March 26, 1945. After five agonizing weeks, the island of Iwo Jima is finally declared secure. The most famous and bloodiest battle in United States Marine Corps history is over.
Iwo Jima was one of the last stepping stones to the final assault on Japan. By 1945, the United States Pacific Fleet under Chester Nimitz had pierced Japan’s central Pacific defense lines by the “Island Hopping” strategy, which consisted of overwhelming attacks on isolated coral atolls or island chains that gained blood-soaked names like Tarawa, Kwajalein or Saipan. Douglas MacArthur’s Americans and Australians had cleared most of northern New Guinea and had begun to retake the Philippines.
In the course of these campaigns, American forces had broken the back of the Japanese Navy in a grinding battle of attrition. By early 1945, the feared Japanese Navy that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor had been effectively crippled as a fighting force, and American strategists were paving the way for the final assault on the Japanese home islands. Among these preparations was the strategic bombing campaign launched from the island of Saipan, with heavy B-29 Superfortresses making the long flight to the north to bombard Japan from the sky. This effort would culminate, of course, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Which brings us to Iwo Jima. Midway between Saipan and Japan, Iwo Jima was a hive of Japanese fighter planes that would attack the B-29s on their way to and from Japan. The Army Air Forces wanted it knocked out for this reason and to provide an American airfield for their bombers and escort fighters. Navy planners believed that, due to Iwo’s small size and the element of surprise, an attack would clear the island in about a week. What they did not know was that the Japanese were girding Iwo Jima to defend to the death.
Japanese General Kuribayashi planned a radical departure from typical island defense strategy. Rather than meeting the invasion squared up on the beach, he constructed defenses in depth with mutually supporting artillery and machine guns, a deep and intricate system of tunnels burrowing into the rock, and a network of bunkers and pillboxes stocked with enough ammunition and food for a months-long defense. The length of tunnels combined reached 11 miles on the 8-square mile island, and some command posts were 75 feet below the earth. Kuribayashi knew he could not win the battle – but intended to make the Marines pay for every inch of ground.
They did. On the day of the landing, February 19, American naval forces under Admiral Raymond Spruance pummeled the island with naval gunfire and aerial bombardment. 30,000 Marines of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions came storming ashore and were met with silence. The volcanic ash of the island proved nearly impossible to dig into or cross, but the lack of Japanese fire fooled them. Kuribayashi waited until more and more men and equipment had piled up on the beach before his forces struck unseen. Machine guns, mortars, and heavy artillery began to rake the beach, which transformed into a nightmare. The 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, suffered a nearly 85% casualty rate on February 19. That set the tone for the next five weeks.
The fighting was impossible, but the Marines pushed on. The Japanese defenders were skillful and prepared, and the Marines struggled forward with superior numbers, overwhelming firepower, and determination. Kuribayashi had forbidden the legendary “banzai” bayonet charge, recognizing it as a waste of men and supplies. The Marines slugged forward day after day in the volcanic ash and bitter air of Iwo Jima, counterattacked at night by Japanese ambushes. Flamethrowers and grenades were vital to clearing the sunken bunkers; M4 Sherman tanks armed with flamethrower projectors were one of the only tools that helped make progress viable. Hand-to-hand fighting was a constant. Japanese soldiers fought to the death. General Holland Smith, the Marine commander, remarked "I don't know who he is, but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard."
The most famous moment of the battle came on February 23, when six Marines raised the United States flag on Mount Suribachi, at the southwest corner of the teardrop-shaped island. Three of the six Marines were killed in the ensuing battle. Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the event won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the template for the Marine Corps war memorial at Arlington. It was further immortalized in the 2004 Clint Eastwood film “Flags of Our Fathers.” It was also probably the best thing to ever happen to the Marine Corps, considering the publicity and exposure that it gave them.
Despite the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, the battle still had four and a half more weeks to go. The Japanese strongpoint was the northern portion of the island, with every hill and landmark on the tiny volcanic island becoming a battle of its own. By March 16, the Marines were closing on Kuribayashi’s final position, and began sealing up every cave they found with tons of explosives, burying the defenders within. On March 25, a final desperate counterattack cut into Marine lines but was thrown back after the entire Japanese force was wiped out, with heavy losses to the Marines. Some Japanese veterans – though there is disagreement – reported that Kuribayashi himself led this final attack.
On March 26, at 0900, the island was declared secure. That turned out to be false, in a way. The US Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment (Ohio National Guard) posted to the island as a garrison, but soon found out that over a thousand Japanese soldiers were still in hiding amongst the ruins. The 147th took three months to eradicate the last survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The last holdouts, Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, would not surrender until four years after the battle – January 1949. The Battle itself, however, was over.
The costs were massive. Out of 110,000 Americans ashore – Marines, soldiers, Navy corpsmen and Seabees, and US Army Air Force Pilots – over 26,000 became casualties with 6,821 dead. The 21,000-man Japanese garrison was almost totally destroyed, with around 18,000 dead and 3,000 remaining in hiding at the end of the battle. It was BY FAR the bloodiest battle the Marine Corps ever fought in its history, and the highest cost as a percentage of the engaged of any American battle of World War II.
After all that, the strategic significance of the island turned out to be questionable and has remained a subject of dispute ever since. Though there were a lot of lessons learned, the island proved impractical and unnecessary as an airbase, and Japanese fighters had minimal impact on the bombing campaigns. Many downed B-29 crewmen were rescued from Iwo Jima, but the Marines later questioned whether any other island wouldn’t have been just as useful for the same purpose. It is more likely than not that Iwo Jima, and all its loss, was a battle that need not have happened.
While it was the worst thing that ever happened to the Marine Corps, Iwo Jima probably saved the Marine Corps. In the post-WWII wrangling over budgets and the formation of the Department of Defense – which is a whole other bureaucratic saga of egos and melodramatics – the Marine Corps fought a successful propaganda campaign for its retention as an arm of the service. The Marine Corps has always been a propaganda machine to put the most diehard Communist to shame, but its activities in the Pacific in World War II – particularly Iwo Jima – have proved the most enduring in American memory. The “Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi” photograph, and the memorial at Arlington, have made the Marine Corps an unalterable part of the American DNA.
Love them, hate them, mock them as all the services do to each other (I’m a big fan of the third one), the Marines are here to stay. And they paid for that reputation in the blood they waded through on those terrible days in the sands of Iwo Jima.
Book Recommendation: For a broad overview that fits Iwo Jima into the broader Pacific narrative, see Ian W. Toll, Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020).