defense strategies: kamikaze pilots. Effectively suicide-bomb attacks from the skies, the pilots were tasked with destroying as many U.S. Navy vessels as they could, even though their actions inevitably spelled their own fiery deaths.

American underestimation

What was supposed to be a short and straightforward skirmish — the commanding generals estimated it would take five days to a week, tops — quickly turned into a mammoth and extremely bloody battle for the U.S. Marines. The American top brass had badly underestimated the strength of the Japanese defenses, and indeed, the will of their men.

The Japanese forces that Kuribayashi had assembled were not only capable fighters but, almost to a man, were willing to battle to the death for their country and Emperor. There would be no straightforward mass surrender to the invading American marines here.

Digging in and buying time

All the same, even with his ingenious tactics, Kuribayashi knew deep down the Americans would eventually succeed. Ultimately, their manpower and armaments were far superior to those of Japan, whose military capabilities had also been badly weakened in previous battles.

But Kuribayashi resolved to inflict as many casualties on the invading enemy as was humanly possible and keep them bogged down on Iwo Jima for two main reasons. Firstly, it would give his homeland a bit more time to plan for an expected mainland invasion. Secondly, it might destroy U.S. morale, and perhaps make America think twice about such an attack.

Five weeks of fighting

What was initially expected to take five days or so soon stretched into a campaign lasting five weeks, or 36 days to be exact. That’s how long the Japanese forces were able to hold out and fiercely defend their land from the invading American enemy.

Kuribayashi had placed the majority of his forces on the northern part of Iwo Jima, hiding inside the underground bunkers and manning the gun positions that were joined together by their miles of tunnels. The commander’s tactical nous, coupled with those smartly built defensive positions, meant that the Japanese were able to exact a deadly toll on the U.S. Marines.

Banzai charge

As dusk arrived on that first day, dozens of the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima launched a banzai charge at the American invaders. But that brave frontal assault would not be enough to stop the U.S. Marines from advancing off the beach and taking control of a part of one of the island’s two airfields.

This was, of course, one of the stated missions of Operation Detachment. Despite suffering significant casualties, the U.S. Marines had partly achieved one of the main goals. But if the Americans felt that things would get easier from there on in, they were soon disabused of the notion.

Massive U.S. casualties

As we now know, the battle for Iwo Jima would rage on for another 35 days. During that intense five weeks of fighting, roughly 70,000 U.S. Marines would see action on the island. They outnumbered their Japanese counterparts by a ratio of more than three-to-one.

Sadly, about a tenth of the U.S. forces would be killed in action. What’s more, there were around 18,000 U.S. Marines who were injured on top of almost 7,000 deaths. These shocking statistics serve to illustrate just how deadly the battle for Iwo Jima had been.

Japanese struggles

Of course, the Japanese would also suffer major casualties on Iwo Jima. Out of approximately 18,000 troops that were stationed on the island, only 216 survived to be taken prisoner by U.S. Marines. As we’ve mentioned, the Japanese soldiers’ mindset was one that nearly unanimously favored fighting to the death over surrendering or being captured.

As well as having many of their soldiers killed, several days into the battle the Japanese began to run out of supplies of food and ammunition. Of course, they were only able to dig in, while the U.S. could summon more men and supplies by sea.

Using darkness and the tunnels

With this in mind, Kuribayashi decided to launch many of his fierce counter-attacks on the U.S. invaders at night. The Japanese military strategist enjoyed significant successes under the cover of darkness, inflicting significant casualties on the Marines.

And the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima were adept at using the intricate tunnel system they had built to their advantage. In fact, the U.S. Marines were often left shocked that bunker positions they believed they had completely cleared with flamethrowers or grenades, were quickly reoccupied with more Japanese troops.

Superior manpower and hardware

But the Japanese could only hold out for so long. The math was clear: the U.S. had more than three times the amount of troops than they did, and could bring in more if necessary. This of course, they did, with 63,000 following the initial 7,000 Marines that had landed on Iwo Jima’s volcanic sands.

All that is before mentioning the superior firepower and better supply chains enjoyed by the U.S. forces. So unsurprisingly, the Marines began to have more success in rooting out the Japanese from their tunnel networks and pillboxes in close-quarter battles.

Flamethrowers were fundamental

The M2 flamethrower proved a vital weapon for this task. In fact, U.S. commanders soon deemed the fearsome weapon the most effective in their arsenal with regard to the entire Iwo Jima ground campaign.

As a result of this calculation, every battalion was provided with one, and a single soldier designated as its operator. Subsequently, many of the Japanese troops that were hiding in pillboxes, tunnels, and bunkers succumbed to a fiery and painful death.

Reaching Mount Suribachi’s summit

On February 23, 1945, a mere four days into the intense combat on Iwo Jima, the U.S. Marines were able to ascend Mount Suribachi. The mountain on the south side of the island stands at some 528 feet, and represents its highest peak.

When they made it to the top in the early afternoon of that day, six U.S. Marines raised an American flag at the summit, and they were photographed as they did it. But little did they know at that moment that the flag-raising would become an iconic image for the American military; it would come to symbolize the whole spirit of the country.

Raising the Flag of Iwo Jima

The photograph — entitled Raising the Flag of Iwo Jima –was taken by Joe Rosenthal, a brave photographer from the Associated Press who was risking his life to document the events of the conflict. He had been rejected from the U.S. Army due to his poor eyesight.

The six soldiers in the photograph were Sergeant Michael Strank, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, and Corporals Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz, and Harold Keller. Several of them were only identified correctly many decades later.

Photograph printed in newspapers

Strank, Sousley, Block, Hayes, Schultz, and Keller were all part of the Fifth Marine Division. Rosenthal’s photograph of them planting the Stars and Stripes at the top of Mount Suribachi made it back to the U.S. and was published in the American Sunday newspapers two days later.

The picture quickly attracted awe and acclaim, and it was subsequently reprinted in thousands of publications. Rosenthal was later rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for Photography for the image, which seemed to capture the American spirit and that of the Marines perfectly.

Later memorial

Of course, the photograph would also be recreated years later for the Marine Corps War Memorial that was sculpted by Felix de Weldon. That monument in Arlington, Ridge Park, Washington, DC was unveiled in 1954. It was dedicated to all the Marines who have died in service from 1775 to the present day.

Three of the soldiers featured in Rosenthal’s photograph — Strank, Block, and Sousley — were killed in the ensuing battle for Iwo Jima. But their sacrifice and heroism lives on through one of the most important images in American and military history.

Marines name battles

Planting the American flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi might seem like a victorious moment — particularly for those viewing the photograph without the full context — but in reality it was far from it. Indeed, the U.S. Marines’ battle for control of Iwo Jima would last another 31 days.

The skirmishes against the Japanese were bloody, and several of them were subsequently given unofficial names by the Marines themselves. For instance, there was “The Meat Grinder” — a battle in which almost 850 American servicemen died in taking control of a Japanese fortress — and “Bloody Gorge,” the last stand by Japanese soldiers on the island.

“Uncommon valor”

Such was the heroism on display from the U.S. Marines during the desperate struggle for control of Iwo Jima that numerous soldiers were rewarded with medals. Indeed, a whopping 27 Medals of Honor — America’s highest accolade for military bravery — were awarded to Marines for their actions on the island.

This means that the ferocious 36-day fight against the Japanese produced more Medal of Honor recipients than any other battle in American history. A famous quote from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz summed up the heroism of the campaign. He remarked, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

The fall of Iwo Jima

On March 25, 1945, after five weeks of intense combat, the Japanese launched their final major assault. Around 300 soldiers rushed towards U.S. Marines in a suicidal banzai charge, inflicting numerous casualties but ultimately being roundly defeated.

The next day, Iwo Jima was declared captured by the U.S. It had been hard and bloody work, but they had won out eventually. Numerous Marines did spend several weeks traversing the island’s jungles to find the last few holdouts of the Japanese — of which there were several — but in effect, the U.S. had finally assumed control over this most strategically important of islands.

The human cost 

Iwo Jima had been won, then. But at what cost? The battle for this tiny volcanic island was never supposed to have been so bloody and costly in terms of casualties and human life. It had simply never been expected that the conflict would prove one of the bloodiest in U.S. Marine history.

The casualty rate at Iwo Jima arguably helped bring a faster end to the six-year global conflict that was World War II. Like the wider the American public, the military commanders and planners of the Allies had been alarmed by the high loss of life. They calculated that it would be much worse if they invaded Japan’s mainland; this proved a key factor in adopting the eventual tactic of dropping atomic bombs on Japan to force its surrender instead.

Hollywood interest

Of course, the battle for Iwo Jima has attracted the interest of Hollywood and filmmakers, no doubt inspired by its historical importance and epic nature. What could be more thrilling than watching the ferocious 36-day conflict expertly recreated on the big screen?

After a 1945 documentary entitled To the Shores of Iwo Jima that was made by the U.S. Marine corps, the first major film about the battle came out just four years on from the campaign. Sands of Iwo Jima starred John Wayne as iron-willed Marine Sergeant John Stryker, who pushed his men into learning the survival skills needed for the battle.

A plethora of films

Besides that, there was The Outsider, a 1961 movie starring Tony Curtis that documented the experiences of Ira Hayes, a Native American man nicknamed Chief who fought in the battle and helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. Hayes suffered prejudice at the hands of his fellow marines and later experienced survivor’s guilt upon his return to America.

But perhaps the most famous and acclaimed of the movies featuring Iwo Jima are the two that were directed by Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood. We are, of course, talking about Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. Released within months of each other, Eastwood intended the two movies as companion pieces. Essentially, they are two sides of the same coin, telling the story of the 1945 battle for Iwo Jima from the point of view of either side.

Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers

Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story from the Japanese perspective, and the experience of the soldiers under the command of General Kuribayashi. It features native actors such as Ken Watanabe and the Japanese language for added authenticity. Kuribayashi is portrayed as being unflinching and fierce.

But he also had a tender side, as evidenced by the tone of the heartfelt letters to his family referenced in the title. Flags of Our Fathers, meanwhile, views things through an American prism, namely the six marines who planted the flag on Mount Suribachi. Both films garnered much critical acclaim, and they are now widely regarded as definitive.

Iwo Jima since the battle

After the heroic but ultimately failed defense of Iwo Jima, the war turned inexorably in favor of the the U.S. and the Allies. Japan finally surrendered 160 days after the loss of the island, on September 2, 1945. Bizarrely, the last two Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, who’d gone into hiding, held out until 1951 when they finally surrendered. The U.S. occupied the island until 1968 when they finally handed it back to Japan.

There have been numerous commemorations of the Battle of Iwo Jima in the numerous decades since, including a major event in 1985 to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Besides the plaques and monuments marking the struggle, the Japanese now have their own naval air base on the island, which the U.S. Navy has also been known to use. The two once-warring countries are now on friendly terms, and happily any future hostilities between them at present seem highly unlikely.