Why Were The Battles Of Iwo Jima And Okinawa Critical Thinking

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 Japan
Commanders and leaders
U.S. Navy:
Chester W. Nimitz
Raymond A. Spruance
Marc A. Mitscher
William H.P. Blandy
U.S. Marine Corps:
Holland M. Smith
Harry Schmidt
Graves B. Erskine
Clifton B. Cates
Keller E. Rockey
Tadamichi Kuribayashi 
Takeichi Nishi 
Units involved

Ground units:
V Amphibious Corps

Aerial units:
Seventh Air Force

Naval units:
U.S. 5th Fleet

  • Joint Expeditionary
    Force (TF 51)
  • Amphibious Support
    Force (TF 52)
  • Attack Force (TF 53)
  • Expeditionary
    Troops (TF 56)
  • Fast Carrier
    Force (TF 58)
Additional naval, air and ground support elements

Ground units:
109th IJA Division

  • Headquarters Group
  • 2nd Mixed Brigade
  • 3rd Battalion, 17th Mixed Regiment
  • 26th Tank Regiment
  • 145th Infantry Regiment
  • Brigade Artillery Group

Naval Units:
Imperial Navy

  • Naval Guard Force (mainly AA and Art.)

Additional support units and Kamikaze
110,000 U.S. Marines, U.S. Soldiers, U.S. Navycorpsmen, USAAF personnel, and others
500+ ships
20,530–21,060 troops[1]
23 tanks[2]
438 artillery pieces
33 naval guns
69 anti-tank guns
~300 anti-aircraft guns[3]
Casualties and losses
26,040 total casualties
6,821 killed
2 captured but recovered[4]
19,217 wounded[1]
1 escort carrier sunk
1 fleet carrier severely damaged
1 escort carrier lightly damaged

17,845–18,375 dead and missing[1]
216 taken prisoner[1]

~3,000 in hiding[5]
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 (IJA) 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.[4] 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.[6] However, Navy Seabees rebuilt the landing strips, which were used as emergency landing strips for USAAF B-29s.[7]

The IJA positions on the island were heavily fortified, with a dense network of bunkers, hidden artillery positions, and 18 km (11 mi) of underground tunnels.[8][9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[1] 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.[1][12]

Despite the bloody fighting and severe casualties on both sides, the American victory 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.[13]

On February 18, 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.[14]

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.[15]


After the American capture of the Marshall Islands, and the devastating air attacks against 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 IJA and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) 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 Armycorps. 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.[4] 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.[4]

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.[4] 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.[4]

Final Japanese plans for the defense of the Volcano Islands were overshadowed by several factors:

  1. the Imperial Japanese Navy had already lost almost all of its power, and it could not prevent American landings.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. available warplanes had to be hoarded to defend Taiwan and the Japanese Home Islands from any attack.[4]
  5. 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 Islands and 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.[16]

— 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.[4]

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.[4] 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[edit]

Main article: Planning for the Battle of Iwo Jima

Japanese preparations[edit]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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 kamikaze attacks 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.

American preparations[edit]

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.[21] These would contain a combination of naval artillery shellings and aerial bombings that went on for nine months. On 17 February, 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 February, the Blessman was hit by a bomb from a Japanese aircraft, 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[22]

Pre-landing bombardment[edit]

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.[23]

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 cruiserUSS 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 destroyerUSS 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."[24]

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.[25] 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.[26]

Lt. (jg) Rufus G. Herring, USNR received the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day minus 2.

Opposing forces[edit]

American order of battle[edit]

Joint Expeditionary Force (Task Force 51)
Vice Admiral R. Kelly Turner, commanding

Fifth Amphibious Corps[27][28]

Southern sector (Green and Red beaches):

Northern sector (Yellow and Blue beaches):

Floating reserve (committed to center sector 22 Feb):

Japanese order of battle[edit]

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[edit]

Amphibious landing[edit]

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.[29]

Unlike the days of the pre-landing bombardment, D-Day dawned clear and bright.[29] At 08:59, one minute ahead of schedule, the first wave of Marines landed on the beaches of the southeastern coast of Iwo Jima. Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."[30]

Situation on the beaches[edit]

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.[31] 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.[32]

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 ...[31]

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.[31] 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.[33]

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 ...[34]

Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod described it simply as "a nightmare in hell."[35]

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.[32] 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.[32]

In response to the heavy resistance on the beach, the Army's147th 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.[36] 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[edit]

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.[37] 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 ..."[38]

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.[38] 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[edit]

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 Marines just 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.[39] For these actions, he was (posthumously) awarded the Medal of Honor.

Action on the right flank[edit]

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.[40]

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.[41]

By the evening, 30,000 Marines had landed. About 40,000 more would follow.[32] 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."[42]

D-Day Medals of Honor: Sgt. Darrell S. Cole, USMCR (posth.); Cpl. Tony Stein, USMCR (posth.)

Subsequent combat[edit]

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.[32]

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.[32]

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.[32]

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.[32]

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.[32] 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.[32]

Raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi[edit]

Main article: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

"Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" is a black and white photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal depicting six Marines from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945,[15] 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.[15] 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.[15]

Three of the six Marines depicted in the picture, Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley, were killed in action days after the flag-raising. Two of the three surviving flag-raisers, Private First Class Rene Gagnon and Private First Class Ira Hayes, together with Navy corpsmanJohn 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.[43]

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.[32]

Lieut. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi
The battleship USS New York firing its 14 in (360 mm) main guns on the island, 16 February 1945 (D minus 3)

General Schmidt's division commanders on Iwo Jima

Maj. Gen. Keller Rockey

Maj. Gen. Clifton Cates

Maj. Gen. Graves Erskine

Map of Iwo Jima detailing the invasion
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
Marines wait to move inland
U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi
U.S. postage stamp, 1945 issue, commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima

By Joseph Alexander
6/12/2006 • World War II

The Japanese defending Iwo Jima on D-day displayed superb tactical discipline. As Lieutenant Colonel Justus M. ‘Jumpin’ Joe’ Chambers led his 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, across the first terrace on the right flank of the landing beaches, he encountered interlocking bands of automatic-weapons fire unlike anything he had faced in Tulagi or Saipan. ‘You could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by,’ he recalled. ‘I knew immediately we were in for one hell of a time.’

The Battle of Iwo Jima represented to the Americans the pinnacle of forcible entry from the sea. This particular amphibious assault was the ultimate ‘storm landing,’ the Japanese phrase describing the American propensity for concentrating overwhelming force at the point of attack. The huge striking force was more experienced, better armed and more powerfully supported than any other offensive campaign to date in the Pacific War. Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s Fifth Fleet enjoyed total domination of air and sea around the small, sulfuric island, and the 74,000 Marines in the landing force would muster a healthy 3-to-1 preponderance over the garrison. Seizing Iwo Jima would be tough, planners admitted, but the operation should be over in a week, maybe less.

By all logic, the force invading Iwo Jima should have prevailed, quickly and violently. But the Japanese had also benefited from the prolonged island campaigns in the Pacific. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi commanded the 21,000 troops on the island. Formerly a cavalry officer, Kuribayashi was a savvy fighter, one who could glean realistic lessons from previous combat disasters. He decided to junk the defensive tactics used by his predecessors in the ill-fated campaigns in the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas. Significantly, Japanese forces on Iwo Jima would defend the island in depth–from hidden interior positions, not at the water’s edge–and they would eschew the massive, suicidal banzai attacks. Kuribayashi figured if the garrison could maintain camouflage and fire discipline, husband its resources and exact disproportionate losses on the invaders, maybe the Americans would lose heart. His senior subordinates may have grumbled at this departure from tradition, but Kuribayashi’s plan made intelligent use of Iwo’s forbidding terrain and his troops’ fighting skills.

Two well-armed antagonists had thereby set the stage for a violent confrontation close to Japan’s home waters. The ensuing battle produced memorable results:


  • Thirty-six days of unremitting hell on a small, wretched, reeking island.
  • The only major battle in the Pacific War in which the U.S. Marines suffered greater casualties than they inflicted on the Japanese defenders.
  • Lingering controversies over the high costs and disputed dividends of the Pyrrhic victory.
  • An enduring tribute–now embodied in the world’s largest bronze sculpture–to the fortitude of young Americans of all services who surpassed themselves under conditions we today can hardly imagine.


Iwo Jima means ‘Sulfur Island’ in Japanese. It is one of the Volcano Islands that extend east of Okinawa and roughly south of Japan itself. The island is about eight square miles, larger than Tarawa, but much smaller than Saipan or Guam. Hilly, rocky, and generally barren, the island did not figure in the grand strategy of the Pacific for the first several years of the war. Formosa was the longtime goal of the Americans’ Central Pacific drive, once General Douglas MacArthur had recaptured the Philippines. But Formosa was huge, stoutly defended, and still a long stretch for bombing runs against the empire. Meanwhile, the Japanese built airstrips for their own bombers and fighters on previously unoccupied Iwo Jima. Planners on both sides could see the geographic reality. Iwo Jima was almost exactly halfway between the Marianas and the Japanese home island of Honshu.

Operational airfields represented valuable rungs in the strategic ladder leading to Tokyo. The American seizure of the Marianas in mid-1944 brought the main Japanese home islands within range of the newly developed Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the Army Air Forces. B-29s based in Saipan and Tinian began striking targets in Japan in late 1944, but the strikes were not yet truly effective. The thorn in the side was Iwo Jima.

Since no American fighters had the ‘legs’ to escort the Superfortresses to and from Japan, the B-29s were often at the mercy of fighter interceptors launched from Iwo’s airstrips. And Japanese bombers based on Iwo were an even graver threat. In fact, the Twentieth Air Force lost more B-29s to enemy bomber raids from Iwo Jima than it did on any of its long-range forays over the Japanese homeland. The absence of an emergency landing or refueling field for B-29s along the return route from Tokyo was yet another problem for strategic planners. In American hands, Iwo Jima would provide fighter escorts and a suitable divert base; the threat from Japanese bombers would be erased. These were compelling reasons to seize the island. On October 3, 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) ordered Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific, to prepare for the seizure of Iwo Jima early in the coming year.

The JCS orders contained a contingency clause: Nimitz must continue providing covering and support forces for General MacArthur’s liberation of Luzon. Japanese defense of the Philippines proved tougher than anticipated, and the Iwo Jima invasion slipped a month. General Kuribayashi took maximum advantage of this grace period. The Japanese army’s general staff sent Japan’s best fortifications engineers, men with combat experience in China and Manchuria. Iwo Jima’s soft rock lent itself to swift digging. Japanese artillery pieces and command centers moved underground. A labyrinth of tunnels connected many positions, especially in the north. Engineers and laborers built five levels of underground defenses within some hills.

Mount Suribachi, dominating the island at 556 feet, eventually contained a seven-story interior structure. Kuribayashi had plenty of weapons, ammunition, radios, fuel and rations–everything but fresh water, always at a premium on that sulfuric rock. Indeed, American intelligence experts concluded that the island could support no more than 13,000 defenders because of the acute water shortage. Kuribayashi had many more men than that, but all of them were on half-rations of water for weeks before the invasion even began.

Admiral Spruance picked veterans of amphibious operations to command the major subordinate forces of the Fifth Fleet for the seizure of Iwo Jima. Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner commanded Task Force 51, the joint expeditionary force, which included nearly 500 ships. Rear Admiral Harry Hill commanded Task Force 53, the attack force. Marine Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt commanded the V Amphibious Corps, comprised principally of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions. Operation Detachment, the code name for the invasion of Iwo Jima, would be the largest combat employment of U.S. Marines in history. Spruance and Turner asked the old warhorse Lt. Gen. Holland M. ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith, U.S. Marine Corps, to come along as commander of expeditionary troops. This was a contrived billet. Unlike the preceding operations in the Central Pacific, Operation Detachment would focus on a single island. General Smith, the amphibious pioneer, had enough strength of character to keep out of Harry Schmidt’s way.

Roughly half the Marines in the three assault divisions had experienced previous combat. Some, like Gunnery Sgt. ‘Manila John’ Basilone, were veterans of the first offensive, years earlier, at Guadalcanal. Basilone had received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a machine-gunner on ‘Starvation Island,’ but he had since refused a commission and volunteered to return to the Pacific for more action. Other veterans were younger. Private First Class Anthony Muscarella had joined the Corps illegally at age 14. Two years later, a veteran of heavy fighting in the Marianas, he was one of the best machine-gunners in the 4th Marine Division.

General Schmidt planned to land on Iwo Jima’s southeast beaches with two divisions abreast, the 4th Division on the right and the 5th on the left, next to Mount Suribachi. Schmidt kept the 3rd Marine Division in reserve initially. The amphibious assault of Iwo was a classic in its own right, favorably reflecting the lessons learned at such high cost starting with Tarawa 14 months earlier. The preliminary naval and aerial bombardment, however, disappointed most Marines. By D-day, the Americans had hit the island with 6,800 tons of bombs and 22,000 Naval shells. But the issue was accuracy, not volume. General Kuribayashi’s well-built, artfully camouflaged gun positions were hardly affected by the bombardment.

Some of Kuribayashi’s subordinate commanders lacked his iron will. When American underwater demolition teams approached the landing beaches in lightly armed LCIs (landing craft, infantry) during a daring daylight reconnaissance on D-minus-2, the defenders hiding in prepared positions along the slopes of Mount Suribachi were unable to resist opening fire. The frogmen and landing craft took grievous casualties but accomplished the job, finding no mines or underwater obstacles offshore. More important, many of the Japanese gun positions on Suribachi were revealed for the first time to Navy spotters. The fire-support ships had a field day.

D-day for the assault on Iwo Jima was February 19, 1945. The ship-to-shore movement worked to perfection. Sixty-eight armored LVT (landing vehicle, tracked) amphibians led the way, firing their snub-nosed 75mm howitzers from the moment they crossed the line of departure. Hundreds of troop-carrying LVT-4s and LVT-2s carried the assault waves ashore. Admiral Turner carefully orchestrated naval gunfire support, adjusting it just ahead of the first waves and then creating a rolling barrage further inland. Carrier-based fighters, including two squadrons of Marine Corps Vought F4U Corsairs, swooped in low, ‘dragging their bellies on the beach.’ And for once, there was no barrier coral reef, no killer neap tide to worry about. Eight thousand troops stormed ashore on their designated beaches right at H-hour. Light enemy fire gave fleeting hopes of a cakewalk. Then things became difficult.

The first opponent was not the Japanese but the beach itself. A volcanic island, Iwo Jima has few beaches worthy of the name; all of them are extremely steep. With deep water so close to shore, the surf zone is narrow but violent. The soft black sand immobilized all wheeled vehicles and bellied up some of the tracked amphibians. In short order, a succession of towering waves hit the stalled vehicles before they could completely unload, filling their sterns with water and sand and broaching them broadside. The beach soon resembled a salvage yard. And once the beaches were choked with landing craft and the steep terraces clogged with infantry, Kuribayashi fired signal flares. At that point, the Japanese opened up with their heavy ordnance–hidden mortars and artillery batteries–executing a masterful rolling barrage of their own.

Survivors of this rain of steel marveled that the entire landing force was not knocked out. ‘I just didn’t see how anybody could live through such heavy fire barrages,’ recalled one veteran. Navy fire-support ships moved in closer, notably the battleship Nevada and the cruiser Santa Fe, which took out some of the nearest Japanese firing positions with deadly accuracy.

Despite the counterbattery fire, Japanese gunners ensured no Americans crossed the terraces with impunity. Sergeant Basilone tried to rally his shocked mortar platoon, yelling, ‘Come on, you bastards, we’ve got to get these mortars off the beach!’ An exploding shell killed him instantly. The troops moved on. Private Muscarella survived the initial dash to the first airfield, then looked back. ‘The beach was a pile of wreckage,’ he recalled. ‘Tanks and amtracs were stuck in the heavy sand everywhere. Some had been flipped over on their backs by exploding mines and shells.’

The Marines suffered and bled but kept moving forward. Enterprising troops organized LVTs to haul heavy equipment off the beach. More Sherman tanks hustled ashore. Beachmasters landed early to establish order. Engineers blew up wrecked boats and LVTs to clear lanes for subsequent waves. Communications remained surprisingly good. Offloading continued, despite the slaughter and destruction. Thirty thousand combat troops had landed by nightfall, the assault elements of six regimental landing teams. Each team brought ashore an assigned artillery battalion. The cannoneers caught hell moving their 75mm and 105mm howitzers across the soft beaches under fire, and casualties were substantial. By dusk, however, both division commanders could report that their organic artillery was in place and delivering close fire support.

The news was enough to give Admiral Turner and General Schmidt grounds for cautious optimism the night of D-day. True, the beach gradient had been an unpleasant shock and Japanese artillery fire had been uncommonly effective, but even with 2,400 casualties the landing force was still proportionally better off than it had been at the end of the first day on Tarawa or Saipan.

Both officers expected Kuribayashi to launch a major banzai attack that night, which would afford the opportunity to cut down several thousand of the empire’s most ardent warriors. Then, it would be a matter of simply mopping up. But Kuribayashi foiled this logic, refusing to allow any of his subordinates to make vainglorious final charges. Some small-scale banzai attacks occurred later in the battle, but for the most part the Americans never really had a target. Each night, small parties of Japanese would conduct intelligence probes, seeking gaps between units, and quietly exacting a toll on American outposts. By day, they hunkered down and waited for the invaders to enter their pre-registered killing zones. Such enforced discipline made the battle both prolonged and costly. Before long, the Americans knew that this battle was different; this enemy commander was resourceful, crafty.

Mount Suribachi, its defenses fatally weakened by the fire-support ships during the early stages of the assault, fell early to elements of the 28th Marines on D-plus-4. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the achievement with his classic photo of the second flag raising–truly a magical moment–but the battle still had a bloody month to run. The troops in their attack positions down below cheered when they saw the Stars and Stripes, then continued their swing to the north. General Schmidt ordered the 3rd Marine Division ashore and into line.

The fight for the northern half of the embattled island was a toe-to-toe slugging match, with the Americans possessing the advantage of superior firepower and the Japanese using their prepared positions and good concealment to their advantage. General ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith came ashore a couple of times to see for himself just how ugly the fight was. ‘It was the most savage and the most costly battle in the history of the Marine Corps,’ he would later state. An artillery officer on the staff of the 4th Marine Division could only shake his head in despair: ‘We still didn’t have an effective method of either destroying or neutralizing the defenders in a very restricted area, so it fell to the thin green line to get in there and dig them out in hand-to-hand combat. There must be a better way.’

The convoluted ravines in the north made flat-trajectory naval gunfire less effective. Worse, Admiral Spruance deployed the fast carriers north for a series of strikes around Tokyo, removing eight Marine fighter squadrons trained in close air support operations. Navy fighters flying off the remaining escort carriers tried to pick up the slack, but they could not carry large bombs, nor were they allowed to descend below 1,500 feet. The Americans used some napalm bombs, but those were disappointing. At that stage of the war, the ‘bombs’ were still primitive–old wing tanks with improvised detonators. Half did not explode. Nor did the troops appreciate such area weapons being dropped from high altitudes.

Marianas-based Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers of the Seventh Air Force continued to pound the island daily. Some of the best close air support, after the initial week, came from a squadron of Army Air Force North American P-51 Mustangs that flew into the first captured airfield below Suribachi. It was not at all a dive bomber squadron, but the pilots were good at glide bombing, plus they were enthusiastic. Marine Colonel Vernon E. McGee, commanding the experimental Landing Force Air Support Control Unit ashore, instructed the pilots to arm their 1,000-pound bombs with 12-second fuzes, and directed them against the cliffs and bluffs along the flanks of the attacking Marines. Sometimes those bombs achieved spectacular results, dropping a cliff face into the sea, exposing the tunnel system, and causing smoke to roll out of hidden entrances. The Marines loved this improvised support.

Both sides unveiled new weapons for the close-in fighting. The Japanese had enormous 320mm’spigot’ mortars, firing shells bigger than most Marines had ever seen. Kuribayashi also used aerial bombs lofted from crude rocket launchers. These were grossly inaccurate, but their psychological effect was awesome. No American who survived Iwo has ever forgotten the sight of those huge bombs, the size of a 55-gallon drum, tumbling end over end, seemingly headed right for the viewer’s foxhole. For their part, the Americans introduced the Mark I flamethrower built into the Sherman M4A3 medium tank. The days of using thin-skinned light tanks or LVTs for assaulting fortified positions were finally over. The Mark I system could spew burning napalm at a range of 150 yards with a duration of more than a minute. Unfortunately, despite the deployment of three tank battalions ashore, the Marines could only muster eight vehicles equipped with the Mark I for Iwo Jima. These were in constant demand.

Not surprisingly, most casualties in the first three weeks of the battle resulted from high explosives–mortars, artillery, mines, grenades and the hellacious rocket bombs. Time magazine combat correspondent Robert Sherrod, a veteran of earlier landings in the Aleutians, Gilberts and Marianas, reported that the dead at Iwo Jima, whether Japanese or American, had one thing in common: ‘They all died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific war had I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half.’

‘Jumpin’ Joe’ Chambers’ exclamation on D-day had been prophetic. Landing Team 3/25 was indeed ‘in for one hell of a time.’ Chambers’ mission was to seize the rock quarries on the right flank, then act as a hinge as the entire expedition swung around to the north. The team accomplished this at staggering cost. Chambers reported the loss of 22 officers and 500 men in the first day alone. Three days later, a Japanese machine-gunner shot Chambers through the chest. The battalion surgeon pulled him out of the line of fire at great risk and saved his life. Chambers’ war was over. He received the Medal of Honor, one of 24 Marines and attached Navy corpsmen to be so recognized for courage ‘above and beyond’ during the battle for Iwo Jima.

Including Colonel Chambers, 14 of the 24 Marine infantry battalion commanders engaged on Iwo Jima were killed or wounded. Higher losses occurred among company and platoon commanders. One company commander who miraculously survived unscathed reported 100 percent casualties in his unit–every man in the outfit had been hit at least once. Japanese gunners destroyed one-third of the Sherman tanks and one-fourth of the LVTs. More LVTs sank in the rough seas while shuttling casualties out to ships or delivering ammunition ashore.

During the pre-dawn hours of D-plus-16, maneuver elements of the 3rd Marine Division executed one of the few battalion-size night attacks in the Pacific War. At 5 a.m., the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, moved silently across the line of departure, foregoing the telltale artillery barrage, and advanced toward Hill 362C, a particularly vexing objective 500 yards away. Surprise was complete. The battalion moved gingerly across open ground for 35 minutes before attracting a few rounds from startled Japanese sentries. By the time stiff resistance materialized, the Marines seemed to be on the hill. Then it was the Americans’ turn to be surprised. In the darkness they had seized the wrong hill. Their real objective lay another 250 yards away, and now it was fully daylight. But such was the momentum of its surprise attack that the battalion pressed on, reaching the crest by early afternoon. ‘Although nearly all the basic dope was bad,’ the commander reported, ‘the strategy proved very sound.’ In a battle marked by painstakingly slow progress, this advance was a real breakthrough.

On March 4, two weeks after D-day, a shot-up B-29 made an emergency landing on the captured bomber strip while the fighting still raged. Thirty-five more crippled Superfortresses made emergency landings on Iwo Jima during the battle. The troops had almost daily reminders of what the fighting was all about. On March 16, Schmidt declared the island secure. His salty veterans snickered at this premature euphemism and continued dueling die-hard Japanese soldiers. Finally, advance elements reached Kitano Point on the north coast. Kuribayashi and his chief of staff died at the end, either in a final charge or by suicide. On March 26, a full 34 days after the landing, Schmidt announced that the operation was over. Yet just a few hours earlier, a well-armed force of 350 Japanese had infiltrated Marine lines and fallen upon a rear encampment of support troops, inflicting 200 casualties in the confusion of darkness before being overwhelmed and snuffed out. Schmidt turned the island over to Army garrison forces of the 147th Infantry and began re-embarkation. It was time to start thinking about the next assault landing.

The Marines and their multiservice supporting arms killed about 20,000 Japanese on the island during the battle, and the troops captured nearly 1,100 prisoners. That success came at an appalling cost to the Marines. Altogether, the V Amphibious Corps sustained 24,053 casualties in the fight. More than 6,000 men died. The total casualty count represented the equivalent loss of two standard divisions. The overall casualty rate was about 30 percent of forces employed, but many rifle battalions surpassed 75 percent. As Private Muscarella recalled, ‘There were no good days, and we lost a hell of a lot of people. Hell, I didn’t know who the company skipper was, or who the battalion commander was.’ By D-plus-35, few Marines did.

News of the casualties and savagery of Iwo Jima shocked the American public. The Hearst newspapers demanded that Nimitz and Spruance be replaced by General MacArthur, ‘a general who looks after his troops.’ But there was hardly time to indulge in recrimination. The invasion of Okinawa began four days after Iwo Jima fell. That campaign was equally bloody and savage. Ahead, presumably, lay the assault on the Japanese home islands themselves. The long, bloody road to Tokyo looked costlier than ever.

Seizing Iwo Jima achieved all the strategic goals desired by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. American B-29s could henceforth fly with less reserve fuel and a greater bomb payload, knowing Iwo Jima would be available as an emergency field. Iwo-based fighters escorted the Superfortresses to and from Honshu. For the first time, all the Japanese islands were within bomber range, including Hokkaido. Was all this worth the cost? One surviving Marine Corps officer thinks the question is still moot: ‘We saved a lot of airplanes, but whether it was worth the Marine lives to save Air Force planes, I don’t know.’

The 2,400 Army Air Force pilots who were forced to land at Iwo Jima between its capture and V-J Day had no doubts. Said one, ‘Whenever I land on this island, I thank God and the men who fought for it.’



This article was written by Colonel Joseph Alexander and originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of World War II. Colonel Alexander wrote the 50th Anniversary history of Iwo Jima for the U.S. Marine Corps. For further reading, he suggests: Iwo Jima by Richard F. Newcomb; and Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic by Whitman S. Bartley.


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20th - 21st Century, Historical Conflicts, Iwo Jima, Pacific War, World War II

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