Saturday, February 19, 2005

Iwo Jima

On 19 February, 1945, U.S. Marines assaulted the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima (Sulfur Island) is an eight square mile island in the Volcano Group of the Bonin Islands. It is approximately 660 miles southeast of the Japanese home islands and is considered part of Tokyo Prefecture.

In 1945, Iwo Jima lay directly astride the air route from the Mariana Islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam from which B-29 bombing raids on Japan were due to commence. The three Japanese airfields on Iwo Jima posed a danger to this effort, but in U.S. hands would provide a base for fighter escorts and a safe haven for B-29's in trouble.

Iwo Jima was bombed in preparation for invasion for 74 straight days. It was the longest sustained bombing campaign in history up to that time. Naval gunfire was poured on the island for three days.

All of this bombardment and shelling did little or no good, other than disrupting internal Japanese communication lines. The Japs were not on the island, rather they were in it. They had constructed an elaborate network of tunnels and caves that terminated at fighting positions, blockhouses, and bunkers on the surface. Some of the underground works looked for all the world like multi-story apartment buildings and consisted of barracks, hospitals, and storage spaces and were intricately interconnected from one end of the island to the other.

110,000 Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions were present in 880 ships, the largest invasion of the Pacific War up to that time. The initial assault was carried out by 70,867 Marines of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions with the 3rd Division in reserve. They went up against 21,000 Imperial Japanese Army soldiers.

It was a hard fight and lasted for over thirty days, although the island was declared secure on D+23. The Japanese had interlocked, pre-registered fires on virtually every square inch. The Marines, many of whom never saw a live enemy, had to root them out inch-by-inch, cave-by-cave, with the "blowtorch and corkscrew" method of throwing explosives at close range and then using flamethrowers. Both sides used mortars and artillery to devastating effect. Rifle, machine gun, grenade, bayonet, and hand-to-hand duels were common, at very close range.

The famous flag raising photo by AP correspondent Joe Rosenthal atop 556-ft. Mt. Suribachi was taken on the fourth day of the fight and is considered to be the most famous photograph of WWII. Three of the six flag raisers were killed on Iwo Jima.

When all was said and done, more than 6000 Marines died and 20,000 more were wounded. Only 1000 Japanese survived, and some held out for months.

The capture of Iwo Jima is credited with saving the lives of over 20,000 B-29 crewmen.

Iwo Jima was returned to Japan several years later and today is a Japanese Coast Guard base. Many old U.S. Veterans visit there every year to try and put their past behind them in their waning years.

The other night on PBS, there was a show called "The Perilous Fight" which included a letter from the mother of a Marine who died at Iwo Jima to his chaplain. It went something like this: "We spent eighteen years raising our son. The Marine Corps finished the job in eighteen months. They tell us he died for liberty. It was a mighty poor swap."

In my possession is a tablespoonful or so of black volcanic sand from Red Beach on Iwo. When I look at it, I think of the young lives that were snuffed out there, and I try my best to do honor to their sacrifice.