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Iwo Jima

Iwo Jima, which means sulfur island, was strategically important as an air base for fighter escorts supporting long-range bombing missions against mainland Japan. Because of the distance between mainland Japan and U.S. bases in the Mariana Islands, the capture of Iwo Jima would provide an emergency landing strip for crippled B-29s returning from bombing runs. The seizure of Iwo would allow for sea and air blockades, the ability to conduct intensive air bombardment and to destroy the enemy's air and naval capabilities.

The seizure of Iwo Jima was deemed necessary, but the prize would not come easy. The fighting that took place during the 36-day assault would be immortalized in the words of Commander, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who said, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Commanders for the operation, code named Detachment, were as follows:

  • Admiral Raymond A. Spruance was the operation's overall Commander.
  • Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner was the Joint Expeditionary Force Commander.
  • Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill was Second in Command of the Joint Expeditionary Force.
  • Lieutenant General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad- Smith was assigned as the Commanding General of expeditionary troops.
  • The 5th Amphibious Corps was commanded by Major General Harry Schmidt. Under his command fell:
    • Major General Graves B. Erskine, 3rd Marine Division Commander
    • Major General Clifton B. Cates, 4th Marine Division Commander
    • Major General Keller E. Rockey, 5th Marine Division Commander

Initial carrier raids against Iwo Jima began in June 1944. Prior to the invasion, the 8-square-mile island would suffer the longest, most intensive shelling of any Pacific island during the war. The 7th Air Force, working out of the Marianas, supplied B-24 heavy bombers for the campaign. In addition to the air assaults on Iwo, the Marines requested 10 days of pre-invasion naval bombardment. Due to other operational commitments and the fact that a prolonged air assault had been waged on Iwo Jima, Navy planners authorized only three days of naval bombardment. Unfavorable weather conditions would further hamper the effects of naval bombardment.

Despite this, Turner decided to keep the invasion date as planned, and the Marines prepared for the Feb. 19 D-day. More than 450 ships massed off Iwo as the H-hour bombardment pounded the island. Shortly after 9 a.m., Marines of the 4th and 5 the divisions hit beaches Green, Red, Yellow and Blue abreast, initially finding little enemy resistance. Coarse volcanic sand hampered the movement of men and machines as they struggled to moved up the beach. As the protective naval gunfire subsided to allow for the Marine advance, the Japanese emerged from their fortified underground positions to begin a heavy barrage of fire against the invading force.

The 4th Marine Division pushed forward against heavy opposition to take the Quarry, a Japanese strong point. The 5th Marine Division's 28th Marines had the mission of isolating Mount Suribacbi. Both tasks were accomplished that day.

Feb. 20, one day after the landing, the 28th Marines secured the southern end of Iwo and moved to take the summit of Suribachi. By day's end, one third of the island and Motoyarna Airfield No. I was controlled by the Marines.

At 8 a.m. on Feb. 23, a patrol of 40 men from 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, led by 1st Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, assembled at the base of Mount Suribachi. The platoon's mission was to take the crater at Suribachi's peak and raise the U.S. flag. The platoon slowly climbed the steep trails to the summit, but encountered no enemy fire. As they reached the top, the patrol members took positions around the crater watching for pockets of enemy resistance as other members of the patrol looked for something on which to raise the flag.

At 10:20 a.m., the flag was hoisted on a steel pipe above the island. This symbol of victory sent a wave of strength to the battle-weary fighting men below, and struck a further mental blow against the island's defenders.

Marine Corps combat photographer, Private Bob Campbell, captured this image as the original flag was lowered, and its larger replacement was raised Marine Corps photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery captured this first flag raising on film just as the enemy hurled a grenade in his direction. Dodging the grenade, Lowery hurled his body over the edge of the crater and tumbled 50 feet. His camera lens was shattered, but he and his film were safe.

Three hours later another patrol was dispatched to raise another, larger flag. The battle for Iwo Jima is encapsulated by this historic flag raising atop Suribachi, which was captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. His photo, seen around the world as a symbol of American values, would earn him many awards including the 1945 Pulitzer Prize.

The 3d Marine Division joined the fighting on the fifth day of the battle. These Marines immediately began the mission of securing the center sector of the island. Each division fought hard to gain ground against a determined Japanese defender. The Japanese leaders knew with the fall of Suribachi and the capture of the airfields that the Marine advance on the island could not be stopped; however, they would make the Marines fight for every inch of land they won.

Lieutenant General Tadamishi Kuribayashi, commander of the ground forces on Iwo Jima, concentrated his energies and his forces in the central and northern sections of the island. Miles of interlocking caves, concrete blockhouses and pillboxes proved to be one of the most impenetrable defenses encountered by the Marines in the Pacific.

The Marines worked to drive the enemy from the high ground. Their goal was to capture the area that appropriately became known as the "Meat Grinder." This section of the island included: the highest point on the northern portion of the island, Hill 382; an elevation known as "Turkey Knob," which had been reinforced with concrete and was home to a large enemy communications center; and the "Amphitheater," a southeastern extension of Hill 382.

The 3d Marine Division encountered the most heavily fortified portion of the island in their move to take Airfield No. 2. As with most of the fighting on Iwo Jima, frontal assault was the method used to gain each inch of ground. By nightfall on March 9, the 3d Division reached the island's northeastern beach, cutting the enemy defenses in two.

On the left of the 3d Marine Division, the 5th Marine Division pushed up the western coast of Iwo Jima from the central airfield to the island's northern tip. Moving to seize and hold the eastern portion of the island, the 4th Marine Division encountered a "mini banzai" attack from the final members of the Japanese Navy serving on Iwo. This attack resulted in the death of nearly 700 enemy and ended the centralized resistances of enemy forces in the 4th Division's sector.

A proud moment for those who worked so hard to gain control of the island was when the first emergency landing was made by a B-29 bomber on March 4.

Operations entered the final phases March 11, enemy resistance was no longer centralized. Individual pockets of resistance were taken one by one. Finally on March 26, following a banzai attack against troops and air corps personnel near the beaches, the island was declared secure. The U.S. Army's 147th Infantry Division assumed ground control of the island on April 4, relieving the largest body of Marines committed in combat in one operation during World War II.

The 36-day assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived. The Marines' efforts, however, provided a vital link in the U.S. chain of bomber bases. By war's end, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen made unscheduled landings on the island.

Historians described U.S. forces' attack against the Japanese defenses "throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete." In the end, Iwo Jima was won not only by the fighting spirit of the Marines, but by the meticulous planning and support provided by the Navy and Army through supply efforts, medical care, and air and naval gunfire. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors, many posthumously more than were awarded for any other single operation during the war.

Over the years, the flag raising has come to symbolize the spirit of the Corps to all Marines. On Nov. 10, 1954, a bronze monument of the flag raising, sculpted by Felix de Weldon and located in Arlington National Cemetery, was dedicated to all Marines who have given their lives in defense of their country. Then Vice President Richard M. Nixon said, "This statue symbolizes the hopes and dreams of America, and the real purpose of our foreign policy. We realize that to retain freedom for ourselves, we must be concerned when people in other parts of the world may lose theirs. There is no greater challenge to statesmanship than to find a way that such sacrifices as this statue represents are not necessary in the future, and to build the kind of world in which people can be free, in which nations can be independent, and in which people can live together in peace and friendship."

Researched and written by 1st Lieutenant Kimberley J. Miller, Navy & Marine Corps World War II Committee.


On Monday, February 19, 1945 American Marines hit the sands of Iwo Jima. The battle for Iwo Jima can be described in many ways. Most simply, 70,000 Marines routed 22,0000 Japanese in a 36 day battle. It bore little resemblance to today's' modern warfare. It was a fight of gladiators. Gladiators in the catacombs of the Coliseum fighting among trap doors and hidden tunnels. Above ground gladiators using liquid gasoline to burn the underground gladiators out of their lethal hiding places.

The Marines had overwhelming force and controlled the sea and air. The Japanese had the most ingenious and deadly fortress in military history. The Marines had Esprit de Corps and felt they could not lose. The Japanese fought for their god-Emperor and felt they had to die fighting.

The Marines were projecting American offensive power thousands of miles from home shores with a momentum that would carry on to create the Century of the Pacific. The Japanese were fighting a tenacious defensive battle protecting the front door to their ancient land. The geography, topography and geology of the island guaranteed a deadly and bizarre battle. The large numbers of men and small size of the island ensured the fighting would be up close and vicious.

Almost one hundred thousand men would fight on a tiny island just eight square miles. Four miles by two miles. If you're driving 60 miles an hour in your car, it takes you four minutes to drive four miles. It took the Marines 36 days to slog that four miles. Iwo Jima would be the most densely populated battlefield of the war with one hundred thousand combatants embraced in a death dance over an area smaller than one third the size of Manhattan island.

From the air the island looked like a bald slice of black moonscape shaped like a porkchop. All its foliage had been blown off by bombs. The only "life" visible on the island were puffs of "rotten egg" stinking sulphur fumes coming from vents that seemed connected to hell. Correspondents in airplanes could see tens of thousands of Marines on one side of the island fighting against a completely barren side of stone.

On foot it was a morass of soft volcanic sand or a jumble of jagged rock. The Marines sought protection in shell holes blasted by the bombardment. Foxholes were impossible to dig, either the sand collapsed in on you or your shovel failed to dent the hard obsidian floor.

Bullets and mortars would come from nowhere to kill. The Marines would come across a cave or blockhouse and shoot and burn all its defenders to death. They would peer into the cavern and assure themselves no one was left there to hurt them. They'd move on only to be shocked when that "dead" position came alive again behind them. The Marines thought they were fighting men in isolated caves and had no idea of the extensive tunnels below.

A surgeon would establish an operating theater in a safe place. With sandbags and tarp he'd build a little hospital and treat his patients away from the battle. Then at night when he lay down exhausted to sleep he'd hear foreign voices below him. Only when his frantic fingers clawed through the sand and hit the wooden roof of an underground cavern would he realize he had been living atop the enemy all along.

The days were full of fear and nights offered terror. The Marines were sleeping on ground that the Japanese had practiced how to crawl over in the darkness, they knew every inch. Imagine sleeping in a haunted mansion where the owner is a serial murderer who knows the rooms and stairways and trapdoors by touch and you are new. Then you can imagine the tortured sleep of the Marines.

Experienced naval doctors had never seen such carnage. Japanese tanks and high caliber anti-aircraft guns hidden behind walls of rock and concrete ensured that the Marines would not just be cut down, but cut in half or blown to bits.

A seventy five year old veteran of Iwo Jima would still reflexively open his bedroom window in 1999 after dreaming of the battle once again. Fifty four years after the battle the stench of death still filled his nostrils.

The bodies lay everywhere. Young boys who had never been to a funeral became accustomed to rolling another dead buddy aside. Kids full of life worked on burial duty unloading bodies from trucks stacked with death. Mothers back home would tear open the ominous telegrams with trembling fingers. The survivors would remember sailing away and seeing the rows and rows of white crosses and stars of Davids. Almost seven thousand.  Today there are still over six thousand Japanese dead still entombed under the island, dead where they fell in their tunnels and caves. Recently two hundred sixty were excavated, some mummified by the sulphur gases, their glasses sitting straight atop preserved noses, hair still on their heads.

Military geniuses predicted a three day battle, an "easy time." Some of the nicest boys America would ever produce slogged on for thirty six days in what would be the worst battle in the history of the US Marine Corps. Generals conferred over maps while tanks, airplanes, naval bombs and artillery pounded the island. But it was the individual Marine on the ground with a gun that won the battle. Marines without gladiator's armor who would advance into withering fire. Marines who would not give up simply because they were Marines. A mint in Washington would cast more medals for these Iwo Jima heroes than for any group of fighters in America's history.

America would embrace these heroes, but they were enthralled by an image of heroism, by a photo. Millions of words would be written in the US about 1/400th of a second no one on Iwo Jima thought worthy of remark at the time. Thousands would seek autographs from three survivors who felt "we hadn't done much." Battles would be fought over that image, some dying early because of their inclusion, some living bitterly because of their exclusion.

But that would all come later. After two battles were fought on Iwo Jima, one for     Mt. Suribachi and the southern part of the island the other for the northern part. And after one hundred thousand individual battles, personal battles of valor and fear, of determination and dirt.

More info at:

The 3rd Marine Division Association

History of the 3rd Marine Division