Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The USA's Biggest Error of World War II

A Useless Objective Taken at Great Cost

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com

"Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight." – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Every side makes errors in war. There is no perfect strategy. The basic rule (Clausewitz, I think) is that no plan survives contact with the enemy. But, sometimes you just make boneheaded decisions for all the wrong reasons. The United States won the war and easily benefited the most from the conflict, but it made some real doozies.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com

There are a lot of candidates for the worst error by the United States. One could point to Operation Avalanche (the invasion of Anzio), the invasion of Peleliu, and pretty much everything that the United States did in the Philippines (a cataclysm of errors). These all involved mistakes, and each of them in its entirety could be called a mistake.

One of these errors was Operation Detachment, the invasion of Iwo Jima.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A female nurse on Iwo Jima. This was a novelty in a war zone, women were not allowed in operational areas before Iwo Jima. Whenever someone says, "Why sure, that victory was worth any price," compare it to scenes like this and really think about whether the benefits were worth the cost.
The United States was well on the road to victory in the Pacific by late 1944. General MacArthur was grinding up slowly from the southwest while Admiral Nimitz was performing his classic “island-hopping” strategy. Everything looked great.

However, sometimes it is when things look a little too good that you develop a muscle-bound condition and do stupid things just because you can.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The massive US invasion fleet off Iwo Jima proved of little value against the dug-in defenders - and was itself a tempting target.
Iwo Jima looked like a simple project. It seemed useful to take, being a relatively short three-hour flight to Japan (half the distance from the main US Army Air Force airbase recently established at Tinian). Its capture certainly would hurt Japanese morale. Since Iwo Jima was close to Japan and might have been useful for Operation Downfall, the proposed invasion of Japan, Admiral Nimitz and his cronies made the decision to take it.

That was a mistake.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The landing plan involved putting men ashore right below the mountain that dominates the island at the extreme left.
Iwo Jima looked useful on the map, but it was a terrible objective. It has no natural harbors and, at the time, it had only three small airfields. However, Japanese morale on the island was considered low and it looked easy to take, given a flat section of the island with only one mountain at the end. Since Nimitz had the ships and men available, the invasion proceeded on 19 February 1945. The Navy spotted no defenses on the beach and so only a light bombardment was ordered before the landing craft set off.

What followed was not a disaster for the Americans. The island was duly captured. The history books don’t really make a big deal about Iwo Jima aside from the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. So, chalk up another win and let’s go hit the bars!

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Japanese were firing down on these men from above. That is not a good position to be in.
However, Iwo Jima turned into a hellacious battle. The Japanese had an energetic commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who raised morale. Kuribayashi built up his positions on the mountain, which was handy because the Americans landed directly below it on beaches with virtually no cover of any kind. The natural caves on the mountain were perfect for hiding artillery that aerial spotting did not locate. Iwo Jima turned into a giant trap.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A kamikaze plane struck the USS Saratoga, shown, off Iwo Jima and caused extensive damage.
The Japanese fought fanatically, which was typical. The fact that the island was a relatively short flight from Japan turned into a liability when Japanese kamikaze planes sank escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea, damaged fleet carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3), and damaged escort carrier USS Lunga Point, along with some smaller vessels. On the Saratoga alone, there were 123 dead or missing crewmen as well as 192 wounded. Thirty-six of her aircraft were destroyed. Sure, the US Navy had a lot of carriers by 1945 - that doesn't mean successful attacks on them were just pesky details.

The Japanese on Iwo Jima were determined. They dug in on both ends of the island and required huge expenditures of effort to dislodge. The scenes became eerily reminiscent of World War I.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Artillery fire rained down from both sides and the troops had no cover. The scenes were reminiscent of World War II trench warfare.
The US lost 26,040 total casualties including 6,821 killed in the capture of Iwo Jima. The Japanese lost about 18,000 men. For what? For a useless island in the middle of the ocean of no great value to anyone.

Say... that's kind of a lot of lives for an emergency airstrip, no?

Iwo Jima was useful for some heroic propaganda photographs, but that was about its only use. The USAAF kept its major bomber base on Tinian (others were on Guam and Saipan) - Iwo Jima was used only occasionally as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com

As stated above, the United States won the battle of Iwo Jima. Yay team! But every battle involves a cost-benefit analysis, even if it isn't always analyzed that way. The grunts, the guys struggling up the beach, don't have a say on where they go and what they are subjected to. That is a decision made by people in full possession of the relevant information. They need to make decisions in the best interests of everyone, not just their own careers and the empty glory of "victories" that produce no real benefit to the cause.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com

I do not want to make it sound as if what I'm writing in this article is the "accepted view." In fact, the accepted view is that Iwo Jima was a glorious victory that "saved countless lives." There are pictures! There are statues! It was a glorious victory! Well, to that I respond, Iwo Jima also cost countless lives. It was a victory of taking some worthless ground that meant nothing to the outcome of the war from some defenders who didn't really pose a threat. And the "countless lives saved" actually wasn't that many - though, of course, it was important to the men whose lives were saved. Nobody is arguing that the Japanese should have won the battle or won the war, that is nonsense. The point is that Iwo Jima was a worthless battle that was not worth the cost.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A grunt on Iwo Jima, just trying to survive.
I do not expect everyone to agree with me about Iwo Jima. But maybe it will cause even the skeptics to at least ponder the true value of operations versus their cost.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
"Hey, Joe, we're in the middle of a glorious victory! Joe? Joe?"
There are a lot of ways to make mistakes in a war - some lose wars, some lose battles, some just show stupidity - but worthless objectives that consume thousands of lives are among the worst. A lot of good men did not return home - for nothing. All by underestimating the enemy and pursuing a flawed strategy.

I talk more about the details of the battle of Iwo Jima here.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The glorious culmination of Operation Detachment.

2020

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