At dawn on Feb. 19, 1945, some 70,000 U.S. Marines – the largest Marine deployment in history – began landing on the powdery volcanic ash shore of Iwo Jima, a tiny 8-square-mile island 760 miles south of Tokyo, at the end of the Japanese island chain.
Its capture was considered vital because Japanese aircraft using the 5-mile-long island’s two airfields were successfully intercepting U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers attacking the main islands. Before the invasion, the U.S. 20th Air Force lost more B-29s to interceptors flying from Iwo Jima that it did in attacks over the Japanese homeland.
Despite months of preinvasion shelling by U.S. ships and bombers, the estimated 21,000 Japanese soldiers were well protected by hundreds of caves and man-made tunnels. Those ran from near the shore to the island’s highest mountain, the 554-foot-tall Mount Suribachi, home to a seven-story fortress equipped with weapons, communications, and supplies.
By sunset on the first day, 2,400 Marines had been killed or wounded. Four days of bloody fighting later, Mt. Suribachi was captured and the most iconic photo of Marine warfighters was taken: the raising of the American flag at its peak.
That was just the opening engagement in what was to be five bloody, hard-fought weeks for Operation Detachment, which U.S. military planners had expected to last only a few days with little Japanese opposition after nearly a year of air and naval bombing of the island. Those assessments had led Pacific Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who was in charge of the operation, to comment: “Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight.”
By the end, more than 26,000 Marines were dead or wounded and all but 216 Japanese had been killed, making it the first time total U.S. casualties exceeded those of the enemy.
The Marines who ran from their landing craft onto the black sands of Iwo Jima’s shore to begin what Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith called “the most savage and the most costly battle in the history of the Marine Corps,” were equipped with little more than basic armament of the day – sidearms, rifles, machine guns, grenades, flamethrowers, knives, and dogs. Their combat boots, thin metal helmets, and camouflage uniforms offered no real protection against a rain of Japanese bullets, grenades, and mortar shells.
“You could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by,” Lt. Col. Justice M. “Jumpin’ Joe” Chambers, who led the landing of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, recalled. “I knew immediately we were in for one helluva time.”
Continued bombardments of the rugged terrain and jungle by U.S. Navy ships had little more effect than had 74 days of unrelenting pre-invasion bombing by B-24 Liberators based on the recently captured Marianas.
Once they were able to get them ashore, flamethrower-equipped M4A3R3 Sherman tanks proved the most efficient weapon at clearing enemy bunkers. The Marines also received significant close air support from carrier-based aircraft and later from P-51 Mustangs of the 15th Fighter Group, which arrived on March 6.
What eventually won the day for the Marines was their training, experience, determination, and toughness. They were arguably the toughest fighting force ever deployed in human combat. However, although they outnumbered the Japanese by more than 3-to-1, they lacked physical cover, up-to-date intel, and were facing an enemy sworn to fight to the death – which they did.
A lot has changed in the 75 years since the invasion of Iwo Jima. U.S. Marines are still one of the toughest fighting forces on the planet or in history, but 21st century Marines are even more deadly, efficient, capable, and effective than their World War II counterparts due to advanced technologies. Those technologies affect everything from their combat uniforms to their training, personal weapons, communications, air and sea support, land weapons, field medical support, and on-site intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
Although it is impossible to be certain, these advantages likely would have significantly shortened the time it took to seize Iwo Jima and greatly reduced the number of U.S. casualties. That takes nothing away from the Marines of World War II, but merely recognizes how things have changed in an historically short period of time. Given the same technologies available today, the Iwo Jima Marines would have been an even more formidable force. Begin with training for the Pacific Theater. There were three primary Marine boot camps during World War II: Parris Island, South Carolina; San Diego, California; and Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a segregated training facility for African-Americans, as the Marine Corps was not integrated at that time. Initial training at each lasted seven weeks, although the time spent on weapons, physical, garrison, and field training varied slightly.
After hundreds of hours of hiking, swimming, rifle range, bayonet, and hand-tohand combat instruction, the new Marines were transferred to Fleet Marine Headquarters at New River, North Carolina (now Camp Lejeune), for more training on obstacle courses, rifles, improvised rope bridges, and debarking from ships’ cargo nets onto Higgins boats – Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) – and then hitting the beach.
From there, they went to Camp Elliott in San Diego for desert training and more intense instruction on ship disembarkment and beach landings. Their final stop was San Francisco to prepare for overseas transport into the Pacific theater.
Today’s Marines still go through boot camp at either Parris Island or San Diego. But today’s Marines receive much more training beyond that, and know far more combat skills once their training is complete.
After going through “receiving,” during which they are given physicals, haircuts, fill out paperwork, and are stripped of all civilian items, recruits dive into their three months of training. Early days include instruction on Marine history and culture – including rank structure and insignia, protocol, customs and courtesies, the 11 General Orders, and aspects of the five paragraph order – as well as first aid and care and use of their assigned weapon.
Intense physical training marks the entirety of the training period. Recruits engage in strength and endurance training, work toward earning their tan belts in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and take part in runs of various distances, among other activities. Physical fitness and combat fitness tests are periodically given.
Combat and field training includes pugil stick and bayonet training, marksmanship, close-range and distance shooting, land navigation with a map and compass, as well as the aforementioned martial arts training.
Toward the end of the three months, recruits put all they have learned to use in a field training exercise dubbed the Crucible. Over the course of 54 hours, recruits undergo food and sleep deprivation as they tackle obstacle courses, day and night assault courses, land navigation courses, large-scale martial arts challenges, simulated medical evacuation exercises, and miles of marching. Upon completion of the Crucible, recruits earn the title of Marine.
Following graduation and dismissal from recruit training as well as a 10-day leave, the new Marines attend a school of infantry at Camp Geiger (on Marine Corps Air Station New River) or Camp Pendleton. Non-infantry Marines will attend a 29-day Marine combat training course before going to the appropriate school for their military occupational specialty (MOS), where training varies in length. Infantry Marines attend the Infantry Training Battalion for 59 days. All new Marines are then assigned to their first unit in the operating forces, by which time they are far more highly trained than their World War II predecessors, including in field medicine.
Today’s Marines also have a greater variety of far more advanced combat equipment, from their combat uniforms to personal weapons, unit weapons, ISR robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), ground transport, close air support, ship-based support, communications, field medical support (from Navy corpsmen as well as formerly medic-level training of individual warfighters), combat rations, and shelter.
The Marines at Iwo Jima wore two-piece pattern utility uniforms made of heavy, sage green herringbone twill cotton, devoid of unnecessary features and easy to maintain, along with M1 steel helmets and canvas leggings. Boots were heavy, toughened leather, designed to withstand the various harsh environments in which Marines operated.
The 21st century Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU) is a departure from past battle dress uniforms, which were shared with the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Exclusive to the Marine Corps and Navy corpsmen assigned to them, it features a distinctive (and patented) camouflage pattern, MARPAT, available in two color schemes – woodland and desert. It was designed to be used with body armor and features reinforced knees, elbows, and seats; internal pockets for elbow and knee pads; tan rough-out combat boots in hot or temperate weather versions; and (under development) moisture wicking T-shirts.
The Lightweight Helmet (LWH) is a significant advance in combat head gear, providing ballistic protection the old “steel pot” lacked. Featuring padding and a four-point retention strap, it is considered more comfortable than previous, smaller (but heavier) helmets. The LWH’s shell can be fitted with desert or woodland MARPAT cloth helmet covers, as well as a mounting bracket on the front for any sort of night vision device, such as the AN/PVS-7 night vision goggle or AN/PVS-14 monocular night vision device. A sling or pad suspension helps fit the inside of the helmet to the head, while a nape protection system adds ballistic protection to the rear of the head while reducing strain and improving comfort to the back of the neck. The Corps is looking to replace the LWH with an even more advanced helmet soon.
With all of those features, the modern Marine’s MCCUU provides not only greater comfort but physical protection in combat, while also enabling the use of advanced vision systems.
The biggest difference between the Marines of Iwo Jima and their modern counterparts, however, is in weaponry.
At Iwo Jima, the individual Marine typically carried either an M1 carbine or M1 Garand rifle and an M1911A1 .45-caliber automatic pistol. Marine Corps units also were equipped with the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), Thompson submachine gun, flamethrowers, bazookas, and mortars. Larger support equipment included howitzers, anti-tank guns, Sherman tanks, and jeeps. Close air support was provided by the Marine Corps air arm, which, by that time, had become a major part of American military air power in the Pacific.
Seventy-five years later, 21st century technology has led to significant changes in Marine Corps MOS designations (prior to June 1945, the Corps generally followed U.S. Army MOSs). Those reflect new weapons and systems that did not exist during World War II, from unmanned aircraft systems operator, and helicopter pilot to cyberspace exploitation operator and satellite communications operator.
For the individual combat Marine and small unit, weapons include the M16A2, M4 carbine, and Beretta M9 pistol, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), and M224 60 mm mortar (far from a comprehensive list).
The Marine Corps has carried on its line of amphibious tracked vehicles with the AAV7, but is planning on replacing it with the new wheeled Amphibious Combat Vehicle; likewise, the Corps plans to replace the older LAV-25 with the Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle to compliment the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank. Marines can also call upon the Avenger, a fully automated, short-range shoot-on-the-move air defense weapon, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which can carry a single six-pack of rockets or one ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) surface-to-surface missile on the Army’s Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) 5-ton truck and can launch the entire Multiple Launch Rocket System family of munitions.
U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa 20.1, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, prepare to extract Marines from a landing zone during quick-reaction force training at Naval Station Rota, Spain, Sept. 30, 2019. After World War II, the Marine Corps embraced the potential of rotary-wing aircraft for their speed and utility in transporting, supplying, and supporting Marines on the ground.
Marines pioneered close air support and having their own organic close air support, a tradition that continues to this day. Present-day aircraft include: the F-35B Lightning II 5th-generation short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) stealth fighter, F/A-18C/D Hornet jet fighter/ bomber, AV-8B Harrier II V/STOL (short take-off/vertical landing) jump-jet, MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor V/STOL multi-role combat assault and support aircraft, AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter, UH-1Y Venom utility helicopter, and a variety of UAVs – again, not a comprehensive list.
The Marine Corps also utilizes a number of marine vessels, including the LHA amphibious assault ship (capable of carrying a variety of Marine aircraft, including the F-35B), Special Operations Craft-Riverine (short-range insertion and extraction of Marine special operators in river and littoral environments), and the Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) vehicles to support Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OM- FTS) at over-the-horizon distances while operating from amphibious ships and mobile landing platforms.
This combination of extensive training, small arms and fragmentation-protective clothing, advanced weaponry (including some precision-guided munitions), individual satellite-based communications and computing, and air and sea power exceeding that of most of the world’s militaries makes today’s Marine Corps one of the most potent assault forces on the planet.
Yet today’s Marine will be to the Marine of 2025 what the Marine of 1945 is to the current Corps. As Billy Epperson, infantry weapons capabilities integration officer, told the Marine Corps Times in October, “Across the board for all weapons modernization, pick a weapons system, the intent for everything we’re doing is to increase the lethality of the Marine rifle squad.”
One thing that will not change is the heart of the Corps – every Marine is a rifleman, including aviators who, for whatever reason, cannot fly. But the rifle those Marines carry is changing dramatically from the standard M16 they have used since Vietnam.
The M27, adopted to replace the SAW, has a rate of fire three times that of the M16, with fewer jams and a barrel and bolt that last 3.5 times as long as the M4.
As a result, it has become a replacement for the rifle, carbine, light machine gun, and marksman rifle, the latter, with better optics, named the M38 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle. Even so, the Marines and Army are looking at a next-generation squad weapon that is lighter and more lethal, using a 6.8 mm round able to penetrate body armor at greater ranges. A decision on three competing versions is expected in the next two years.
A replacement for the M9 Beretta pistol also is underway. The Sig Sauer 9 mm M17, part of the Modular Handgun System, which includes day/night optics and suppressor options, was selected by the Army, while the Marines opted for the compact version, the M18.
The Corps also has replaced the M203 40 mm grenade launcher, which was attached beneath the barrel of the M16, with the M320, a stand-alone grenade launcher able to fire a wider range of munitions. At the same time, the Carl Gustaf Recoilless Rifle, an 84 mm shoulder-fired rocket for anti-barricade, anti-armor, and bunker busting, is being issued at the squad level to replace the Mk 153 Shoulder-launched Multi-purpose Assault Weapon (SMAW).
The Vietnam-era M40 sniper rifle is being replaced by the Mk 13 Mod 7, which fires a .300 Winchester Magnum round at greater lethal range – 1,000 meters – than the M40’s 7.62 mm round. However, the Mk 13 Mod 7 is likely to be replaced in 2022 by U.S. Special Operations Command’s newly developed Advanced Sniper Rifle (ASR), with a .338 Norma Magnum round.
In 2019, the Marine Corps put out a request for a new scope to engage targets at 600 to 900 meters, slightly more powerful than the 4x magnification and 800-meter range of the current Rifle Combat Optic.
Marines also have begun receiving a new squad binocular night vision goggle with significantly improved night vision, depth perception, and targeting.
Modern technology and its resulting impact on tactics, techniques, and procedures and concept of operations makes a comparison between the Iwo Jima Marines and today’s Marines nearly meaningless. But today’s Marine is continuing to evolve, becoming more flexible, and more lethal as technology continues to advance the Corps’ weapons. The only constant among the Marines of World War II, today, and tomorrow is the “platform” at the center of it all: the individual Marine.