Battle of Iwo Jima approaches 70
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- The year was 1945 and war was waging in the Pacific.
More than 20,000 Japanese soldiers inhabited a small volcanic island about 750 miles south of mainland Japan, known as Iwo Jima. Its strategic location and two airfields was an invaluable asset needed by the Allied forces to help end World War II.
Under American control, Iwo Jima's airfields would be used as an emergency landing base for a B-29 Superfortress, the United States' premier bomber that ultimately ended the war by delivering the atomic bomb.
Japanese Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the island's commanding officer, understood the importance of the island and was determined to make the Americans pay a high price for it, said Stephen Ove, 18th Wing historian. Kuribayashi studied the reports of previous U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assaults, allowing him to inflict massive damage toward attackers.
The island was previously used as a sulfur mine. Kuribayashi's troops expanded the existing mining tunnels to become an underground network that developed into more than seven miles of interconnected passageways.
"When a Japanese defender can no longer hold one portion of the island, he can always just boogey on back to another cave on another part of the island to help other Japanese sailors and soldiers," said U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Johnson, 18th Operations Group commander and tour guide for professional military education tours to Iwo To.
On Feb. 19, 1945, the largest amphibious assault in U.S. Marine Corps history began on the southern coast of Iwo Jima. Three days prior to the attack, naval ships had launched continuous barrage on the island while the Japanese soldiers sought shelter in their caves.
There were very little signs of resistance from the concealed Japanese troops, who did not even have a front line defense in place.
The first wave of Marines safely landed on Iwo Jima's volcanic coastline. They were left with the impression that their enemy was largely eliminated from the three-day naval attack. With 450 American ships at bay and both sides at a ceasefire, this may have been one of the only quiet moments experienced in a battle that would last 36 days, said Ove.
As thousands of Marines clustered together along the black-sanded shoreline, Kuribayashi's men hid throughout 1,500 cleverly hidden pill boxes and cave exits, armed with machine guns, snipers and artillery aimed at the masses.
About an hour after the Marines landed, their patrols discovered a line of defensive bunkers and the first shots were fired, followed by a storm of bombardment toward the crowds of Marines. Heavy artillery was fired from defensive positions along Mount Suribachi, about two miles to the south.
"They wanted to inflict as much casualties as they possibly can so the Americans would probably think twice or three times about actually invading the home islands," said Johnson. "And they were extremely effective at doing that."
The island's unusual terrain caused further difficulties for the Marines. Its fine-grained volcanic ash made it difficult for them to secure their footing and was almost impossible to build a foxhole out of.
"As the battle rages, you've got three Marine divisions, which at the time was unprecedented for one invasion," said Johnson, "with the 5th Marine Division taking the west, the third taking the center and the fourth on the far right."
The U.S. attackers fell very short of their day one objective - to take control of half the island said Johnson. The casualty count had already exceeded 2,000, still, the Marines had their opponents outnumbered and outgunned. Many platoons had a flamethrower operator assigned; an effective means to clear out pill boxes and caves but a highly visible target.
Four days into the battle, the American flag was raised on top Mount Suribachi, a viewpoint that overlooks the entire island. When the initial flag was replaced for safekeeping, the iconic photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," was snapped by Joe Rosenthal.
Fighting went on for about a month longer. Karibiyashi's conservative tactics such as not defending the coastline, falling back and attacking through the tunnel network, and refusal to execute bonsai charges was an effective strategy at deterring attackers, but eventually his numbers and supplies would run out.
"The Japanese General in charge, Karibiyashi and all his men never thought that they would leave that island," said Johnson. "They knew it was going to be their grave."
Japanese troops had very little food and water to begin with. Thousands took refuge in the endless network over tunnels; some individuals would remain hidden in the caves for years after the war ended.
In the end, more than 6,800 Americans were killed and approximately 18,000 others suffered casualties. The Capture of Iwo Jima came at a grave cost, but was a key stepping stone toward ending the war, achieved on Sept., 2, 1945.
Following the capture of Iwo Jima, a total of 2,251 B-29 emergency landings on the island were recorded during the war, saving the lives of thousands of aircrew returning from mainland Japan.
It's been nearly 70 years since the battle took place on the island, now named Iwo To. Much of the island is now a memorial site, occasionally visited by service members for professional military education tours.
"The Japanese Marine Self Defense Force graciously allows U.S. military members to visit their island," said Ove. "By visiting we enhance our awareness of the battle. You can't help but feel solemn, deep respect in the presence of such heroism as was displayed on Iwo Jima."