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Iwo Jima February 1945: The Battle for Devil's Island

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

The Attack Begins on Sulphur Island

Just after 2 a.m. on February 19,1945, the American navy signaled the beginning of the invasion of Iwo Jima with a massive bombardment of Japanese positions on the island. Just after the naval guns opened up, 100 bombers attacked the island supported by aircraft from the six aircraft carriers that surrounded the tiny island. Although the bombing was extensive, it did little damage to the Japanese defenses, since most of the Japanese positions were underground and very well fortified. At 9 a.m. the first wave of the eventual 30,000 Marines to land on the beach that day arrived. The American troops consisted of the 3rd,4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, which were housed on the over 900 ships that surrounded the island. The attack, known as Operation Detachment, was aimed at capturing the two airfields on Iwo Jima. It would clear the way for bombing raids on the Japanese home islands by legions of B-29 strategic bombers which would turn its cities to wastelands severely damaging Japanese morale.

The initial wave to hit the beach was not hit by Japanese fire. Three more waves of Marines would hit the beach before the Japanese opened up on the Americans with extremely effective machine gun, mortar, artillery, and small arms fire. It was the plan of Japanese General Kuribayashi to hold fire until the beach was full of American Marines and equipment. He asked each one of his troops to kill at least ten Marines before they die in the battle for the island. Upon landing on the beach the Marines faced heavy fire for Mount Suribachi at the south end of the island. It was extremely difficult for the Marines to advance because of the inhospitable terrain, which consisted of a fine volcanic ash similar to sand. This ash allowed for neither a secure footing, or the construction of defensive foxholes to protect the Marines from hostile fire coming from the numerous Japanese strong points hidden all along the island.

Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who was given the task of defending Iwo Jima by June 1944, designed a defense that broke with Japanese military doctrine, he drew inspiration from the defense in the Battle of Peleliu. He had been sent to defend the island, to hold it as long as possible, and that meant until death. Rather than defend the beach, Kuribayashi ordered the creation of strong, mutual supporting positions in depth. The southern area around Mount Suribachi was organized as a semi-independent sector, while the main defensive line was built in the north of the island, which became known as the meat grinder to American Marines attempting to capture the island. The nearly constant American naval and air bombardment further prompted the creation of an extensive system of tunnels, bunkers and pillboxes that greatly favored the defender.

The entire island was only 4.5 miles long and 2 to 5 miles wide at its broadest, a barren piece of rock and ash, dubbed "Sulfur Island" by its defenders, due to the noxious fumes that escaped from the cracks in the heated rock throughout the island. The island was part of a long chain of islands reaching down from Japan. At the southern end of the island, the cone of Suribachi thrust nearly straight up to a height of 500 feet. The word suribachi was a common one in Japan, in this context meaning cone-shaped mountain. Iwo Jima was part of the empire, only 660 miles from Tokyo and an actual part of the Prefecture of Tokyo. The island was the first part of the empire to be threatened by the enemy.

The Japanese first line of defense just off the beach was lined with no fewer than fifty pillboxes, along with two blockhouses, and a multitude of tank traps and infantry trenches. Just ninety-three minutes after arriving on Iwo Jima, the hero of Guadalcanal, John Basilone, and his small group Marines found itself on the runway of Airfield No. 1, about 500 yards in from the landing beach and less than halfway across the narrow neck of the island. Coming under heavy fire on the open runway Basilone's small group of Marines fell back for cover. Soon after a Japanese mortar shell exploded at Basilone's feet, sending him flying through the air like a rag doll. He died almost instantly. Iwo Jima had claimed perhaps the most well known Marine and Medal of Honor winner of the Pacific War up to that point. By the time the battle for Iwo Jima was over it would become the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. Almost every Marine who stepped foot on the island would was either wounded or died before the Japanese defenses were silenced. It was the only battle of the Pacific War where the Marines suffered more casualties than the Japanese.

The Meat Grinder: Hill 382

The highest point on Iwo Jima would become the anchor for the main defensive line for Japanese troops defending the island, it would be given the name "The Meat Grinder" by the American Marines who finally captured the position. It was given the unassuming name of Hill 382, a former radar station on the northern end of the island which had been reconstructed into emplacements to house field pieces and reinforced by tanks which were buried or hidden between the massive boulders that dotted the island. Numerous machine gun revetments protected the concrete reinforced positions. With its honeycomb of tunnels, this hill permitted the defenders the opportunity to fire on the enemy from almost any angle. Light and medium tanks positioned back in the side of the hill gave the Japanese a field of fire covering the entire length of the east west runway of airfield number two. The defensive system was largely hidden from view and blended into the barren, rock landscape. A morass of stone studded with enemy-infested caves made up the terrain surrounding Hill 382.

To the south and east of Hill 382, the elevation dropped into a series of rugged ridges. Six hundred yards south of the hill, a bizarre rock known as the the "Turkey Knob" dominated the area. Thick reinforced-concrete walls protected a large communications center located near this enemy position. From the Turkey Knob the enemy had an unobstructed view of the entire southern end of the island. From its high point , the terrain fell away sharply to form a large bowl-like area known as the "Amphitheater." The entire area bristled with heavy concrete emplacements that housed machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and mortars.

Despite the loss of Mount Suribachi, the Japanese still held a strong position. Kuribayashi still had the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, two artillery and three heavy mortar battalions, plus the 5,000 gunners and naval infantry. The struggle to take the Motoyama Plateau (Hill 382), including "Turkey Knob," took nearly three weeks. The Japanese actually had the Marines outgunned in the fight for Hill 382, and the extensive tunnels which extended up to 11 miles throughout the area allowed the Japanese the opportunity to reappear in areas thought to be under American control.

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The fighting was extremely brutal and costly on both sides. Japanese troops would occasionally spring out of tunnels and ambush the Marines. However, the situation heavily favored an American victory despite the Japanese advantage of superior firepower. The Japanese on the island were cut off from re-supply and their Navy was basically nonexistent after the battle for the Marianas. The Marines learned quickly that firearms were relatively ineffective against the built up Japanese positions with reinforced concrete. They effectively used flamethrowers and grenades to blast or burn Japanese troops out of the tunnels. One of the technological innovations of the battle were the eight Sherman M4A3R3 medium tanks equipped with the Navy Mark I flamethrower , which would prove very useful at destroying the reinforced Japanese positions. Close air support would also provide the needed punch to silence especially difficult defensive positions. Navajo code talkers were part of the American ground communications, they used walkie-talkies and SCR-610 backpack radio sets to help locate Japanese positions for the close air support on the battlefield.

Japanese troops became desperate towards the end of the battle. Kuribayashi, who was initially against banzai attacks began to realize that Japanese defeat was imminent. He ordered silent nighttime attacks on Marine positions. These were repelled by a combination of machine gun and artillery support. In some cases, there was extensive hand-to-hand fighting before the Japanese were repelled. On the night of March 25,1945, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final counterattack in the area surrounding Airfield Number Two. Army pilots, Seabees and Marines of the 5th Pioneer Battalion and the 28th Marines battled the Japanese until dawn suffering heavy casualties. The island was officially declared secure the following day. Of the over 21,000 Japanese on the island, 20,703 died and 216 were captured during the battle. The American forces suffered 27,909 casualties, with 6,825 killed in action. American casualties were larger than the total Allied casualties on D-Day June 6,1944. Because all the civilians had been evacuated from Iwo Jima, this factor added to the level of violence during the battle since there was no concern of taking innocent lives.

The Cult of Death on Iwo Jima

Even though the most basic attitudes towards life and death were not fundamentally different among the Japanese and Americans on the island. The battle for Iwo Jima didn't compare to the "clean war" in in North Africa's Western Desert between the Germans and the Allies, a struggle which Rommel called "war without hate." The opposite existed in the jungle ware in the Pacific where a deep hatred existed between the foes. Many Japanese died on Iwo Jima because they had little choice in the matter, due not only to the pressure to do their duty, but also to the disinterest of the Americans in taking prisoners. Even as Americans questioned the Japanese who fought to the last man, treating them virtually as another species of being, as they mowed them down with machine guns and flamethrowers, they cherished their own epics of defeat such as the Alamo and the Little Bighorn. The fact is atrocities follow war as the Jackal follows its wounded prey. The truth is we live in a world of appalling violence and cruelty.

Both sides of the conflict in the Pacific War were exposed to a racist indoctrination. The narrative voice of Capra's, "Why We Fight" series illustrates the war against the Japanese as a battle between "civilization against barbarism." The Japanese soldier was exposed to the claims of cultural and racial superiority from the Western World, which justified imperialism, where citizens of the occupied countries were treated as slaves. The antebellum south in the United States was given as an example on how they treated those who they felt racially inferior. The cult of death in the battle for Iwo Jima was further amplified by Americans stepping foot on the Japanese homeland for the first time. The hatred was born from hard lessons learned from first hand experience on the battlefield, such as Bataan Death March in April 1942, and fueled by rumor. The Japanese commander on the island, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, asked each one of his troops to take ten American lives before they were killed in battle.

After the battle for Iwo Jima the Americans would unleash the B-29s on Japan's homeland, hoping they could bomb Japan into submission. The next battle would leave another even bloodier fingerprint, further reinforcing the need to find an alternative to the land invasion of the Japan . Few knew of America's new secret weapon that was soon to be tested at White Sands New Mexico. It would raise warfare onto a whole new level of violence yet unknown to the human race changing the face of war forever.

Sources

Hallas James H., Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima , Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc., 4501 Forbes Boulevard Suite 200, Lanham Maryland 20706 United States of America. 2016

Hart. B.H. Liddell., History Of The Second World War , G.P. Putnam's Sons. Penguin Books 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 USA. 1970

Newcomb Richard F. Iwo Jima: The Dramatic Account of the Epic Battle that Turned the Tide of World War II. Henry Holt and Company New York, 115 West 18th Street , New York, New York 1001. 1965

© 2021 Mark Caruthers

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