At first, Corporal Ellis didn’t understand what he was seeing.
Two stranglers, dressed in U.S. Army field uniforms easily two sizes too big were limping down by an access road to the airbase on Iwo Jima. At 9:30 in the morning, they weren’t hard to spot, seeing that the small island, not even a third the size of Manhattan, was mostly flat other than the imposing volcanic mountain of Mount Suribachi at the extreme southwest end of the island. The men were Asian and looked extremely malnourished. They put up no fight as Corporal Ellis took them into custody.
At the airfield, the men identified themselves as Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, members of a Japanese machine gun unit and part of the island’s defense force. They felt ashamed that they had defiled their orders to resist the American invasion. Their American captors had assumed the men were from a nearby Chinese ship, as their story seemed too unbelievable to be taken seriously.
It was January 6th, 1949.
Such was the tenacity of the Japanese soldiers who met U.S. Marines on February 19th, 1945 – one of the few land battles of the Pacific War that saw more American casualties than Japanese.
By the beginning of 1945, there was barely any pretext of victory for Japan’s military planners.
Defeat in the Marianas and the Philippine Sea in late 1944 had gutted Japan’s naval and air power. By February of 1945, the Japanese Navy consisted of only 6 battleships (albeit 1 of the Yamato-class super battleship variety), 3 aircraft carriers and 6 heavy cruisers, not including dozens of small destroyers and torpedo boats. In contrast, the U.S. Naval invasion of Iwo Jima alone involved 450 vessels. Such disparity meant the U.S. Navy now maintained nearly unchecked mobility in the Pacific.
The U.S. Air Force was on its way to achieving similar superiority over the skies of Japan.
While Guam, Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas were 1,500 miles south of Tokyo, the newly acquired bases provided a natural staging point for new B-29 Superfortresses. The B-29s could deliver 10 tons of explosives – if they could reach their targets. Jet stream winds, distance, and Japanese planes all provided significant hurdles to providing the sort of “targeted” bombing campaign that had crippled Germany. And injured planes would more than likely have to ditch in the vast expanse of the Pacific, meaning certain death for their crews.
Iwo Jima could act as an airbase for those wounded planes, plus provide a base from which long-range air support could escort the B-29s to their targets.
Japan too understood the potential value of Iwo Jima to the Americans. And since the Allies’ announced policy of unconditional surrender following the Casablanca Conference two years earlier, Japan had become convinced the only way to reach a negotiated end to the war on terms friendly to Japanese interests was to bleed the Allies white. Japanese strategy had become remarkably simple – kill as many Americans as possible, regardless of cost.
Doing so meant deviating from traditional Japanese tactics. Whereas the Japanese had usually attempted to meet the Allies at the beach, or throw their own troops into suicidal banzai charges in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of land battles, Iwo Jima’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had other ideas. Putting pillboxes or bunkers at the beach simply meant giving the Americans an easy target to destroy in the opening salvos of the campaign. And while banzai charges played into the Japanese Army’s perverse ethics of bushido, they wasted hundreds or thousands of men in a fruitless gesture; men who were better used in prolonged defensive positions.
Kuribayashi and his engineers built one of the most impressive, and intricate, defensive systems of the entire Second World War. Having started in March of 1944, Iwo held a vast tunnel system, connecting positions across the island, which allowed for an in-depth defense. Every defensive position was covered by another, and thanks to the tunnels, often positions overrun by American forces could be reoccupied.
Just over 22,000 Japanese soldiers would await American forces in a complex that rivaled the Maginot Line in terms of strength and complexity.
Since June of 1944, Americans forced had started a consistent bombing campaign against Iwo Jima. But to truly soften up Iwo’s defenses, Marine Major General Harry Schmidt had asked for ten days of naval shelling and aerial bombardment.
He received three.
The 30,000 Marines of the invasion’s first wave expected to face fierce, unyielding resistance from the moment they touched Iwo’s volcanic shore. Instead, they landed with no resistance whatsoever. The puzzled Marines huddled on the beaches, expecting the Japanese to open fire. There was silence. The Marines made their way inland, marching towards the two Japanese airfields. Again, nothing. Had the months of bombing actually done the job? Had the Japanese yielded Iwo without a fight?
The first wave of Marines suddenly encountered Japanese bunkers near the airfields. They exploded to life, issuing out round after round of machine gun fire. The whole island seemed to come to life at once. Hidden positions the Marines had passed burst open, firing everywhere. Massive artillery fire erupted from Suribachi. The Japanese were seemingly everywhere and nowhere. Dead and wounded Marines were piling up on the narrow beachhead.
Nothing on Iwo Jima seemed to be going according to plan. The Japanese positions were difficult to see and even harder to destroy. Only when Sherman tanks, equipped with flamethrowers, were brought into the battle were the Marines able to consistently destroy the Japanese bunkers. The nighttime banzai charges the Marines had become accustom to in other battles weren’t materializing, leaving Marines restless. Many Japanese soldiers on the island spoke excellent English. More than a few Marines and medics were shot answering their false cries for help.
The Marines were advancing. But at a tremendous cost.
The value of Iwo Jima was debatable even at the time. The Navy hadn’t wanted Iwo as a target – Okinawa was close to the Home Islands as well, and possessed the deep-water ports necessary for a staging a future invasion. Just weeks after fighting on Iwo Jima concluded, retired Chief of Naval Operations William V. Pratt publicly decried the “expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, God-forsaken island.”
If the tangible value of Iwo Jima was negligible, an intangible value was produced only days into the fight – the raising of the American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi.
By February 23rd, the Marines had managed to cut off Suribachi from the rest of the island. Unbeknownst to the Marines, Suribachi had an independent defense system from the rest of Iwo – it wasn’t connected to the tunnel system. Scaling Suribachi wasn’t that difficult. Most of the Japanese defenders stayed underground, and once a scouting party that ascended to the peak had returned relatively unhurt, they were given orders to go back and plant a flag. The platoon of Marines made their way back up Suribachi cautiously – they expected an ambush. None came. A small American flag was placed atop Suribachi (the first American flag on Japanese soil) to the cheers of the Marines below. Watching as he came ashore, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said, “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years!”
Despite being observed by thousands of Americans and Japanese alike, no one had bothered to take a picture of the event. E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines was ordered to replace the flag with a second, larger one (there was already jostling for ownership of the first flag between Forrestal and the battalion’s commander). Photographer Joe Rosenthal joined E Company, taking the now iconic picture of Marines Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Michael Strank, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes planting the Stars and Stripes.
The raising of the flag on Suribachi became a symbol of not only Marine, but American, fortitude in the war. If America’s best and brightest could overcome an obstacle like Suribachi, then perhaps truly the end of the war in the Pacific was in sight. The raising give visual tribute to Admiral Chester Nimitz’s reflection of the Marines’ service on Iwo Jima, that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes would return to the U.S. as part of a war bond drive; their sacrifices making them celebrities while their demons (in particular, Hayes’ descent into alcoholism) gave their exploits a tragic if legendary status. That Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Michael Strank didn’t return from Iwo Jima would explain much of Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes’ fame, and much of their guilt.
The American flag flew over Iwo Jima. But the island was far from secure.
Taking the northern half of the island seemed nearly impossible. American Marines were capable of advancing, but not holding territory, as Japanese troops would use their tunnel system to reoccupy positions. The assault took on a First World War appearance, as artillery would pound a section of the front until the Marines threw themselves into the breach as fast as possible. The Japanese had learned to escape from their positions once the artillery fire began, and to return once it had stopped. Unless the position was physically destroyed – easier said than done – the Marines’ charges would resemble the uselessness of the Great War’s trench battles.
But the Marines were learning as well. The Marines now would attack at night, often without covering artillery fire, surprising the Japanese. Increasingly desperate, Japanese unit commanders disobeyed Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s original orders to avoid banzai charges. On March 8th, 1,000 Japanese troops threw themselves against the American line. The lives of 90 Marines were exchanged for nearly 800 Japanese. Kuribayashi himself was rumored to have led the final banzai charge of the campaign – as 300 men charged the American-occupied airfields on the night of March 24th, 1945.
The battle was over. America held its first piece of native Japanese real estate.
Iwo represented many deviations from previous battles. The worst was the change in American casualties. U.S. forces were accustom to trading dead and wounded GIs and Marines for hundreds, if not thousands, of dead Japanese soldiers. But on Iwo Jima, while all but 216 of the island’s 22,000 defenders perished, American losses amounted to 26,000, including 6,800 dead. Iwo would remain the only battle where Marine casualties outnumbered the Japanese.
The full extent of the tunnel system on Iwo has yet to be discovered. An estimated 3,000 Japanese soldiers continued to hide for months and years, most succumbing to disease or starvation; only a handful emerged to surrender.
Iwo’s stated strategic significance – as an emergency base for American planes – was put to use before the battle was even over. A damaged B-29 landed at Iwo on March 4th, while only one of the airfields was in American hands 2,251 emergency landings would occur at Iwo between its capture and the end of the war. But relatively few of those landings were deemed “critical.”
American war planners now assumed that taking further Japanese territory would require even more men – and a willingness to take higher casualties. As Allied plans for an invasion of mainland Japan were drafted (Operation Downfall), the impact of Iwo cast a pale over estimates of American losses. The first stage of Downfall, Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyūshū) was assumed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take 90 days and result in 456,000 American casualties – including 109,000 dead.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s staff comprised figures for the entire invasion and occupation of Japan. The estimates were beyond demoralizing. 1.7 million to perhaps as many as 4 million American casualties, with anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 dead – more than the entire number of Americans killed in combat throughout the war thus far. Japan itself would be annihilated, with an estimated 5-10 million civilian dead out of a population of 72 million.
Invading Japan, post Iwo, now appeared to be bloodbath of biblical proportions. But in the deserts of Los Alamos, there might be a different solution.