IWO JIMA: 50TH ANNIVERSARY: It was bloodiest Marine battle of World War II

Published Feb. 19, 1995|Updated March 28, 2008

Fifty years ago today, on the black sand of Iwo Jima, the United States waded into a battle whose cost in blood would stagger the American people.

On Iwo Jima, for the only time in World War II, the Marines would suffer more casualties (25,851) than they inflicted (22,000).

More than 6,800 Americans were killed in action. Another 19,000 were wounded or listed as missing. Only 216 enemy prisoners were taken.

The butcher's bill struck Washington like a burst of machine-gun fire. The end of the war loomed _ why were the Japanese adding to the agony?

After all, whenever the Germans faced certain defeat, they did the rational thing. They surrendered.

But the Japanese refused to define rationality in Western terms. Also facing certain defeat, they dug in deeper and brought terrible new tactics to bear.

In the end, the Americans prevailed, but at an awful price in flesh _ on both sides.

Iwo Jima has come to define the Marine Corps' institutional soul. "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima," said Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, "uncommon valor was a common virtue." He was right.

On Iwo's eight square miles, 27 Americans won the Medal of Honor. That alone would validate Iwo's status (along with Lexington, Gettysburg and Omaha Beach) as sacred soil. But the flag-raising photo clinched it.

Even today, when wars flare in full-color, all-action video, that black-and-white still photo grabs us. It forever symbolizes the hell and glory of ground combat.

And for all of that, Iwo Jima was an air force show.

Since late November 1944, the Army Air Forces had been launching B-29s against Japan from the Marianas. Iwo Jima sits smack along the route, halfway between the bombers' targets and their bases.

The Japanese made Iwo Jima a hornet's nest of early-warning radar and fighter-interceptors, a place that bombers had to dog-leg around. In American hands, Iwo could serve as a base for escort fighters and a haven for shot-up bombers.

So the Joint Chiefs of Staff handed down the order: Assault and conquer Iwo Jima.

Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith told Nimitz: "This will be the bloodiest fight in Marine Corps history. We'll catch seven kinds of hell on the beaches, and that will be just the beginning."

He couldn't have known how right he was.

By February 1945, the Japanese had caught on to the American way of amphibious warfare. They knew that before the first rifleman landed, the Americans would clobber the landing beaches with firepower.

Japanese tacticians came up with a counter: Cede the beaches and fight from fortified bunkers inland.

On Iwo, "inland" favored the Japanese. From a ship, the island seems to curve like a saddle. The only beaches that can support a landing lie in the low part. That gave the Marines an uphill fight both ways.

The Marines splashed in on Feb. 19, seeking to cut across the narrow island. Half would then wheel north, to the saddle's rear. The rest would pivot south, toward the saddlehorn _ Mount Suribachi, 556 feet of fortifications.

Waiting to kill

Defending Iwo Jima was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a military genius. His plan was to let the beaches pile up with men and equipment, and then level them with mortar and artillery shells, stopping the landings and pushing the invaders back into the sea.

Beyond the landing beaches on Iwo's southeast coast, the Americans faced more than 750 defensive installations _ blockhouses, pillboxes, artillery emplacements, rocket launchers and 24 tanks. Many of these positions were connected by 13,000 yards of concrete-lined tunnels.

Mount Suribachi was a veritable fortress. Some say that Kuribayashi's defenses were equal to those at the Rock of Gibraltar.

Fourth and Fifth Division Marines hit the beaches at 9:05 a.m., and immediately found themselves struggling to move in the volcanic ash and cinders. Walking is difficult, running impossible. But the Japanese were nowhere to be found.

Kuribayashi sprang his ambush shortly after 10 a.m.

"Sand hummocks, appearing as giant ant hills moments before, spewed machine gun fire from apertures hardly visible just above ground level," former war correspondent Bill Ross reported in his book, Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor.

"Mortars fell in cascade from hundreds of concealed pits. Heavy artillery and rapid-firing anti-aircraft guns, barrels lowered to rake the beaches, slammed shells into oncoming landing craft and support vessels.

"Land mines, sown like wheat in a field, exploded in sickening blasts on the terraces as Marines stumbled across them. Fifteen-inch coast defense guns and large mortars rained down from Suribachi's base, slopes and crater.

"Marines fell in mounting numbers, their screams of pain cutting through the din of fighting, but others pushed inland from the shore, up the terraces and over the top of the airstrip runway. Still others rammed across the neck of the island at Suribachi's base. They crept and crawled, dodged and ducked, slithered and staggered _ but they moved forward."

A hero dies

Within the first 90 minutes of the amphibious assault, a Marine legend fell in battle.

"C'mon, you guys," cried Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who had won the Medal of Honor for single-handedly wiping out a company of Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal. His luck ran out on the sands of Iwo. He and his men were killed instantly by an exploding mortar shell.

After his heroics on Guadalcanal, Basilone had returned to a giant celebration in his hometown of Raritan, N.J., where he was given a $5,000 war bond, kissed by a Hollywood starlet and offered a commission as a second lieutenant.

Basilone turned down officer rank and all that went with it, saying, "I'm a plain soldier and I want to stay one."

He volunteered for another hitch of combat duty with the Iwo-bound Fifth Marine Division. He told his friends that he didn't want to stay behind "like a museum piece." Basilone was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously, for his valor on Iwo Jima.

Tony Stein, 24, of Dayton, Ohio, was the first Marine to win the Medal of Honor at Iwo. Carrying his "stinger," a hand-held machine gun he had fashioned, he attacked pillbox after pillbox.

War correspondent Richard Newcomb wrote: "Stein killed at least 20 Japanese. Then he did a strange thing. He took off his helmet and shoes and ran for the beach to get more ammunition. He made eight trips in all that day, and twice his stinger was shot from his hands, but at the end of the day he was still firing it."

Stein would be killed by a sniper's bullet on March 1 while leading a patrol against an enemy strongpoint. He died without knowing of his Medal of Honor citation.

Jack Lucas won his Medal of Honor by lying on two grenades. He hadn't seen them land. He hadn't seen them thrown. All of sudden there they were, resting in the black volcanic sand like two wicked bean cans.

What was worse, the 17-year-old Lucas didn't know how long they had been there. One second? Two? Had he known, he might have reached down and chucked them back. But, not knowing, his options were reduced.

First, he hollered "Grenades!" to other Marines. Then he took his rifle butt, jammed the objects into the sand, and flung his body over both. Then came the explosion.

The day before, he had told buddies on the beach of Iwo: "I'm right where I want to be." Now, as he lay bleeding from the nose and mouth, he prayed: "God save me."

Lucas, who was President Clinton's guest during the State of the Union address last month, was 14 when he joined the Marines.

He had forged his mother's signature on consent papers to join up.

Lucas had bamboozled his way to Iwo. After joining up, he sneaked aboard a troop train heading for the West Coast and then stowed away on troop transports bound for the western Pacific.

Lucas and others in Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Regiment, Fifth Marine Division tumbled out of landing boats into chin-deep water off Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 and, amid heavy enemy fire, toiled onto the steep beach.

All day they fought their way, east to west, across the neck of the island, then turned north toward the main line of Japanese defense. They halted for the night and started out again the next day.

The fighting was fierce. It rained enemy mortars. At one point, Lucas and three others jumped into a 20-foot-long trench.

Suddenly, directly in front of them 11 Japanese soldiers stood up. They were so close _ "face-to-face," Lucas said _ that the Americans could not raise their rifles to their shoulders. If you had done that, he said, your gun barrel "would have been in the other fellow's mouth."

So, from the hip, the Marines cut loose. It was desperate. "Nobody said nothing," he recalled. "It wasn't no social hour."

Then he spotted the grenades. He knew what he had to do. If he let them go off, he and his three comrades would be killed or injured, and then finished off by the enemy.

"Better for one Marine to go down than all four," he said. And he was prepared for that Marine to be him. "It wasn't for us to decide who's going to survive this damn thing."

He got incredibly lucky. Only one of the two grenades went off. And, cushioned by the sand, it only wounded Jack Lucas.

Fifty years later, his body still is filled with bits of Iwo shrapnel. His X-rays, he said, still look like a starry sky at night, and his fingers stick out at funny angles when he tries to salute.

Of 1,000 Marines who landed on the right wing that first day, only 150 were left by nightfall. The Japanese would roll guns out of their caves _ there were 5,000 of them _ fire, then roll them back before naval batteries offshore could retaliate. They rolled time bombs, even rocks down on the invaders.

A mother's plea

A mother wrote Navy Secretary James Forrestal: "Please, for God's sake, stop sending our finest youth to be murdered on places like Iwo Jima. It is too much for boys to stand, too much for mothers to take."

"At the White House," Bill Ross wrote, "President Roosevelt . . . shuddered at the casualties. "It was the first time in the war, through good news and bad,' author Jim Bishop wrote, "that anyone had seen the president gasp in horror.' "

By and large, ground combat in the Pacific pitted Japanese small arms against American heavy firepower. But Iwo was different. There, the Japanese salted caves with hundreds of artillery pieces, then used them murderously.

Infantrymen hate artillery fire. It kills from afar, seemingly at random, and it does ugly things to a young man's body.

Correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote that on Iwo, soldiers on both sides "died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific War had I seen such badly mangled bodies."

From Suribachi, Japanese gunners could see the whole island. The mountain had to be taken. Like the rest of Iwo, the Marines took it yard by yard, one bunker at a time.

Finally, on the morning of Feb. 23, a patrol gained the summit.

The Marines had clawed their way to the 556-foot top of Suribachi. Two Japanese were killed charging them as they raised a small American flag on a nearby pipe.

Below, Marines cheered and ships' whistle blew. But the commander of the patrol's parent battalion, Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, fretted that his unit's triumph would fall prey to a souvenir hunter.

"Some son of a bitch is going to want that flag," Johnson muttered, "but he's not going to get it. That's our flag. Better find another one."

So a Marine ran back to the beach to scrounge another flag. Aboard an LST, he found one measuring four-by-eight, twice the size of the original. Back up on Suribachi, five Marines and a Navy corpsman tied the bigger flag to a 15-foot pole and anchored it in the stony soil.

As they pushed the pole just past the diagonal, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal clicked his shutter. Moments later, he posed the Marines waving their rifles in front of the erect flagpole.

That one ought to sell, he told himself.

Rosenthal's flag-raising picture tingled a war-weary American public. The photo also struck most people as a sure sign that Iwo was in American hands.

It wasn't. A battle that was supposed to end in five days persisted for a month and more as the Marines crawled north, dragging along their flamethrowers and satchel charges.

A reserve division landed two of its regiments but kept the third aboard ship. Iwo simply had no room for one more regiment. The island grew so crowded, and so cruddy, that Navy planes dumped DDT on friend and foe alike.

For most of the war, the impatient Japanese had charged early in a battle. But on Iwo, they holed up until the end, nullifying American firepower.

On March 8, some 1,000 defenders made a banzai charge _ the word literally means 10,000 years, the attackers surrendering their lives for the emperor in exchange for 10 millennia of glory. The Marines killed 784.

"We have not eaten or drunk for five days," Kuribayashi, the commander, radioed. "We are going to fight bravely to the last."

By the 18th day, the Marines reached the northern end of the island, isolating the surviving Japanese in two pockets. Navy Lt. Toshihiko Ohno counted only five men left of 54 in his anti-aircraft battery.

On March 14, Iwo Jima _ "Hell with the fire out" _ was declared secure. That day the Fifth Division suffered 134 casualties. Twelve days later 350 Japanese made a final sword charge and were wiped out.

Kuribayashi had gone to the mouth of his cave, bowed toward Hirohito's Imperial Palace, and ritually stabbed himself in his stomach. An aide finished him with a sword to the back of his bowed neck. Only 216 of his men had surrendered, remarkably the last two giving up six years after the battle.

The new approach _ old-fashioned attrition _ had jarred Americans with its body count. The San Francisco Examiner was aghast.

In a front-page editorial, publisher William Randolph Hearst accused the Marine Corps' command of bloody-mindedness. He demanded that supreme command of the Pacific War be handed to the Army's Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Soon enough, the Army would get its chance, on Okinawa.

_ Information from Cox News Service, the Associated Press and Knight Ridder was used in this report.

The battle of Iwo Jima

Feb. 19 - March 26, 1945

Iwo Jima, only 8 square miles of volcanic rock, was a fiercely guarded stronghold for the Japanese. As World War II stretched into 1945, most saw Iwo Jima as impregnable, and Gen. Kuribayashi used brilliant strategy and precise planning to keep it that way.

On Feb. 19, Allies used equally precise planning and six battles to launch their attack. The American V Amphibious Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt was escorted by Adm. Spruance's 5th Fleet. Vice Adm. Turner commanded the combined operations and Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith commanded the expeditionary troops. By nightfall, 30,000 men from the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions would take part.

Before the invasion

For five hours, American bombers sent down a "Rain of Death," turning the island into an inferno. By the time the attack ceased, 16 blockhouses and 17 shore batteries were ruined, including four at the base of Mount Suribachi. However, the defending Japanese simply retreated deeper into their hundreds of tunnels and waited. The following day, at 6:40 a.m., the heaviest pre-H-Hour bombing of World War II to date began. The landings took place at 9 a.m.

IWO JIMA possessed an elaborate defense system of caves, tunnels, blockhouses and pillboxes, which continued to be improved right up until the time of the invasion. Natural caves were utilized but some of the man-made caves were 30-40 feet deep, complete with stairways, connecting corridors and passageways. One 540-yard-long tunnel near Airfield No. 1 ran 32 feet deep with 17 entrances.

MOUNT SURIBACHI, 556 feet high, bristled with more than 200 guns and 21 blockhouses. The Japanese dug connecting tunnels to Motoyami. For three grueling days, Marines fought for control of Mount Suribachi. Finally, on the fourth day and at a cost of 900 dead and wounded, elements of the 5th Marine Div. managed to secure the top of the volcano.

THE INVASION PLAN: The island was to be assaulted by a combined force from the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions. The 4th Division landed at Yellow 1, Yellow 2 and Blue 1. Withering fire prevented a landing at Blue 2. The 5th Division landed on Red 1 and Red 2 and Green Beach right under the guns on Mount Suribachi.

CASUALTIES: The bloodiest Marine battle of the Pacific cost the Americans 6,821 dead, 5,453 of them Marines, and 19,217 wounded. Nearly 21,000 Japanese died. Only 1,083 Japanese survived.

Rifle pits exposed muzzles only. Rocks, ravines and shadowy terrain camouflaged deep-burrowed heavy guns. At no time would the Japanese soldier unneccessarily expose himself to the Marines.

Feb. 23: U.S. flag raised on summit of Mount Suribachi.

Source: The Times Atlas of the Second World War, After the Battle, Number 82, 2194 Days of War; West Point Atlas of American Wars _ 1900 - 1953