This month marks the 70th anniversary of the capture of the atoll of Iwo Jima during WWII. Dozens of surviving veterans of that campaign marked the occasion by travelling halfway around the world to the remote atoll, not an easy trip for a person in his 80s or 90s, where they visited the sandy beaches and the famous (or infamous) Mt. Suribachi, (more on that later). For many, it was undoubtedly an occasion to recall one of the most hellacious and frightening experiences of their lives and to remember their fallen comrades. Interestingly, a delegation of Cabinet members of the Japanese government attended the annual ceremonies for the first time.
The Pacific War with the Japanese was uncommonly arduous and bloody. The Americans virtually had to “crawl” across the Central and Western Pacific island by island for over three years to finally win it. The Japanese always fought to the death, so each island was only captured at a very high cost in men and materials. What made the battle for Iwo Jima so special? Read on.
By late 1944 the Americans were close enough to mainland Japan to bomb it on a regular basis using B-29 so-called “Superfortresses.” There were, however, two issues: (1) They needed a safe place to land on the return flight, particularly if they had mechanical or fuel issues; and (2) Japanese fighters, based at Iwo Jima, were hindering the bombing operation by attacking the B-29s. Therefore, the High Command decreed that Iwo Jima had to be captured, especially its three airfields.
“Operation Detachment” began on February 19, 1945 with heavy, sustained bombardment to “soften up” the Japanese positions. The battle was to last five brutal weeks. Unbeknownst to us, the Japanese were heavily dug in in a dense network of caves and underground tunnels, so the bombing did not have the deleterious effect desired or anticipated. When the marines finally landed they were surprised to find little or no resistance on the beaches. As it turned out, the Japanese strategy was to lure the Americans in and then launch a brutal series of surprise counter-attacks, which they did. As previously mentioned, the Japanese fought to the death. Of the approximately 22,000 Japanese troops on the island only 200 or so were taken prisoner. The rest were either killed, committed suicide, or missing in action. Some were even found years later still hidden underground in caves or tunnels.
Eventually, the American superiority in manpower, airpower and supplies proved decisive. In a war replete with bloody battles, Iwo Jima was probably the worst. It was certainly the only one in which American casualties exceeded those of Japan.
The symbol of victory was the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi. The famous photo was taken by Joe Rosenthal and won him a Pulitzer Prize. Some interesting facts about the photo:
1. It was actually a re-enactment. The original flag-raising was photographed by one Louis Lowery. The ceremony was re-enacted for the benefit of Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, who had landed on the beach just after the real one had been taken. It was the re-enactment, with a larger flag and a longer pole, that was photographed by Rosenthal and became famous.
2. Of the six men depicted in the picture (five Marines and one Navy corpsman), three died on Iwo. The remaining three became celebrities as the fame of the photo captured the imagination of the American public.
3. The scene is depicted in a sculpture at the Marine Corps Memorial, which is adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
4. The scene has been re-enacted in several movies about the battle, most notably “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) starring (who else) John Wayne.
Following the battle, because of the significant number of casualties there was some controversy as to the necessity of having fought it in the first place. Many, such as Chief of Naval Operations, William Pratt, questioned the strategic importance of Iwo as an air and naval base and opined that other atolls could have served the same purpose at a far lesser cost of men and material. Perhaps, Pratt was unaware of the Manhattan Project. In August, 1945, Iwo certainly was to become useful in carrying out the successful missions of dropping the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Those missions were also very controversial, but they did shorten the war. In addition, they obviated the necessity of invading Japan, which likely saved a million or more American lives. The Japanese would never have surrendered. They would have fought to the proverbial “last man.” However, that is the subject of another blog for another day.