The objective was to capture Mount Suribachi and Motoyama Airfield No. 1 on D-day. As the invading Marines quickly learned, the Battle of Iwo Jima was to be an exercise of the most bloody and grueling nature.
Suribachi. It has become such a legendary landmark that it rises, in the mind’s eye, majestically into the sky.
In reality, Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi is only 554 feet tall, roughly the same height as the Washington Monument. There’s nothing beautiful about this dormant volcano as it squats, in one writer’s words, “toad-like” at the southern tip of the pear-shaped island.
To the Marines charged with taking Iwo Jima, Mt. Suribachi was a fearsome, loathsome fortress. It dominated the Iwo skyline, overlooking the landing beaches and the southern ground leading to the airfields, which were the Marines’ primary objectives. Unlike many of the South Pacific islands that offered a tropical climate and foliage, Iwo Jima was a cold, craggy, barren volcanic island. One of the few Japanese survivors of the battle, Maj. Yoshitaka Horie of the Imperial Army, later said, “It had been written on the geographical book as only an island of sulphur; no water, no sparrow, no swallow.”
Mt. Suribachi bristled with heavily fortified defenses of more than 1,000 installations of some sort, including 642 block houses, pillboxes, and other gun positions that had been located by aerial and submarine surveillance over the previous nine months.
There was no question Mt. Suribachi would have to be conquered early in the battle to capture Iwo Jima. The assignment went to the 5th Marine Division’s 28th Regiment, led by Maj. Gen. Keller E. Rocher. The plan called for the regiment to land at the southernmost beach, send elements racing across the island to cut off Mt. Suribachi from supporting forces, then encircle the mountain and fight to the top. At the same time, the Division’s 27th Regiment, landing just to the right (north) of the 28th, would help cut off Mt. Suribachi, secure the southern half of Motoyama Airfield No. 1, and then wheel north up the island’s western half.
Meanwhile, the 4th Marine Division’s 23rd and 24th Regiments, led by Maj. Gen. Clifton B. Cates (a future commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps), landing abreast and to the north of the 27th, would help take the airfield, secure the fortified Quarry Ridge defending the beaches, then continue north along Iwo’s eastern half (See article “The Longest Month” in this publication).
The 3rd Marine Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Graves Erskine, would be held in floating reserve about 50 miles southeast of Iwo Jima. It would be used only if needed; planners hoped the division could be spared for future operations.
That wouldn’t be the case.
The Marines in the assault force had been trained extensively in Hawaii and other locations for taking island “X.” Exercises using flamethrowers, demolitions, and coordinated fire support teams against a dug-in enemy were emphasized.
As the task force left its various ports, scuttlebutt was predictably rampant about the destination. Some were betting on Formosa; for many, the first they’d ever heard of an island called Iwo Jima came when the target was revealed during pre-landing briefings. Yet Iwo Jima had been a primary U.S. objective for nearly a year, since B-29 bombers heading toward Japan first encountered intense anti-aircraft fire from Japanese positions on the island.
“Nobody expected it to be easy. It’s a tough proposition,” Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith told his officers. “That’s the reason we are here.”
Based on previous experience, Smith and Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt, who was commanding the V Amphibious Corps, fully expected to meet the strongest resistance at the beach. “Every man, every cook, baker, and candlestick maker, will be down on that beach somewhere with some kind of weapon,” said Smith.
Japanese military strategy, acquired by Military Intelligence Division agents, underscored the expected intensity of the defense. The War Department intelligence pamphlet “Japanese Defense Against Amphibious Operations” stated: “Positions should be constructed on high ground immediately behind the shoreline to dominate the beaches by firepower and interdict them to hostile landing forces.”
Then there would be the infamous banzai attacks – frenzied fighters making blood-curdling charges at the cost of their lives – that had become a predictable Japanese strategy. While no Marine could look forward to them, the banzais had cost the Japanese dearly time and again. “That is generally when we break their backs,” said Smith.
The Marines expected to have 8,000 men ashore in the first hour and a total of 30,000 by nightfall. The operation would be the most publicized Marine battle yet. In a relaxation of previous policy, the Marines were allowing scores of civilian reporters and photographers to be involved, along with dozens of Marine photographers and writers.
Even Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was on hand to observe. His pre-landing words were among the most moving – and prescient – of all. “In the last and final analysis, it is the guy with the rifle and the machine gun who wins the wars and pays the penalty to preserve our liberty,” said Forrestal. “My hat is off to the Marines. I think my feeling about them is best expressed by Maj. Gen. Julian Smith. In a letter to his wife after Tarawa, he said: ‘I can never again see a United States Marine without experiencing a feeling of reverence.’”
Though much more concise, Lt. Col. Ralph Haas was equally eloquent. He reminded his 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment of this maxim: “Duty is ours, consequences are God’s.” Just four days later, Haas, and so many of those who heard his words, had already died doing his duty on Iwo Jima.
For three days preceding the Monday, Feb. 19 invasion, virtually every square foot of Iwo was pummeled by ship and air bombardment. Reconnaissance photos revealed, however, that the island was bruised rather than broken. Consequently, the final preinvasion artillery missions concentrated on the beach areas.
At 0645 on D-day, the battleships and cruisers on station began saturating every foot from Mt. Suribachi to Airfield No. 2. Just after 0800, the naval guns stopped and 120 carrier planes came in, dropping napalm first then returning with rockets and strafing. One squadron was commanded by Marine Lt. Col. William A. Millington, who told his pilots, “Go in and scrape your bellies on the beach.”
Kuribayashi had purposely waited to unleash his forces until the landing zones were filled and the Marines were completely exposed in order to inflict maximum confusion and casualties.
The naval guns resumed at 0825, launching the most awesome preinvasion firepower the Marines had ever seen – more than 8,000 shells in less than 30 minutes. Five minutes after the final preinvasion bombing began, the first assault wave started in from a departure line 2 miles from the beach. It was the first of 10 waves – 850 landing craft – that would head for Iwo in 5-minute increments.
Cpl. Charles Lindberg recalled his observations of the bombing, and what was to come later, as he and fellow Marines were transported toward the Iwo Jima shoreline. “I didn’t expect any resistance,” he said. “When they tell you they bombed it for 74 days around the clock, and that was steady, continuous, and they bombed it before that too … and then the shelling they gave it the [first] day I saw it, planes were coming in from all directions, battle wagons were pounding the mountain … I thought, ‘What could live through that?’
“But we got a helluva surprise when we got on that beach. They knew what they were doing. To fight us like that took a brain, and that Japanese general [Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi] had it.”
At 0859, the first Marines hit the shore. At 0902, the Japanese defense began.
Two days previously, Navy divers had checked the shoreline for hidden obstructions and demolitions. Thinking the invasion had begun, the island’s savvy commander, Kuribayashi, had ordered an attack. All the craft bringing in the divers were hit, and casualties were heavy.
On D-day, however, Kuribayashi held his fire and ordered his men into their elaborate underground garrisons; some of them were 30 feet below the surface. As a result, the first waves of Marines met little Japanese resistance. But they and their amtracs – the amphibious vehicles carrying them in – were quickly mired in volcanic sand as they tried to scale the 8- to 15- foot terraces rising from the beach. It was like wading through a dark, shifting sea of quicksand; the beach was quickly clogged with men and machines. Still, the second, third, and fourth waves landed without organized opposition.
The thought flashed in some minds that maybe – just maybe – the defenses had been obliterated. Perhaps the island had even been abandoned.
That’s when all the hell that was Iwo Jima broke loose.
Kuribayashi had purposely waited to unleash his forces until the landing zones were filled and the Marines were completely exposed in order to inflict maximum confusion and casualties. He also waited until the first Marines to hit the beach began to climb up the lowland terraces that separated them from the beach – and their fellow invaders.
Now artillery, rocket, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fusillades all rained down on men who couldn’t find any protection from guns spewing fire that was well-directed from the heights to the south and north. It was a most prodigious crossfire, a Japanese defense strategy on small islands. One firing zone was completely accessible to another; the layers of fire were withering. Many Marines died in explosive fireballs that could bring down an entire squad. Many were hit by a single bullet fired by an unseen sniper with an unobstructed view of everything below. Many survivors later said sheer luck was the only difference between living and dying because you were a target if you moved, and a target if you stayed in place.
Perhaps most exasperating of all, though the enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, there were few Japanese to be seen. Initially, the assault force couldn’t do much fighting. “Colonel Rip Collins reported being annoyed by pillboxes on D-day,” wrote Maj. John L. Frothingham in the April 1945 issue of Leatherneck. “He had shot at, but not destroyed, them on the first try. When they shot at his tank from the rear as he was leaving, he was forced to return and demolish them, as later reconnaissance on foot showed.”
They just had to keep pushing forward.
Aboard a troop transport ship off Iwo Jima, Lt. Col. William R. Wendt, division air officer, was carrying on a two-way conversation with an air observer while inside the 4th Marine Division air office. Capt. Lyford Hutchins was receiving and passing on messages from Operations, spotting every position and movement of troops on a large map of Iwo. Over the speaker, the 4th’s air observer reported the inexorable progress of the assault:
Air Office – “First wave 300 yards from Red One … landing on Red One at 0859 … First wave landing on Green One, time 0900.”
A naval gunfire control officer interrupted with an order – “Move fire back 400 yards.”
Air Office – “Landings on Yellow Two at 0902 … Lead waves, Blue One at 0906.”
An officer with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, which hit the beaches at the Yellow One zone, one of the northernmost landing areas, said, “Enemy fire from terraces above beaches heavy, send strafing mission at once.”
At 0910, the radio crackled. “Mission completed.”
At 0915, Hutchins read a message to all troops on the transport ship: “Our troops are moving inland. At Yellow One they are in 125 yards; 200 yards at Yellow Two and Blue One. They have not negotiated the terraces.”
This brought a look of alarm from the soldiers. At 0930, the first ambulance boat was dispatched. At 0947, the radio crackled again: “Advance has stopped.”
Troops on the transport ships began to realize what their fellow troops, friends, and even relatives were enduring on the black sands of Iwo Jima.
“But we got a helluva surprise when we got on that beach. They knew what they were doing. To fight us like that took a brain, and that Japanese general [Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi] had it.”
Platoon Sgt. John Basilone was among the early Iwo Jima heroes and casualties. On Guadalcanal, he had been the first enlisted Marine to win a World War II Medal of Honor. It earned him a ticket home to become a featured star at bond drives, plus the offer of a commission, which he turned down.
Now “Manila John” was back in combat with the 27th Regiment, leading a machine gun platoon and taking out pillboxes. This time he would earn the Marines’ second highest decoration, the Navy Cross. But like so many medals on Iwo, it would be awarded posthumously. A mortar shell killed Basilone and four others as Basilone led a platoon over the first rise of ground. His final words were, “Come on, you guys, we gotta get these guns off the beach.”
Not all the heroes were on the ground. Some were over it, working as naval gunfire spotters and, in the process, attracting hostile fire from numerous anti-aircraft positions. To do their jobs, the spotters had to get in close. The challenge was not to get too close.
At one point, Marine Maj. Ray Dollins was actually heard warbling a familiar tune with new lyrics over the 5th Marine Division radio network: “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a terrible feeling, everything’s coming my way.” Moments later the plane spiraled into the water, killing Dollins and the pilot.
Not all of the heroes were Marines. Navy corpsmen and Seabees were essential to the mission, and they suffered huge numbers of casualties. Many were from the 133rd Seabees, who put 1,000 men ashore by late afternoon. Despite their heavy losses, they continued to work desperately to clear the littered beaches and open the roadways into Iwo’s interior.
How brutal was the battle? As he returned to his ship, Keith Wheeler of the Chicago Times told another correspondent, “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. There’s more hell in there than I’ve seen the rest of the war put together.” Time correspondent Robert Sherrod noted, “On Iwo Jima, whether the dead were Japanese or American, they had one thing in common; they died with the greatest of possible violence.”
It was still only D-day.
If D-Day at Normandy was the longest day, then surely D-day on Iwo Jima was the longest night. Some 30,000 men had come ashore, forging a beachhead 4,000 yards wide from south to north, 1,000 yards deep on the left, and 400 yards on the right. The American plans had called for the capture of Mt. Suribachi by one regiment of the 5th Marine Division and capture of Motoyama Airfield No. 1 by the 4th Division by now; instead, the 28th Marines had isolated Mt. Suribachi from the rest of the island, but it was not until D+3 that the mountain would be surrounded.
The cost was already appalling. The Marines had taken some 2,300 casualties, including an estimated 558 dead. Even more telling were losses within the lead units.
Before the landing, 4th Division Commander Maj. Gen. Clifton B. Cates had told a reporter, “You know, if I knew the name of the man on the extreme right of the righthand squad of the right-hand company of the right-hand battalion, I’d recommend him for a medal before we go in.”
Odds are that unknown man earned a medal anyway, for he was part of Lt. Col. Justice “Jumpin’ Joe” Chambers’ battalion that had been decimated by the time it was relieved the first night.
Moreover, not a single man among the thousands left on Iwo could lay claim to a truly safe, secure spot as exhausted men began digging in for the night. Artillery and mortar fire continued, working first one sector then another in orchestrated rhythm. Japanese soldiers rolled live grenades down the slopes of Mt. Suribachi. Worst of all, the dreaded banzai attacks were expected at any moment, making every watch stressful, any snatches of sleep fitful.
“I know I didn’t sleep at all that night,” Lindberg recalled. “Thank God for whoever it was that kept lighting flares so that we could see.”
The Marines couldn’t know that, in yet another departure from doctrine, Kuribayashi had ordered no banzais. In fact, the only one that did occur came late in the battle, still weeks away.
Japanese soldiers did, however, begin a pattern that would continue every night: Infiltrators would stealthily try to slip between U.S. lines and positions, looking for vulnerable spots that could be exploited during the night or next day. Compounding that for the 5th Marine Division was the ever-present threat of Mt. Suribachi. It loomed over them like a hideous shadow, giving some 1,600 hidden defenders a bird’s-eye view and making the Marines feel totally exposed with every move they made.
D+1 (Feb. 20) opened with another heavy bombardment of Mt. Suribachi as the 28th Marines, under Col. Harry “The Horse” Liversedge, began creating a noose to choke off the mountain. Elements had made it completely across the island’s narrowest point the previous day, isolating Mt. Suribachi from direct support. Now the lines had to be solidified, which included finding and eradicating fortified positions that were bypassed initially.
The 2nd and 3rd Battalions began pushing forward toward Mt. Suribachi’s base, using flamethrowers, satchel charges, grenades, and nerve gas to take out pillbox after pillbox, cave after cave – one by one. It was incredibly intense, gruesome work made even worse by a gray, desolate landscape that, subjected to weeks of high explosives, helped provide perfect camouflage for the defenders. Furthermore, the Japanese refused to become moving targets. Most stayed entrenched, trying to make good on their vow to kill 10 Marines for each Japanese. When they did appear, it was usually sudden and from ambush.
By nightfall on D+1, the Marines had advanced some 200 yards, an almost miraculous achievement given the scope of defenses remaining. By noon on D+2 (Feb. 21), they had reached the base of Mt. Suribachi; by evening, they had formed a semicircle around the front and sides.
That set the stage for a D+3 (Feb. 22) assault that was unprecedented in tenacity and ferocity on both sides. Time and again Marines threw themselves against the mountain’s lower defense, clawing for every inch of ground. Then, the first stroke of luck came upon an attacking patrol: While diving for cover in a shell hole, they found a wounded, half-buried Japanese soldier. After carefully pulling him out of the crater with a rope (in the event he was boobytrapped), the Marines began to interrogate him. The captured soldier was an Iwo Jima resident who had been inducted into the Japanese military against his will; he proceeded to give the Marines explicit details about Japanese defenses on Mt. Suribachi.
Finally, by day’s end, the lower pockets of resistance had been overcome: Mt. Suribachi was surrounded.
“At dawn we start climbing,” said Liversedge.
That night, the second stroke of luck graced the Marine fighters. It was an act so unlike anything the Japanese had ever done – or would ever do again on Iwo Jima – that to this day, it seems incongruent with the fighting spirit cast into them by Kuribayashi.
After being mortally wounded in the day’s fighting, the commander of Mt. Suribachi’s defenses, Col. Kanehiko Atuschi, ordered half of the 300 remaining defenders to withdraw and move north. All but about 25 of the withdrawing soldiers were killed when they reached the solid American front. When the survivors arrived at the headquarters of Capt. Samaji Inouye, commander of Iwo’s naval guard forces, the lieutenant in their charge was accused of being a traitor. Inouye pulled out his sword to behead the lieutenant on the spot, but a junior officer stopped him. Inouye wept uncontrollably at the reality: The fall of Mt. Suribachi was imminent.
Considering what had come before, the actual scaling of Mt. Suribachi was almost anticlimactic. Sgt. Sherman Watson and Pfcs. Ted White, George Mercer, and Louis Charlo were the first patrol to go up. Amazingly, they reached the rim of the crater without seeing a single live Japanese soldier.
When they reported in to their 2nd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson quickly organized a 40-man patrol from Easy Company under Lt. Harold Schrier. Johnson told Schrier to take and hold the top, and gave him an American flag, measuring 54 inches by 28 inches, to plant there. It was large enough to be seen from the base and from ships near the shoreline.
At 1020, the patrol had reached the peak without opposition – but the tranquil moment was to end. They found a 20- foot length of hollow Japanese iron pipe, which had probably been used for a water system before it was bombed. Schrier, Sgts. Ernest “Boot” Thomas and Henry Hansen, and Lindberg attached the flag to the pipe and planted it as Pfcs. James Michaels and Jim “Chick” Robeson stood guard. Their watchfulness wasn’t an idle precaution. “As Marines scrambled over the lip [of the crater], a small defending force challenged the patrol and a short, hot fight developed. Even while this skirmish was in progress, some of the men … secured the small American flag, and raised the Stars and Stripes at 1030,” Bernard C. Nalty later wrote in the Marine Corps Headquarters pamphlet, “The United States Marines on Iwo Jima: The Battle and the Flag Raising.”
The skirmish began when an enraged Japanese soldier jumped from a cave to heave a grenade. Robeson downed him with a Browning automatic rifle. A second defender charged, brandishing a broken sword. He, too, was shot. The Marine patrol then threw demolition charges into nearby caves.
Mt. Suribachi was still a deadly dangerous place. There were many soldiers in the mountain and its estimated 1,000 installations who would have to be dealt with in the days ahead. Leatherneck magazine photographer Staff Sgt. Lou Lowery recorded this flag-raising; during the ensuing firefight, he slid 50 feet down the crater to avoid being hit by a Japanese grenade that had been thrown at him.
“We spent the next three hours securing that mountain,” Lindberg said. “We used the flamethrowers for caves we couldn’t walk into, demolition charges, and we walked into whatever caves we could. We burned out pillboxes, caves … we didn’t know what side the Japanese would be coming from. We had to work fast; we had to work hard.”
Four hours later, once the mountain was secure, there would be another flag-raising that would become much more famous.
For the moment, pictures weren’t nearly as important as two facts: Mt. Suribachi had finally been taken, and it wouldn’t be surrendered. At 1038, the public-address system on an American ship near the northeast coast of Iwo Jima blared, “Now all hands hear this. The American flag is now flying atop Mt. Suribachi. The American flag is now flying atop Mt. Suribachi.”
From the ships and beaches below, observers had watched the patrol move up the mountainside. When the flag appeared, horns and cheers rang out. “I’ll tell you,” Lindberg said, “I’ve never had a feeling like the one that went through me when I heard those cheers from up there. Not before; not since.”
Navy Secretary Forrestal, who had followed the battle aboard ship, was headed into Iwo when he saw the flag raised. Turning to Lt. Gen. Smith, he said, “Holland, the raising of that flag on Mt. Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
It was a fitting, stirring tribute. But for the Marines on Iwo, years had no meaning then or in the weeks to come. Staying alive today was all that really mattered. As one Marine later said, “There probably wasn’t a man among us who didn’t wish to God he was moving in the opposite direction.”
Bob Yehling also contributed to this story.