By the summer of 1944, the war in the Pacific was clearly being won by the United States and its allies, who, emboldened by the decimation of Japanese naval and air forces at the Battle of Midway two years earlier, had driven Japanese forces from most of their island strongholds. Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had led the Allied Pacific Ocean Areas command in wresting the island of Guadalcanal from the Japanese and driving up through the Solomon Islands to Bougainville. Joint Army and Marine Corps amphibious assaults had routed the Japanese from the Gilbert and Marshall Islands chains. Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, was on the threshold of recapturing the Philippine Islands after leading forces along the northeast coast of New Guinea and to nearby islands, isolating and enfeebling key Japanese installations.
U.S. forces crept yet closer to the Japanese mainland from July through August of 1944, when soldiers and Marines, with support from the Navy, broke Japan’s last line of island defenses guarding the approaches to the home islands from the south: the Mariana Islands, about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. The capture of the Marianas put the Japanese archipelago well within range of the Army Air Corps’ new heavy bomber, the massive B-29 Superfortress, a 99-footlong, four-engine aircraft capable of carrying four tons of bombs a total of 3,500 miles. The Twentieth Army Air Force, commanded by Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, was established in April 1944 specifically to perform the strategic bombardment of Japan.
Even as fighting continued in the Marianas, Army engineers and Navy construction battalions began carving 3-mile-long runways from the jungles of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam to accommodate the B-29. Air access to Japan from the Marianas was impeded, however, by a chain of more than 3,000 islands and islets, collectively known as the Nanpo Shoto, studding the ocean approach north. The largest of these were generally concentrated in the Bonin and Volcano Island groups, between 600 and 700 miles south of Tokyo – and shortly after the Allied capture of the Marianas, the XXI Bomber Command, the strategic bombing unit flying out of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, discovered that one of these islands was a serious annoyance.
Iwo Jima, a barren island of about 8 square miles almost exactly halfway between Tokyo and the Marianas, was unusually flat for a volcanic island, mostly barren, and smelly, due to the high sulfur content of the soil. The island’s lone topographical feature, at its southern tip, was a 556-foot-high dormant volcano known as Mount Suribachi. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Simmons, writing in the Marine Corps Gazette, later described Iwo Jima as “a bad-smelling, burnt pork chop of an island.”
The island’s size and flat terrain allowed for the construction of large airfields, from which Japanese interceptors could set forth to harass or bring down enemy aircraft. This forced the XXI Bomber Command’s B-29s to make dog-leg detours on their way to and from the Japanese mainland, increasing the already considerable round-trip distance. Even with this detour, the huge formations of giant aircraft were impossible to conceal from radar surveillance on Iwo Jima, allowing the island to give the home islands plenty of time to prepare for incoming bomb attacks. Attempts to disrupt and destroy the island’s capabilities proved futile: From August to October, the 11th and 30th Bomber Groups flew nearly 50 separate missions against Iwo Jima. Damage to Iwo’s runways was easily repaired, however, and the commander of the Iwo Jima garrison, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had built a complex of armored fortifications and tunnels that prevented heavy losses of people or equipment.
America’s strategic aims in World War II – and in particular its policy toward Japan – had been articulated unequivocally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president considered the World War I armistice – in which the Central Powers merely agreed to stop fighting, rather than surrender to the Allies – to have been a significant factor in Germany’s post-war military resurgence. In winning this second world war, Roosevelt insisted on the total and unconditional surrender of the Axis enemies. In his “Day of Infamy” address to Congress the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt made it plain that the American people would “win through to absolute victory” and “make very certain that this form of treachery will never endanger us again.”
It was in the fall of 1944 that the balance of opinion among American military leaders began to tip in favor of one of two competing ideas for achieving this outcome. The first, favored by MacArthur and Adm. Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, was to continue the drive through the Southwest Pacific, recapture the entire Philippine archipelago (in fulfillment of MacArthur’s “I shall return” pledge), invade and capture Formosa (present-day Taiwan), and land a million-man force on the China coast, from which Allied forces could launch their final assault on the Japanese mainland.
The manpower and logistics required to conquer Formosa – an island of 13,890 square miles, occupied by more than 6 million people – and then to invade and hold the China coast was prohibitively large, a massive mobilization that was likely to involve months of additional preparation. Nimitz proposed an approach that he considered to involve less risk, with at least the same probability of success: The Central Pacific attack would shift northward, against Iwo Jima, in early 1945, and then against Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu chain in the spring.
Both plans required unchallenged control of the skies over Japan and the thousands of miles of ocean approaches to the mainland. The Joint Chiefs envisioned months of strategic air bombardment of Japanese military installations and industrial centers before any invasion was mounted.
In early October 1944, Nimitz traveled to CINCPAC headquarters in San Francisco and persuaded the Joint Chiefs of Staff to abandon the Formosa/China plan in favor of the Iwo Jima/Okinawa plan. The resulting order outlined the course of the war’s conclusion: MacArthur would seize and occupy Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, in December, with cover and support from Nimitz’s Pacific Area Command. After that, Nimitz would occupy one or more positions in the Bonin-Volcano Islands Group, and then continue on toward Okinawa and the Ryukyus. Once these objectives had been achieved, both commanders would coordinate resources and manpower between themselves, the Twentieth Army Air Force, and the China-Burma-India theater for the final bombardment and invasion of Japan. The Joint Chiefs’ order didn’t specify which island Nimitz should take in the Bonin-Volcano group, merely that it be capable of supporting several airfields. There was only one island in the group that fit the description: Iwo Jima.
Capturing Iwo would allow the XXI Bomber Command’s B-29s to fly closer to Japan without being detected, and the island was large enough to provide a base for the bombers’ long-range escorts, P-51 Mustangs, which could be stationed there to meet the bombers halfway and provide protection. The island would also provide an emergency landing haven for crippled B-29s trying to return to base after being hit by anti-aircraft artillery or interceptors over the mainland. If Iwo Jima became a regular stopover on return flights, the bombers would be able to carry less fuel and more bombs.
A FORTRESS AND A SYMBOL
Another Allied benefit to the capture of Iwo Jima wasn’t often discussed during strategic planning, but was nevertheless an unspoken truth that couldn’t be ignored: The invasion of this island would strike a serious blow to the Japanese enemy’s morale. Iwo Jima was Japanese soil, administered by the prefecture of Tokyo. Unlike many of the islands then under Japanese control, such as the Philippines, it had been Japanese for as long as any could remember. A little more than a thousand people lived there, farming what little would grow in the sulfurous soil (rice had to be imported from the mainland) and operating a sugar mill and sulfur refinery.
The fall of the Marianas in the summer of 1944 shocked the Japanese. The islands, home to the primary administrative headquarters of all Japanese forces in the Western Pacific, had been known as the “Pearl Harbor of Japan.” It was no longer possible to pretend Japan was playing offense in pursuit of imperial ambitions. It was fighting for survival, and Iwo Jima provided an important warning beacon for the approach of incoming bombers.
After losing the Marianas, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito finally decided he was through taking advice from his premier, Hideki Tojo. Tojo believed the Americans were soft and would not be able to stomach a long and costly war, but would rather sue for peace and allow Japan to keep most of its Pacific empire. This was in fact the strategic aim of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an idea vigorously pushed by Tojo: to preemptively start a war the Americans wouldn’t want to finish.
This Japanese strategy – despite Roosevelt’s vociferous demand of unconditional surrender – had not wavered since Pearl Harbor. But in the summer of 1944 the emperor finally blinked. The Americans and their allies certainly seemed determined to finish off the empire, and they were now a mere 1,500 miles away. Before Tojo fell from power, however, he sent Kuribayashi, one of his best generals, to defend Iwo Jima, which he knew would be key to facilitating Allied air raids against the Japanese archipelago.
Kuribayashi evacuated Iwo Jima’s civilian population, quadrupled the island’s manpower to around 23,000 defenders, set up artillery and machine guns all over the island, and redoubled construction of underground tunnels and strongholds, fortified caves, blockhouses, and pillboxes. There were 80 fighter aircraft stationed on the island when he arrived. Kuribayashi dismissed all but four – perhaps his clearest signal that Iwo Jima’s strategic importance to the Japanese had undergone a transformation.
Kuribayashi’s aim wasn’t to hold the island, which he understood to be impossible. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in June 1944 – probably the largest naval battle in the history of the world – Japan had virtually no navy left to prevent the Allies from landing as many invaders as they chose on Iwo Jima’s beaches. Kuribayashi’s battle plan, a departure from the usual Japanese methods for meeting an invasion from the sea, reflected the importance of Iwo Jima as a Japanese island, emblematic of Japanese pride: knowing he and his men would not survive the battle, Kuribayashi devised a plan to transform Iwo Jima from a radar and air station into an impregnable fortress, anchored by the seven-story labyrinth of Mt. Suribachi. His aim was to make the capture of Iwo Jima a grueling battle of attrition that would weaken the enemy and delay its advance toward the Japanese Home Islands.
IWO JIMA RECONSIDERED
Behind all the superlatives used to describe the Battle of Iwo Jima is a peculiarity that is rare, if not unique, in military history: It could be argued that in its bloody outcome, both adversaries achieved their objectives.
The Marines took the island. While the fighting was still raging, Dinah Might – a B-29 crippled on a bombing raid against the Japanese mainland – made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima’s Motoyama Airfield No. 1. It was the first of about 2,200 landings to come, that would save an estimated 24,000 airmen’s lives. The capture of Iwo Jima cleared the aerial approach to the Home Islands and paved the way to Okinawa, where soldiers and Marines would invade on April 1, 1945.
But Kuribayashi and his garrison made it as difficult and costly as possible for the Marines to rout the island’s last defenders from fortifications deep within the island’s volcanic rocks. The battle required what was then the largest force of Marines ever assembled. American military leaders estimated that the island could be taken in about a week; the battle lasted 36 days. Japanese resistance was expected to be tenacious; it was ferocious, and mostly subterranean. Within more than 15 miles of tunnels and caves, Japanese soldiers were blown up, suffocated, and burned by flamethrowers. More than a third of the 80,000 Marines who landed on Iwo Jima were killed or wounded. Only about 200 of the island’s Japanese defenders surrendered or were taken prisoner.
The shocking costs of Iwo Jima led some to second-guess whether the invasion was justified. The book The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, by Marine Lt. Col. Robert Burrell, a military historian, is a careful reevaluation of the stated reasons for the battle: to enable a strategic bombing campaign of the Home Islands, followed by an invasion that would result in Japan’s unconditional surrender. For a number of reasons, this purpose was never fulfilled. Interservice rivalries, Burrell argues, were as influential as strategic concerns in shaping the plan to invade Iwo Jima – and the Marines, whose commandant wouldn’t become a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until 1978, paid the heaviest price for the invasion.
With the benefit of hindsight, American strategists would have been aware of the two factors that scrambled their plan to invade mainland Japan: first, that the Japanese enemy, nearly to a man, would fight to the death rather than surrender. This happened on Iwo Jima and on Okinawa, where more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers with no hope of victory either died fighting or by suicide, and only 7,000 surrendered. Taking the Home Islands, then, might have meant having to kill more than 90 percent of Japanese combatants, with countless civilians as collateral damage.
Second, the United States successfully detonated its first atomic bomb at Alamogordo in July 1945.
Wars are planned by people without the gift of foresight, and the resulting strategies are shaded by unconscious inclinations and wishful thinking. To those who aren’t military leaders, charged with avoiding past mistakes, what matters today is this: In early 1945, both the Japanese and the Americans, for important reasons, considered Iwo Jima a crucial battleground, and they fought savagely for it, until there were no defenders left. To remember the battle is to acknowledge the courage and resolve of the men who fought there.
THE REUNION OF HONOR
In 1968 – 16 years after it had ended its occupation of the Home Islands – the United States returned the island of Iwo Jima and the other Volcano Islands to Japan. At the time, many of the American Marines who’d fought so fiercely for it were upset at the prospect of the Stars and Stripes, so famously raised over Mt. Suribachi in February 1945, being hauled down and replaced by the Japanese flag. For some who fought there, that resentment never faded.
It faded quickly for Lawrence Snowden, a Marine Corps company commander who was wounded on Iwo Jima and continued to serve through the Korean War, during which he spent a week in Kyoto working directly with his counterparts in Japan. He came to admire and respect their service, and his ideas about his World War II enemies began to change. “Those men didn’t want to be there any more than we did,” he said in a 2013 interview. “They were doing their duty. You don’t hate anybody for that.” As U.S.-Japan relations evolved into a key Asia-Pacific alliance, Iwo Jima’s significance began to evolve as well: It became a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
On Feb. 19, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the day U.S. forces began their assault on Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans gathered for a solemn memorial service near the spot where U.S. Marines landed. During the service, a granite plaque was unveiled. It stands today, its words engraved in English on the beach side; in Japanese on the landward side:
On the 40th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans met again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades, living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray together that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never be repeated.
Ten years later, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden was instrumental in making the Reunion of Honor an annual event, and in encouraging veterans and their families to make the pilgrimage to the island to honor the service and sacrifice of the men who fought on both sides. Every year, Snowden organized the joint ceremony on the island, which is open to the public only once a year, on this day. The 2015 PBS documentary From Combat to Comrades chronicled the return of the only Japanese survivor ever to return to Iwo Jima for the Reunion of Honor, Tsuruji Akikusa. The former radio operator was greeted warmly by his former enemies, including Snowden. It would be Snowden’s last trip to the island; he died at the age of 95 on Feb. 18, 2017 – the day before the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Jerry Yellin, an Army Air Forces pilot who flew P-51 escorts from Iwo Jima and returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression, attended his first Reunion of Honor in 2010. As a best-selling author, Yellin had chronicled his own improbable evolution, from a suicidal veteran with a mortal hatred of his Japanese enemy to a loving grandfather of three Japanese-American children. Yellin, who died several months after Snowden, was among the most emotional proponents of reconciliation. “We human beings, we must join together and love one another,” he said in From Combat to Comrades. “There’s just no other way for us to survive.”
The words of Reunion of Honor attendees make clear that Iwo Jima means something different today – something bigger and more important than the scrubby rock over which two nations fought to the death 75 years ago. It may be in part because of the island’s size, remoteness, and austerity that the enemies in the War in the Pacific, fighting viciously for control of those 8 square miles, could not help but acknowledge the courage and dedication of their adversaries. In a way that wouldn’t be possible in a place such as Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima, Iwo Jima – the only place in the world where former adversaries officially meet to honor each other’s dead – has become an improbable symbol of peace.