|Battle of Iwo Jima
|Part of the Pacific Theatre of World War II
A U.S. 37 mm (1.5 in) gun fires against Japanese cave positions in the north face of Mount Suribachi.
| United States
|Commanders and leaders
Chester W. Nimitz
Raymond A. Spruance
Marc A. Mitscher
William H.P. Blandy
U.S. Marine Corps:
Holland M. Smith
Graves B. Erskine
Clifton B. Cates
Keller E. Rockey
|Tadamichi Kuribayashi †
Takeichi Nishi †
V Amphibious Corps
Seventh Air ForceNaval units:
U.S. 5th Fleet
- Joint Expeditionary
Force (TF 51)
- Amphibious Support
Force (TF 52)
- Attack Force (TF 53)
Troops (TF 56)
- Fast Carrier
Force (TF 58)
Additional naval, air and ground support elements
109th IJA Division
- Headquarters Group
- 2nd Mixed Brigade
- 3rd Battalion, 17th Mixed Regiment
- 26th Tank Regiment
- 145th Infantry Regiment
- Brigade Artillery Group
- Naval Guard Force (mainly AA and Art.)
Additional support units and Kamikaze
|110,000 U.S. Marines, U.S. Soldiers, U.S. Navycorpsmen, USAAFpersonnel, and others
438 artillery pieces
33 naval guns
69 anti-tank guns
~300 anti-aircraft guns
|Casualties and losses
2 captured but recovered
1 escort carrier sunk
1 fleet carrier severely damaged
1 escort carrier lightly damaged
|17,845–18,375 dead and missing
216 taken prisoner~3,000 in hiding
Location within Pacific Ocean
The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 February – 26 March 1945) was a major battle in which the United States Marine Corps landed on and eventually captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The American invasion, designated Operation Detachment, had the goal of capturing the entire island, including the three Japanese-controlled airfields (including the South Field and the Central Field), to provide a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands. This five-week battle comprised some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War of World War II.
After the heavy losses incurred in the battle, the strategic value of the island became controversial. It was useless to the U.S. Army as a staging base and useless to the U.S. Navy as a fleet base.However, Navy Seabees rebuilt the landing strips, which were used as emergency landing strips for USAAF B-29s.
The Imperial Japanese Army positions on the island were heavily fortified, with a dense network of bunkers, hidden artillery positions, and 18 km (11 mi) of underground tunnels. The American ground forces were supported by extensive naval artillery, and had complete air supremacy provided by U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators throughout the entire battle.
Japanese combat deaths numbered three times the number of American deaths although, uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, American total casualties (dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner, some of whom were captured because they had been knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled. The majority of the remainder were killed in action, although it has been estimated that as many as 3,000 continued to resist within the various cave systems for many days afterwards, eventually succumbing to their injuries or surrendering weeks later.
Despite the bloody fighting and severe casualties on both sides, the Japanese defeat was assured from the start. Overwhelming American superiority in numbers and arms as well as complete air supremacy—coupled with the impossibility of Japanese retreat or reinforcement, along with sparse food and supplies—permitted no plausible circumstance in which the Americans could have lost the battle.
On February 19, 1945, the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) joined the Fifth Marine Amphibious Corps and the Fourth Marine Division for the amphibious assault on Iwo Jima. The entire force landed on Iwo Jima on D-Day with the first assault wave led by the Fourth Marine Division. The 133rd NCHB suffered severe casualties during the fight for Iwo Jima, where it distinguished itself in both front-line combat and construction. The 133rd NCHC had 370 casualties, more than 40 percent of the 875 men that landed, the highest casualties as part of a single battle in Seabee history.
Joe Rosenthal‘s Associated Press photograph of the raising of the U.S. flag on top of the 169 m (554 ft) Mount Suribachi by six U.S. Marines became an iconic image of the battle and the American war effort in the Pacific.
After the American capture of the Marshall Islands, and the devastating air attacksagainst the Japanese fortress island of Truk Atoll in the Carolines in January 1944, the Japanese military leaders reevaluated their situation. All indications pointed to an American drive toward the Mariana Islands and the Carolines. To counter such an offensive, the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy (I.J.N.) established an inner line of defenses extending generally northward from the Carolines to the Marianas, and thence to Japan via the Volcano Islands, and westward from the Marianas via the Carolines and the Palau Islands to the Philippines.
In March 1944, the Japanese 31st Army, commanded by General Hideyoshi Obata, was activated to garrison this inner line. (Note that a Japanese army was about the size of an American, British Army, or Canadian Army corps. The Japanese Army had many armies, but the U.S. Army only had ten at its peak, with the 4th Army, the 6th Army, the 8th Army, and the 10th Army being in the Pacific Theater. Also, the 10th Army only fought on Okinawa in the spring of 1945.)
The commander of the Japanese garrison on Chichi Jima was placed nominally in command of Army and Navy units in the Volcano Islands. After the American conquest of the Marianas, daily bomber raids from the Marianas hit the mainland as part of Operation Scavenger. Iwo Jima served as an early warning station that radioed reports of incoming bombers back to mainland Japan. This allowed Japanese air defenses to prepare for the arrival of American bombers.
After the U.S. seized bases in the Marshall Islands in the battles of Kwajalein and Eniwetok in February 1944, Japanese Army and Navy reinforcements were sent to Iwo Jima: 500 men from the naval base at Yokosuka and 500 from Chichi Jima reached Iwo Jima during March and April 1944. At the same time, with reinforcements arriving from Chichi Jima and the home islands, the Army garrison on Iwo Jima reached a strength of more than 5,000 men. The loss of the Marianas during the summer of 1944 greatly increased the importance of the Volcano Islands for the Japanese, who were aware that the loss of these islands would facilitate American air raids against the Home Islands, disrupting war manufacturing and severely damaging civilian morale.
Final Japanese plans for the defense of the Volcano Islands were overshadowed by several factors:
- the Imperial Japanese Navy had already lost almost all of its power, and it could not prevent American landings
- aircraft losses throughout 1944 had been so heavy that, even if war production were not affected by American air attacks, combined Japanese air strength was not expected to increase to 3,000 warplanes until March or April 1945.
- these aircraft could not be used from bases in the Home Islands against Iwo Jima because their range was not more than 900 km (560 mi).
- available warplanes had to be hoarded to defend Taiwan and the Japanese Home Islands from any attack.
- there was a serious shortage of properly trained and experienced pilots and other aircrew to man the warplanes Japan had—because such large numbers of pilots and crewmen had perished fighting over the Solomon Islandsand during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in mid-1944.
In a postwar study, Japanese staff officers described the strategy that was used in the defense of Iwo Jima in the following terms:
In the light of the above situation, seeing that it was impossible to conduct our air, sea, and ground/ operations on Iwo Island [Jima] toward ultimate victory, it was decided that to gain time necessary for the preparation of the Homeland defense, our forces should rely solely upon the established defensive equipment in that area, checking the enemy by delaying tactics. Even the suicidal attacks by small groups of our Army and Navy airplanes, the surprise attacks by our submarines, and the actions of parachute units, although effective, could be regarded only as a strategical ruse on our part. It was a most depressing thought that we had no available means left for the exploitation of the strategical opportunities which might from time to time occur in the course of these operations.
— Japanese Monograph No. 48
At the end of the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, the Allies were left with a two-month lull in their offensive operations before the planned invasion of Okinawa. Iwo Jima was strategically important: it provided an air base for Japanese fighter planes to intercept long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers, and it provided a haven for Japanese naval units in dire need of any support available. In addition, it was used by the Japanese to stage air attacks on the Mariana Islands from November 1944 through January 1945. The capture of Iwo Jima would eliminate these problems and provide a staging area for Operation Downfall – the eventual invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. The distance of B-29 raids could (hypothetically) be cut in half, and a base would be available for P-51 Mustang fighters to escort and protect the bombers.
American intelligence sources were confident that Iwo Jima would fall in one week. In light of the optimistic intelligence reports, the decision was made to invade Iwo Jima and the operation was given the code name Operation Detachment.American forces were unaware that the Japanese were preparing a complex and deep defense, radically departing from their usual strategy of a beach defense. So successful was the Japanese preparation that it was discovered after the battle that the hundreds of tons of Allied bombs and thousands of rounds of heavy naval gunfire had left the Japanese defenders almost undamaged and ready to inflict losses on the U.S. Marines.
Planning and preparation
Lieut. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi
By June 1944, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was assigned to command the defense of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi knew that Japan could not win the battle, but he hoped to inflict massive casualties on the American forces, so that the United States and its Australian and British allies would reconsider carrying out the invasion of Japan Home Islands.
While drawing inspiration from the defense in the Battle of Peleliu, Kuribayashi designed a defense that broke with Japanese military doctrine. Rather than establishing his defenses on the beach to face the landings directly, he created strong, mutually supporting defenses in depth using static and heavy weapons such as heavy machine guns and artillery. Takeichi Nishi‘s armored tanks were to be used as camouflaged artillery positions. Because the tunnel linking the mountain to the main forces was never completed, Kuribayashi organized the southern area of the island in and around Mount Suribachi as a semi-independent sector, with his main defensive zone built up in the north. The expected American naval and air bombardment further prompted the creation of an extensive system of tunnels that connected the prepared positions, so that a pillbox that had been cleared could be reoccupied. This network of bunkers and pillboxes favored the defense. For instance, The Nanpo Bunker (Southern Area Islands Naval Air HQ), which was located east of Airfield Number 2, had enough food, water and ammo for the Japanese to hold out for three months. The bunker was 90 feet deep and had tunnels running in various directions. Approximately 500 55-gallon drums filled with water, kerosene, and fuel oil for generators were located inside the complex. Gasoline powered generators allowed for radios and lighting to be operated underground.
By February 19, 1945, the day the Americans invaded, 11 miles of a planned 17 miles of tunnel network had been dug. Besides the Nanpo Bunker, there were numerous command centers and barracks that were 75 feet deep. Tunnels allowed for troop movement to go undetected to various defense positions.
Hundreds of hidden artillery and mortar positions along with land mines were placed all over the island. Among the Japanese weapons were 320 mm spigot mortars and a variety of explosive rockets.
Nonetheless, the Japanese supply was inadequate. Troops were supplied 60% of the standard issue of ammunition sufficient for one engagement by one division, and food and forage for four months.
Numerous Japanese snipers and camouflaged machine gun positions were also set up. Kuribayashi specially engineered the defenses so that every part of Iwo Jima was subject to Japanese defensive fire. He also received a handful of kamikaze pilots to use against the enemy fleet. Three hundred and eighteen American sailors were killed by kamikazeattacks during the battle. However, against his wishes, Kuribayashi’s superiors on Honshu ordered him to erect some beach defenses. These were the only parts of the defenses that were destroyed during the pre-landing bombardment.
Starting on 15 June 1944, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Air Forces began naval bombardments and air raids against Iwo Jima, which would become the longest and most intense in the Pacific theater. These would contain a combination of naval artillery shellings and aerial bombings that went on for nine months. On 17 June, the destroyer escortUSS Blessman sent Underwater Demolition Team 15 (UDT-15) toward Blue Beach for reconnaissance. The Japanese infantry fired on them, killing one American diver. On the evening of 18 June, the Blessman was hit by a bomb from a Japanese warplane, killing 40 sailors, including 15 members of her UDT.
Unaware of Kuribayashi’s tunnel defense system, many of the Americans assumed the majority of the Japanese garrison were killed by the constant bombing raids.
“Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight.” – Chester W. Nimitz
The battleship USS New York firing its 14 in (360 mm) main guns on the island, 16 February 1945 (D minus 3)
Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt, commander of the Marine landing force, requested a 10-day heavy shelling of the island immediately preceding the mid-February amphibious assault. However, Rear Adm. William H. P. Blandy, commander of the Amphibious Support Force (Task Force 52), did not believe such a bombardment would allow him time to replenish his ships’ ammunition before the landings; he thus refused Schmidt’s request. Schmidt then asked for nine days of shelling; Blandy again refused and agreed to a three-day bombardment. This decision left much hard feeling among the Marines. After the war, Lieut. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander Expeditionary Troops (Task Force 56, which consisted of Schmidt’s Fifth Amphibious Corps), bitterly complained that the lack of naval gunfire had cost Marine lives during the entire Allied island campaign.
Each heavy warship was given an area on which to fire that, combined with all the ships, covered the entire island. Each warship fired for approximately six hours before stopping for a certain amount of time. Poor weather on D minus 3 led to uncertain results for that day’s bombardment. On D minus 2, the time and care that the Japanese had taken in preparing their artillery positions became clear. When heavy cruiser USS Pensacola got within range of shore batteries, the ship was quickly hit 6 times and suffered 17 crew deaths. Later, 12 small craft attempting to land an underwater demolition team were all struck by Japanese rounds and quickly retired. While aiding these vessels, the destroyer USS Leutze was also hit and suffered 7 crew deaths. On D minus 1, Adm. Blandy’s gunners were once again hampered by rain and clouds. Gen. Schmidt summed up his feelings by saying, “We only got about 13 hours worth of fire support during the 34 hours of available daylight.”
The limited bombardment had questionable impact on the enemy due to the Japanese being heavily dug-in and fortified. However, many bunkers and caves were destroyed during the bombing giving it some limited success. The Japanese had been preparing for this battle since March 1944, which gave them a significant head start. By the time of the landing, about 450 American ships were located off Iwo Jima. The entire battle involved about 60,000 U.S. Marines and several thousand U.S. Navy Seabees.
D minus 2 Medal of Honor: Lt. (jg) Rufus G. Herring, USNR
General Schmidt’s division commanders on Iwo Jima
American order of battle
Joint Expeditionary Force (Task Force 51)
Vice Admiral R. Kelly Turner, commanding
Fifth Amphibious Corps
Southern sector (Green and Red beaches):
Northern sector (Yellow and Blue beaches):
Floating reserve (committed to center sector 22 Feb):
Japanese order of battle
21,060 total men under arms
Lieut. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commanding
Colonel Tadashi Takaishi, chief of staff
- 109th Division
- 145th Infantry Regiment
- 17th Mixed Infantry Regiment
- 26th Tank Regiment
- 2nd Mixed Brigade
- 125th Anti-Aircraft Defense Unit
- 132nd Anti-Aircraft Defense Unit
- 141st Anti-Aircraft Defense Unit
- 149th Anti-Aircraft Defense Unit
First day – 19 February 1945
Marines landing on the beach
Members of the 1st Battalion 23rd Marines burrow in the volcanic sand on Yellow Beach 1. A beached LCI is visible upper left with Mount Suribachi upper right
During the night, Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force 58, a huge carrier force, arrived off Iwo Jima. Also in this flotilla was Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, overall commander for the invasion, in his flagship, the heavy cruiserUSS Indianapolis. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith was once again deeply frustrated that Mitscher’s powerful carrier group had been bombing the Japanese home islands instead of softening up the defenses of Iwo Jima. Mitscher’s fliers did contribute to the additional surface-ship bombardment that accompanied the formation of the amphibious craft.
Unlike the days of the pre-landing bombardment, D-Day dawned clear and bright. At 08:59, one minute ahead of schedule, the first wave of Marines landed on the beaches of the southeastern coast of Iwo Jima.
Situation on the beaches
Unfortunately for the landing force, the planners at Pearl Harbor had completely misjudged the situation that would face Gen. Schmidt’s Marines. The beaches had been described as “excellent” and the thrust inland was expected to be “easy.” In reality, after crossing the beach, the Marines were faced with 15-foot-high slopes of soft black volcanic ash. This ash allowed for neither a secure footing nor the construction of foxholes to protect the Marines from hostile fire. However, the ash did help to absorb some of the fragments from Japanese artillery.
Marines were trained to move rapidly forward; here they could only plod. The weight and amount of equipment was a terrific hindrance and various items were rapidly discarded. First to go was the gas mask …
The lack of a vigorous response led the Navy to conclude that their bombardment had suppressed the Japanese defenses and in good order the Marines began deployment to the Iwo Jima beach. Gen. Kuribayashi was far from beaten, however. In the deathly silence, landed US Marines began to slowly inch their way forward inland, oblivious to the danger. After allowing the Americans to pile up men and machinery on the beach for just over an hour, Kuribayashi unleashed the undiminished force of his countermeasures. Shortly after 10:00, everything from machine guns and mortars to heavy artillery began to rain down on the crowded beach, which was quickly transformed into a nightmarish bloodbath.
At first it came as a ragged rattle of machine-gun bullets, growing gradually lower and fiercer until at last all the pent-up fury of a hundred hurricanes seemed to be breaking upon the heads of the Americans. Shells screeched and crashed, every hummock spat automatic fire and the very soft soil underfoot erupted underfoot with hundreds of exploding land mines … Marines walking erect crumpled and fell. Concussion lifted them and slammed them down, or tore them apart …
Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod described it simply as “a nightmare in hell.”
The Japanese heavy artillery in Mount Suribachi opened their reinforced steel doors to fire, and then closed them immediately to prevent counterfire from the Marines and naval gunners. This made it difficult for American units to destroy a Japanese artillery piece. To make matters worse for the Americans, the bunkers were connected to the elaborate tunnel system so that bunkers that were cleared with flamethrowers and grenades were reoccupied shortly afterwards by Japanese troops moving through the tunnels. This tactic caused many casualties among the Marines, as they walked past the reoccupied bunkers without expecting to suddenly take fresh fire from them.
In response to the heavy resistance on the beach, the Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment was ordered to climb from landing craft with grappling hooks to scale a high ridge about 3/4 mile from Mount Suribachi. The mission was to fire on the enemy opposing the Marine landings on the beaches below. They were soon pinned down by heavy Japanese fire, and engaged in non-stop fighting for 31 days before they could be relieved.
Moving off the beaches
Marines wait to move inland
Amtracs, unable to do more than uselessly churn the black ash, made no progress up the slopes; their Marine passengers had to dismount and slog forward on foot. Men of the Naval Construction Battalions (CBs or Seabees), braving enemy fire, eventually were able to bulldoze passages up the slopes. This allowed the Marines and equipment to finally make some progress inland and get off the jam-packed beaches. “Even so, in virtually every shell hole there lay at least one dead Marine …”
By 1130 hours, some Marines had managed to reach the southern tip of Airfield No. 1, whose possession had been one of the (highly unrealistic) original American objectives for the first day. The Marines endured a fanatical 100-man charge by the Japanese, but were able to keep their toehold on Airfield No. 1 as night fell. It was in this sector that Sgt. Darrell S. Cole of the 23rd Marines was killed after single-handedly knocking out several pillboxes and a bunker, thereby earning the Medal of Honor.
Crossing the island
In the left-most sector, the Americans did manage to achieve one of their objectives for the battle that day. Led by six-foot, four-inch Col. Harry B. “Harry the Horse” Liversedge the 28th Marine Regiment drove across the island at its narrowest width (approx. one-half mile), thereby isolating the Japanese dug in on Mount Suribachi.
GySgt. “Manila” John Basilone (a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions on Guadalcanal), fighting in the 27th Marinesjust to the right of Liversedge’s 28th Regiment, was killed leading his machine-gun section. Cpl. Tony Stein, a former toolmaker, had transformed a wing gun from a wrecked fighter plane into what he called his “stinger.” With this unusual weapon, he methodically killed the occupants of multiple pillboxes, allowing demolition personnel following him to destroy the position. For these actions, he was (posthumously) awarded the Navy Cross.
Action on the right flank
The right-most landing area was dominated by Japanese positions at the Quarry. The 25th Marine Regiment undertook a two-pronged attack to silence these guns. Their experience can be summarized by the ordeal of 2nd Lt. Benjamin Roselle, part of a ground team directing naval gunfire:
Within a minute a mortar shell exploded among the group … his left foot and ankle hung from his leg, held on by a ribbon of flesh … Within minutes a second round landed near him and fragments tore into his other leg. For nearly an hour he wondered where the next shell would land. He was soon to find out as a shell burst almost on top of him, wounding him for the third time in the shoulder. Almost at once another explosion bounced him several feet into the air and hot shards ripped into both thighs … as he lifted his arm to look at this watch a mortar shell exploded only feet away and blasted the watch from his wrist and tore a large jagged hole in his forearm: “I was beginning to know what it must be like to be crucified,” he was later to say.
The 25th Marines’ 3rd Battalion had landed approximately 900 men in the morning. Japanese resistance at the Quarry was so fierce that by nightfall only 150 were left in fighting condition, an astounding 83.3% casualty rate.
By the evening, 30,000 Marines had landed. About 40,000 more would follow. Aboard the command ship Eldorado, “Howlin’ Mad” Smith saw the lengthy casualty reports and heard of the slow progress of the ground forces. To the war correspondents covering the operation he confessed, “I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard.”
D-Day Medals of Honor: Sgt. Darrell S. Cole, USMCR (posth.); Cpl. Tony Stein, USMCR (posth.)
In the days after the landings, the Marines expected the usual Japanese banzai charge during the night. This had been the standard Japanese final defense strategy in previous battles against enemy ground forces in the Pacific, such as during the Battle of Saipan. In those attacks, for which the Marines were prepared, the majority of the Japanese attackers had been killed and the Japanese strength greatly reduced. However, General Kuribayashi had strictly forbidden these “human wave” attacks by the Japanese infantrymen because he considered them to be futile.
The fighting on the beachhead at Iwo Jima was very fierce. The advance of the Marines was stalled by numerous defensive positions augmented by artillery pieces. There, the Marines were ambushed by Japanese troops who occasionally sprang out of tunnels. At night, the Japanese left their defenses under cover of darkness to attack American foxholes, but U.S. Navy ships fired star shells to deny them the cover of darkness. On Iwo Jima (and other Japanese held islands), Japanese soldiers who knew English were used to harass and or deceive Marines in order to kill them if they could; they would yell “corpsman” pretending to be a wounded Marine, in order to lure in U.S. Navy medical corpsmen attached to Marine infantry companies.
The Marines learned that firearms were relatively ineffective against the Japanese defenders and effectively used flamethrowers and grenades to flush out Japanese troops in the tunnels. One of the technological innovations of the battle, the eight Sherman M4A3R3 medium tanks equipped with a flamethrower (“Ronson” or “Zippo” tanks), proved very effective at clearing Japanese positions. The Shermans were difficult to disable, such that defenders were often compelled to assault them in the open, where they would fall victim to the superior numbers of Marines.
Close air support was initially provided by fighters from escort carriers off the coast. This shifted over to the 15th Fighter Group, flying P-51 Mustangs, after they arrived on the island on 6 March. Similarly, illumination rounds (flares) which were used to light up the battlefield at night were initially provided by ships, shifting over later to landing force artillery. Navajo code talkers were part of the American ground communications, along with walkie-talkies and SCR-610 backpack radio sets.
After running out of water, food and most supplies, the Japanese troops became desperate toward the end of the battle. Kuribayashi, who had argued against banzai attacks at the start of the battle, realized that defeat was imminent.
Marines began to face increasing numbers of nighttime attacks; these were only repelled by a combination of machine-gun defensive positions and artillery support. At times, the Marines engaged in hand-to-hand fighting to repel the Japanese attacks. With the landing area secure, more troops and heavy equipment came ashore, and the invasion proceeded north to capture the airfields and the remainder of the island. Most Japanese soldiers fought to the death.
Raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi
U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi
U.S. postage stamp, 1945 issue, commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” is a black and white photograph taken by Joe Rosenthaldepicting six Marines from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, raising a U.S. flagatop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, in the second of two flag-raisings on the site that day. The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and ultimately came to be regarded as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time. In 1954, the flag raising picture was later used by Felix de Weldon to sculpt the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial), located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
Three of the six Marines depicted in the picture, Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, and Pfc. Franklin Sousley, were killed in action days after the flag-raising. Two of the three surviving flag-raisers, Pfc. Rene Gagnon and Pfc. Ira Hayes, together with Navy corpsman John Bradley, became celebrities upon their participation in a war bond selling tour after the battle. Two subsequent Marine Corps investigations into the identities of the six men in the photograph determined in 1946 and 1947 that Henry Hansen was misidentified as being Block (both Marines died 6 days after the photo), and in May and June 2016 that Bradley was not in the photograph and Pfc. Harold Schultz was.
By the morning of 23 February, Mount Suribachi was effectively cut off above ground from the rest of the island. The Marines knew that the Japanese defenders had an extensive network of below-ground defenses, and that in spite of its isolation above ground, the volcano was still connected to Japanese defenders via the tunnel network. They expected a fierce fight for the summit. Two small patrols from two rifle companies from 2/28 Marines were sent up the volcano to reconnoiter routes on the mountain’s north face. Popular accounts (embroidered by the press in the aftermath of the release of the photo) had the Marines fighting all the way up to the summit. Although the Marine riflemen expected an ambush, one patrol encountered only small groups of Japanese defenders on top of Suribachi. The majority of the Japanese troops stayed in the tunnel network, only occasionally attacking in small groups, and were generally all killed. The recon patrols made it to the summit and scrambled down again, reporting any contact to the 2/28 Marines commander, Colonel Chandler Johnson. Johnson then called for a reinforced platoon size patrol from E Company to climb Suribachi and seize and occupy the crest. The patrol commander, 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, was handed the battalion’s American flag to be raised on top to signal Suribachi’s capture, if they reached the summit. Johnson and the Marines anticipated heavy fighting, but the patrol encountered only a small amount of small arms fire on the way up the mountain. Once the top was secured by Schrier and his men, a length of Japanese water pipe was found there among the wreckage, and the American flag was attached on the pipe and then raised and planted on top of Mount Suribachi which became the first foreign flag to fly on Japanese soil. Photographs of this “first flag raising” scene, taken by Marine photographer Louis R. Lowery, were not released until late 1947.
As the flag went up, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had just landed on the beach at the foot of Mount Suribachi and decided that he wanted the flag as a souvenir. Colonel Johnson, the battalion’s commander, believed that the flag belonged to the 2nd Battalion 28th Marines, who had captured that section of the island. Johnson sent Pfc. Rene Gagnon, a messenger for E Company, to take a second larger flag up the volcano to replace the first flag. It was as the replacement flag attached to another heavy pipe went up that Rosenthal took Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.
The flag flew on Mount Suribachi until it was taken down on March 14, when an American flag was officially raised at Kitano Point at the northern end of the island by orders of the commander of all the troops on Iwo Jima, Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, who witnessed the event with Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine, the commander of the Third Marine Division, and troops of the division.
Northern Iwo Jima
Sketch of Hill 362A, made by the 31st U.S. Naval Construction Battalion. Dotted lines show the Japanese tunnel system
Despite Japan’s loss of Mount Suribachi on the south end of the island, the Japanese still held strong positions on the north end. The rocky terrain vastly favored defense, even more so than Mount Suribachi, which was much easier to hit with naval artillery fire. Coupled with this, the fortifications constructed by Kuribayashi were more impressive than at the southern end of the island.Remaining under the command of Kuribayashi was the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, and two artillery and three heavy mortar battalions. There were also about 5,000 gunners and naval infantry. The most arduous task left to the Marines was the overtaking of the Motoyama Plateau with its distinctive Hill 382 and Turkey knob and the area in between referred to as the Amphitheater. This formed the basis of what came to be known as the “meatgrinder”. While this was being achieved on the right flank, the left was clearing out Hill 362 with just as much difficulty. The overall objective at this point was to take control of Airfield No. 2 in the center of the island. However, every “penetration seemed to become a disaster” as “units were raked from the flanks, chewed up, and sometimes wiped out. Tanks were destroyed by interlocking fire or were hoisted into the air on the spouting fireballs of buried mines”. As a result, the fighting bogged down, with American casualties piling up. Even capturing these points was not a solution to the problem since a previously secured position could be attacked from the rear by the use of the tunnels and hidden pillboxes. As such, it was said that “they could take these heights at will, and then regret it”.
March 1945 Several M4A3 Sherman tanks equipped with flamethrowers were used to clear Japanese bunkers
The Marines nevertheless found ways to prevail under the circumstances. It was observed that during bombardments, the Japanese would hide their guns and themselves in the caves only to reappear when the troops would advance and lay devastating fire on them. The Japanese had over time learned basic American strategy, which was to lay heavy bombardment before an infantry attack. Consequently, General Erskine ordered the 9th Marine Regiment to attack under the cover of darkness with no preliminary barrage. This came to be a resounding success with many Japanese soldiers killed while still asleep. This was a key moment in the capture of Hill 362. It held such importance that the Japanese organized a counterattack the following night. Although Kuribayashi had forbidden the suicide charges familiar with other battles in the Pacific, the commander of the area decided on a banzai charge with the optimistic goal of recapturing Mount Suribachi. On the evening of 8 March, Captain Samaji Inouye and his 1,000 men charged the American lines, inflicting 347 casualties (90 deaths). The Marines counted 784 dead Japanese soldiers the next day. The same day, elements of the 3rd Marine Division reached the northern coast of the island, splitting Kuribayashi’s defenses in two. There was also a kamikaze air attack (the only one of the battle) on the ships anchored at sea on 21 February, which resulted in the sinking of the escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea, severe damage to USS Saratoga, and slight damage to the escort carrier USS Lunga Point, an LST, and a transport.
Although the island was declared secure at 18:00 on 16 March (25 days after the landings), the 5th Marine Division still faced Kuribayashi’s stronghold in a gorge 640 m (700 yd) long at the northwestern end of the island. On 21 March, the Marines destroyed the command post in the gorge with four tons of explosives and on 24 March, Marines sealed the remaining caves at the northern tip of the island. However, on the night of 25 March, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final counterattack in the vicinity of Airfield No. 2. Army pilots, Seabees, and Marines of the 5th Pioneer Battalion and 28th Marines fought the Japanese force for up to 90 minutes, suffering heavy casualties (53 killed, 120 wounded). Two Marines from the 36th Depot Company, an all-African-American unit, received the Bronze Star. First Lieutenant Harry Martin of the 5th Pioneer Battalion was the last Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the battle. Although still a matter of speculation because of conflicting accounts from surviving Japanese veterans, it has been said that Kuribayashi led this final assault, which unlike the loud banzai charge of previous battles, was characterized as a silent attack. If ever proven true, Kuribayashi would have been the highest ranking Japanese officer to have personally led an attack during World War II. Additionally, this would also be Kuribayashi’s final act, a departure from the normal practice of the commanding Japanese officers committing seppuku behind the lines while the rest perished in the banzai charge, as happened during the battles of Saipan and Okinawa. The island was officially declared secure at 09:00 on 26 March.
Once the island was officially declared secure, the Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment was ostensibly there to act as a garrison force, but they soon found themselves locked in a bitter struggle against thousands of stalwart defenders engaging in a last-ditch guerilla campaign to harass the Americans. Using well-supplied caves and tunnel systems, the Japanese resisted American advances. For three months, the 147th slogged across the island, using flamethrowers, grenades, and satchel charges to dig out the enemy, killing some 1,602 Japanese soldiers in small unit actions.
The United States M2 flamethrower was heavily used in the Pacific. It features two tanks containing fuel and compressed gas respectively, which are combined and ignited to produce a stream of flaming liquid out of the tip. These flamethrowers were used to kill Japanese holed into pillboxes, buildings and caves. A battalion would assign one flamethrower per platoon with one reserve flamethrower in each group. Flamethrower operators were usually in more danger than regular troops as the short range of their weapon required close combat, and the visibility of the flames on the battlefield made them a prominent target for snipers. Still they were essential to breaking the enemy and one battalion commander called the flamethrower the “best single weapon of the operation.”
Marines later experimented putting flamethrowers on tanks which were also deployed during battle. Their effectiveness was more limited due to Iwo Jima’s rough terrain. A flamethrower tank would have a range of approximately 100 yd (90 m), carry 300 gallons of fuel and have a firing time of 150 seconds.
U.S. Marines pose on top of enemy pillbox with a captured Japanese flag
Of between 20,530 and 21,060 Japanese defenders entrenched on the island, from 17,845 to 18,375 died either from fighting or by ritual suicide. Only 216 were captured during the course of battle. After Iwo Jima, it was estimated there were no more than 300 Japanese left alive in the island’s warren of caves and tunnels. In fact, there were close to 3,000. The Japanese bushido code of honor, coupled with effective propaganda which portrayed American G.I.s as ruthless animals, prevented surrender for many Japanese soldiers. Those who could not bring themselves to commit suicide hid in the caves during the day and came out at night to prowl for provisions. Some did eventually surrender and were surprised that the Americans often received them with compassion, offering water, cigarettes, alcohol, or coffee. The last of these holdouts on the island, two of Lieutenant Toshihiko Ohno’s men, Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, lasted four years without being caught and finally surrendered on 6 January 1949.
According to the official Navy Department Library website, “The 36-day (Iwo Jima) assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead.” By comparison, the much larger scale 82-day Battle of Okinawa lasting from early April until mid-June 1945 (involving five U.S. Army and two Marine Corps divisions) resulted in of over 62,000 U.S. casualties, of whom over 12,000 were killed or missing. Iwo Jima was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded the Japanese, although Japanese combat deaths numbered three times as many American deaths. Two US Marines were captured as POWs during the battle; neither of them would survive their captivity. USS Bismarck Sea was also lost, the last U.S. aircraft carrier sunk in World War II. Because all civilians had been evacuated, there were no civilian casualties at Iwo Jima, unlike at Saipan and Okinawa.
Lieutenant Wade discusses the overall importance of the target at a pre-invasion briefing.
American supplies being landed at Iwo Jima.
In hindsight, given the number of casualties, the necessity and long-term significance of the island’s capture to the outcome of the war became a contentious issue and remains disputed. The Marines, who suffered the actual casualties, were not consulted in the planning of the operation. As early as April 1945, retired Chief of Naval Operations William V. Pratt stated in Newsweekmagazine that considering the “expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, God-forsaken island, useless to the Army as a staging base and useless to the Navy as a fleet base … [one] wonders if the same sort of airbase could not have been reached by acquiring other strategic localities at lower cost.”
The lessons learned on Iwo Jima served as guidelines for the following Battle of Okinawa and the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland. For example, “because of the casualties taken at Iwo Jima on the first day, it was decided to make the preparatory bombardment the heaviest yet delivered on to a Pacific island”. Also, in the planning for a potential attack on the Japanese home islands, it was taken into account that around a third of the troops committed to Iwo Jima and again at Okinawa had been killed or wounded.
The justification for Iwo Jima’s strategic importance to the United States’ war effort has been that it provided a landing and refueling site for long-range fighter escorts. These escorts proved both impractical and unnecessary, and only ten such missions were ever flown from Iwo Jima.
Japanese fighter aircraft based on Iwo Jima sometimes attacked AAF planes, which were vulnerable on their way to Japan because they were heavily laden with bombs and fuel. However, although some Japanese interceptors were based on Iwo Jima, their impact on the American bombing effort was marginal; in the three months before the invasion only 11 B-29s were lost as a result. The Superfortresses found it unnecessary to make any major detour around the island.
Marines from the 24th Marine Regiment during the Battle of Iwo Jima
The Japanese on Iwo Jima had radar and were thus able to notify their comrades at home of incoming B-29 Superfortresses flying from the Mariana Islands. However, the capture of Iwo Jima did not affect the Japanese early-warning radar system, which continued to receive information on incoming B-29s from the island of Rota (which was never invaded).
As early as 4 March 1945, while fighting was still taking place, the B-29 Dinah Might of the USAAF 9th Bomb Group reported it was low on fuel near the island and requested an emergency landing. Despite enemy fire, the airplane landed on the Allied-controlled section of the island (South Field), without incident, and was serviced, refueled and departed.
In all, 2,251 B-29 landings on Iwo Jima were recorded during the war. Moskin records that 1,191 fighter escorts and 3,081 strike sorties were flown from Iwo Jima against Japan.
Some downed B-29 crewmen were saved by air-sea rescue aircraft and vessels operating from the island, but Iwo Jima was only one of many islands that could have been used for such a purpose. As for the importance of the island as a landing and refueling site for bombers, Marine Captain Robert Burrell, then a history instructor at the United States Naval Academy, suggested that only a small proportion of the 2,251 landings were for genuine emergencies, the great majority possibly being for minor technical checkups, training, or refueling. According to Burrell,
This justification became prominent only after the Marines seized the island and incurred high casualties. The tragic cost of Operation Detachment pressured veterans, journalists, and commanders to fixate on the most visible rationalization for the battle. The sight of the enormous, costly, and technologically sophisticated B-29 landing on the island’s small airfield most clearly linked Iwo Jima to the strategic bombing campaign. As the myths about the flag raisings on Mount Suribachi reached legendary proportions, so did the emergency landing theory in order to justify the need to raise that flag.
In publishing The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, Texas A&M University Press said that the very losses formed the basis for a “reverence for the Marine Corps” that not only embodied the “American national spirit” but ensured the “institutional survival” of the Marine Corps.
Medal of Honor recipients
Harry Truman congratulates Marine Corporal Hershel Williams of the Third Marine Division on being awarded the Medal of Honor, 5 October 1945
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself by “… conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States …” Because of its nature, the medal is commonly awarded posthumously; since its creation during the American Civil War it has been presented only 3,464 times.
The Medal of Honor was awarded to 27 U.S. Marines and U.S. sailors (14 posthumously), during the battle of Iwo Jima. 22 medals were presented to Marines (12 posthumously) and 5 were presented to sailors, 4 of whom were hospital corpsmen (2 posthumously) attached to Marine infantry units; 22 Medals of Honor was 28% of the 82 awarded to Marines in World War II.
Hershel W. Williams (Marine Corps) is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima. Williams (age 93 in 2016) is one of seven living Medal of Honor recipients of World War II; five soldiers and two Marines.
The Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) was dedicated on 10 November 1954.
The United States Navy has commissioned two ships with the name USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) (1961–1993) and USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) (2001–present).
On 19 February 1985, the 40th anniversary of the landings on Iwo Jima, an event called the “Reunion of Honor” was held (the event has been held annually since 2002). The veterans of both sides who fought in the battle of Iwo Jima attended the event. The place was the invasion beach where U.S. forces landed. A memorial on which inscriptions were engraved by both sides was built at the center of the meeting place. Japanese attended at the mountain side, where the Japanese inscription was carved, and Americans attended at the shore side, where the English inscription was carved.After unveiling and offering of flowers were made, the representatives of both countries approached the memorial; upon meeting, they shook hands. The combined Japan-U.S. memorial service of the 50th anniversary of the battle was held in front of the monument in February 1995. Further memorial services have been held on later anniversaries.
The importance of the battle to Marines today is demonstrated in pilgrimages made to the island, and specifically the summit of Suribachi. Marines will often leave dog tags, rank insignia, or other tokens at the monuments in homage.Iwo Jima Day is observed annually on 19 February in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a ceremony at the State House.
The Japanese government continues to search for and retrieve the remains of Japanese military personnel who were killed during the battle.
Movies and documentaries
- To the Shores of Iwo Jima, a 1945 American documentary produced by the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.
- Glamour Gal, a 1945 film about Marine artillery.
- Sands of Iwo Jima, a 1949 American film starring John Wayne.
- The Outsider, a 1961 film starring Tony Curtis as the conflicted flag raiser Ira Hayes.
- Episode 23 from the acclaimed 1973 Thames Television documentary The World at War.
- The League of Grateful Sons, a 2005 documentary by Vision Forum.
- Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two 2006 films directed by Clint Eastwood. Flags of Our Fathers is filmed from the American perspective and is based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers (Flags of Our Fathers). Letters from Iwo Jima (originally titled Red Sun, Black Sand) is filmed from the Japanese perspective.
- Battle Rats: Iwo Jima (2009) (TV).
- Part 8 of the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific, produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, includes part of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the point of view of John Basilone from the beginning of the invasion until his death later in the day.