Thursday, February 19, 2015

Taking Iwo Jima, 1945

On the same day that my dad's ship, USS Hector, arrived in San Pedro Bay in the Leyte Gulf, northwest across the Philippine Sea U.S. Marines began their renowned amphibious invasion of the small island of Iwo Jima. That assault began on this date, 70 years ago.

Both Japan and the United States placed high strategic value on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. For the Japanese, Iwo Jima, only 575 miles from the main Japanese coast, was part of its Empire. For the U.S., Iwo was vitally important for its location midway between the Japanese home islands and American bomber bases in the Marianas.

Since the summer of 1944, the Japanese homeland had been reeling from strikes by the new, long-range B-29’s. The problem for the U.S. was that its protective fighters did not have the range to escort the big super fortresses, and many of these bombers fell prey to Japanese interceptors. Iwo Jima, with its airfields, was ideally located as a base for fighter escorts. It was also an ideal sanctuary for crippled bombers returning from Japan. But before the U.S. could use those airfields, it had to take control of the island.

The Japanese Commander of Iwo Jima, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had thoroughly prepared the island for an invasion. Correctly understanding that he could not hold Iwo against the overwhelming military forces of the United States, Kuribayashi planned a protracted battle of attrition in the hope of delaying the inevitable loss of the island and the bombing of Japan.

Already, by November 1944, the U.S. Navy had been bombing Iwo Jima and continued it into the longest sustained aerial offensive of the war. But the ingenious Japanese had engineered an 11-mile tunnel network under the solid rock, connecting 1,500 dugouts and installations below ground. The American bombing had little effect.

The 23,000 Japanese defenders had no thought of surviving an invasion. Rather, they intended to annihilate the American invaders before they themselves were killed.

Anticipating a serious struggle to wrench the island from the enemy, America sent 110,000 Marines as an invasion force, more than any other battle. The Navy committed 880 ships to convey them from Hawaii in the largest armada invasion to date in the Pacific.

Shortly before 2 AM on today's date in 1945, Navy ships began bombarding Iwo Jima, signaling the beginning of the invasion. After an hour of punishing bombardment by the Navy's big guns, 110 bombers were sent to add to the devastation. After the planes had dropped their payloads, the big guns on the ships opened up again.

At 8:30 AM, the first wave of Marines was ordered toward the deadly shores. Eventually, 3 Marine divisions would make the landing. On the beach, however, the invaders were incredibly vulnerable to hidden Japanese gunners. Heavy fire by the enemy made it impossible for the Marines to land in an orderly manner, so confusion reigned on the beaches.

Mt Suribachi is visible in the background as waves of U.S. Marines
are delivered to the beaches in landing craft by the U.S. Navy landing craft

Mount Suribachi was the prominent geographical feature on the island. Its 550-foot volcanic cone towered above the southern tip of the island. From that position, Japanese gunners zeroed in on every inch of the shore. On the beach, fortified pillboxes with heavy weapons flanked the landing areas. Machine guns also had been prepositioned to crisscross the beaches with deadly fire. Rockets, anti-boat, and anti-tank guns were also trained on the beaches. With Japanese defenders fighting from below ground, the Americans rarely saw a living enemy soldier. However, the Marines were rarely out of their enemy's line of sight.

Experiencing initial success on shore, the Marines got bogged down in costly fighting. The underground tunnel system had to be destroyed by flamethrowers and hand grenades before the island could be rid of the enemy. After a month of grim and determined fighting, victory on Iwo Jima, was finally won on March 26. Americans lost 5,900 dead and 17,400 wounded, a staggering casualty rate of 1 in 3.1  The enemy, unwilling to surrender, lost essentially all of its 23,000-man force with fewer than 2,000 survivors.

Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who followed the victorious Marines up the mountain, took one of the most iconic photographs of the war when he captured the raising the flag over Mount Suribachi. This enduring image was actually the second flag raised. Late in the morning on February 23rd, after Marines had managed to secure Mount Suribachi, they initially raised a smaller flag. One of the Marines was sent to the beaches below to find a larger flag to replace it.2 Regardless, the dramatic image that Rosenthal captured galvanized war-weary Americans into rededicating themselves to the cause for which the Marines and Navy had fought and sacrificed so much.

Iwo Jima proved a costly victory for America. However, it did provide a vital link in the chain of bomber bases needed to defeat Japan. Not only did Iwo Jima shorten the war, but also by war’s end, it had provided a haven for 2,400 stricken B-29 bombers and 27,000 crewman who made emergency landings there.

1 Twenty-seven U.S. servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the 2-month-long battle (14 posthumously). Of the 27 medals awarded, 22 were presented to Marines and 5 were presented to Navy sailors, 4 of whom were Pharmacist's Mates (Hospital Corpsman).
2 The second flag to fly on Mount Suribachi was procured from one of the landing ships, LST-779. A couple of months later in Tanapag Harbor on Saipan, Dad's ship, Hector, did repair work on the LST-779 along with numerous other vessels.

Sources: Flags of our Fathers, James Bradley; The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morrison; Historynet.comHistory of LST-481

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