A Pointless Waste of Life
|Iwo Jima after the battle.|
The Battle of Iwo Jima has seared itself into the American consciousness. Just as the defense of Stalingrad became iconic for the Soviet Union and the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain became shorthand for a British victory in England, Iwo Jima for Americans stands for more than just the conquest of a remote island. In a visceral way, it summarizes U.S. victory in the Pacific. Let's take a look at the battle, which resonates for three separate reasons: 1) the viciousness and savagery of the battle, 2) portents for the future, and 3) the iconic flag-raising at the end. Let's look at each in turn.
By late 1944, the U.S. offensive in the Pacific had resolved itself into two separate axes of advance. One, commanded by five-star Army General Douglas MacArthur, headed through the southwest Pacific toward New Guinea and ultimately the Philippines. The other, further to the north, headed west in an island-hopping manner toward islands closer to Japan. The main objectives included Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. This latter axis of advance was under the command of Fleet Admiral (effective 19 December 1944) Chester W. Nimitz (CINCPACFLT). This division was not ideal, and caused various issues along the way, particularly in the Philippines where the command was divided between MacArthur and Nimitz. However, the separate strategies employed by the two men were both successful in their own ways.
|A look at the landing plan for Iwo Jima. It involved lodgement in the center of the island and then quick capture of the three airfields on the flat part of the island.|
|Admiral Spruance's fleet provided naval support throughout the battle for Iwo Jima.|
|Approaching Iwo Jima in the first assault wave.|
The Navy, meanwhile, noted that no Japanese were actually on the beach or directly behind it and figured they had been proven right about going with light with pre-landing bombardment. The problem with that thinking was that the Japanese never had intended to defend the beach. Everybody on the U.S. side figured that since the landings had been virtually unopposed, the remainder of the campaign would be trivial. This erroneous assumption was erased an hour after the landing, when, with the beaches packed with troops and equipment, the Japanese on Mount Suribachi suddenly opened up with everything they had. Navajo code-talkers with the 5th Marine Division sent 800 messages in the first 48 hours of the landing and played a very important role in the success of the landing.
The Japanese under Kuribayashi had hidden their artillery in caves high on the mountain behind steel doors. This had protected them from aerial surveillance, bombs, and naval gunfire. In effect, it didn't matter how long the U.S. Navy might have bombarded the island - they were aiming at the wrong areas. So, in a sense, the Navy was correct after all, though for the wrong reasons - might as well get things started as early as possible since additional shelling wouldn't make any difference anyway.
|A typical Japanese artillery location, which would have been concealed behind camouflaged steel doors until it was time to fire.|
|Corporal Edward Burckhardt with a kitten that he said "captured him" at the base of Suribachi Yama as he came ashore with the Fifth Marine Division. February - March 1945 (Getty Images).|
The Japanese rightly surmised that the success of the invasion depended entirely on the fleet parked just offshore. On the third day of the invasion, 21 February 1945, they staged a kamikaze airstrike. In one of their last major successes of the war, Japanese planes sank escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea, damaged fleet carrier USS Saratoga, and damaged escort carrier USS Lunga Point, along with some smaller vessels. However, these losses did not impede the Marines and their fight on the island.
|U.S.S. Saratoga burning after a kamikaze strike on 21 February 1945 off Iwo Jima.|
|A Doberman Pinscher on Iwo Jima.|
|A soldier equipped with a flamethrower running on the beach.|
The day after this night attack, the Japanese counterattacked. This attack on the evening of 8 March 1945 devolved into a typical Japanese banzai charge. As with all previous banzai charges, it failed with spectacular Japanese losses of 784 men. However, this futile charge was not without cost to the Marines, who lost 90 men killed and an additional 357 casualties.
The 3rd Marine Division also broke through to the coast in the north on 8 March, splitting the Japanese defense there. After this, the battle in the north turned into a mopping-up operation, and that portion of the island was deemed secured at 18:00 on 16 March 1945.
Final resistance on the island ended only after the Marines attacked General Kuribayashi himself in a ravine in the northwest tip of Iwo Jima. They dynamited Kuribayashi and his men in their command post on 21 March, then sealed the caves nearby on 24 March. The final major action took place on the night 25 March, when 300 Japanese launched a banzai attack near Airfield No. 2 in the center of the island. With this handled, the Marines declared the entire island of Iwo Jima secured on 26 March 1945. Only 216 Japanese of the original 20,000 allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.
|Some of the scarce Japanese soldiers taken prisoner on Iwo Jima.|
|4th Marine Division on the beach at Iwo Jima.|
|Marine Amtracs destroyed by artillery fire on Iwo Jima.|
Here is some brutal honesty about Iwo Jima. Operation Detachment offered a splendid example of brave soldiering on both sides and ultimately generated some iconic images. Every man who died there was a hero. Taking Iwo Jima did not, however, meaningfully influence the outcome of World War II. It was an unnecessary campaign that should not have been fought. You can say that this is "unpatriotic" or "it was a glorious victory and thus worth the cost," but 6,821 US GIs and around 18,000 Japanese soldiers died for this little display of heroism, with many others maimed. Yes, hindsight is perfect, but the utter uselessness of occupying Iwo Jima should have been plain at the time.
Foreshadowings of the FutureAside from the dramatic number of U.S. casualties which foreshadowed over twice as many on Okinawa (and an anticipated million if the Allies had to invade Japan), there were some things about Iwo Jima that offered a peek into the future of US combat operations. While not usually associated with World War II and sometimes having little impact on the Iwo Jima battle itself, these novel aspects of the Iwo Jima battle foreshadowed their widespread use in Korea and especially Vietnam.
|The first helicopter arrives on Iwo Jima, 23 March 1945.|
|The first Navy flight nurse on Iwo Jima (6 March 1945) and later Okinawa (6 April 1945) was ENS Jane Kendeigh, NC, USNR. She became a symbol for casualty evacuation and high altitude nursing. (BUMED Archives).|
Extensive use of flamethrowers, including flamethrower tanks, was a hallmark of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The M2 Flamethrower exposed the operator to great danger from snipers and return fire, but it was an effective tool against enemies hiding in bunkers who refused to surrender. Tanks converted to flamethrowers were less effective on the rough terrain of the island, but one battalion commander called them the "best single weapon of the operation." Flamethrowers would remain in the US military arsenal through the Vietnam War.
The Flag on Mount SuribachiAs noted above, there were multiple flag-raisings on Iwo Jima. This led to some major misunderstandings over the years and some bitter feelings. Let's go through the myth and the reality.
|The flag being carried up Mount Suribachi for the initial flag-raising.|
|First flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.|
|The iconic second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi (Joe Rosenthal, AP). For Americans, at least, this is probably the most iconic image of World War II. It was recreated in the form of a statue in Washington, D.C., where it stands today.|