Battle of Iwo Jima - Facts You Should Know
Still Alive, Active, and Telling His Story
Over Memorial Day weekend a few years ago I talked to a Marine I know, an Iwo Jima veteran. (No, not a former Marine. Several Marines have strongly informed me there is no such thing as a former Marine.) That got me reading, and thinking, and talking to people, about the battle of Iwo Jima. Now I’m writing about it, not meaning to jump on the bandwagon of the books and movies by Tom Brokaw, Clint Eastwood, etc., but to suggest some resources for others who, like me, have woken up to our responsibility to find out from those few who are still alive what really happened, to appreciate the sacrifices of those living and dead, and to pass the history on as accurately as possible to the next generation.
I used to think of things that happened before my lifetime as "History" (with the capital H), and by "History" I meant "things that don't have anything to do with me, or with now." Then I realized there were people I knew who actually lived through these things, so I started asking them what these "Historical Events" were really like. Mostly I found that not only did I not know the answers, I didn’t even know the questions.
The more I learned about this Marine's story the more I saw there was to learn, and to tell my children. In the end, I wrote a book about his story. My family has known him for a long time, but he never used to talk about Iwo Jima, not wishing to remember a horrible time, and not wanting to be seen as boasting about something that was very serious. But these days he does a lot of talks on his experiences at Iwo Jima, as he’s discovered that the generation growing up now hasn’t heard much about World War II.
Update - The veteran mentioned here, Bill Hudson, passed away September 11, 2015; see this site for more about Hudson's life and a memorial video by his Marine grandnephew.
Sand of Iwo Jima
It seems to me you can’t talk about Iwo Jima without talking about its black sand, because that was the first unexpected obstacle for the Marines coming onto the beach. I have seen a vial of the sand (see picture), which is actually volcanic ash (that’s rock, not like fireplace ashes.) It really is black, and though I guess sand is the right name for it, it's pretty large-grained for sand, though too small-grained to call fine gravel. Walking through it has been compared to walking through coffee grounds or BB shot. I already knew one of the hardest conditions for running is uphill in dry sand, but it seems this sand was worse. Maybe the bigger grains just roll more than pack.
You might sink in up to the top of your shoes in regular dry sand; Iwo Jima veterans say they were somewhere between ankle-deep and knee-deep in that sand. Vehicles sank up to the hubcaps. Marines expect to get shot at, but they also expect to move forward when they take a forward step, and that wasn’t happening. They did slowly manage to advance, and if they hadn’t, the invasion might have failed. But when the Japanese opened fire on that traffic jam on the beach, it made the Marines’ first hours on the island their worst.
Sand and Mount Suribachi
A Battle That Just Kept Going on
The worst fighting was just to get off the beach, to get to where the enemy was even visible to shoot at. But it didn't stop after that. The impressive part of the battle of Iwo Jima was its length. Most famous battles of history were over in a day (the Battle of San Jacinto was 15 minutes); this one was a month long of non-stop combat, where even at night sleep only happened an hour at a time. Victory was declared to a public in need of good news long before the island was secured. Though airplanes started landing on the airstrip while the fighting was still going on, there were many casualties even on the last day.
Where the Japanese Were
Incredible Network of Tunnels
Then there were the tunnels that allowed the Japanese to shoot from cover, and attack the rear after the front lines had already passed. The ground on Iwo Jima, being volcanic, is hot enough the Marines were able to have “hot food” by burying a ration can in the ground for a while. I had wondered, therefore, how the Japanese could live in the tunnels at all. Turns out they had ventilation holes (many of which are filled in now), but even so, living in the tunnels and being short on water, no wonder they were coming out at night to take canteens off dead bodies, in spite of Marines shooting at anything that moved at night.
I also wondered, if the “sand” caved in so much the Marines on the beach couldn’t dig foxholes, how did the Japanese build tunnels in the stuff? It turns out the ash is just on top; lower layers are some sort of sandstone. But apparently not all that stable, as some of the tunnels have collapsed in the years since.
In a day when so many people see nothing worth dying for, it seems incredible how fiercely the Japanese fought and how they preferred death to surrender (Only a few surrendered, and even of these many were Korean prisoners forced to help the Japanese war effort.) They were fighting a losing battle and knew it, and a losing war, and probably by that time they even knew that.
Where is Iwo Jima Anyway?
Halfway between Tokyo and Saipan, Iwo Jima was good for emergency landings and bad for having Japanese there warning Tokyo of raids
Where American bombers took off from to get to Tokyo
They Didn't Die in Vain
But I don’t think the Japanese on the island died in vain. I think the nation of Japan today owes them its existence. It seems it was the fierceness of the fighting at Iwo Jima and Okinawa that convinced President Truman that the atomic bomb was necessary. Though many people died as a result of the bomb, the deaths were actually fewer than in other less famous bombing campaigns. The difference was the shock value - the realization that a single bomb could cause so much destruction. And even then, it took two bombs’ worth of shock before the Japanese surrendered.
As an example of the Japanese mindset at the time, Pearl Harbor lead pilot Mitsuo Fuchida was prepared to overthrow his own government for a cause he knew to be lost. He had understood the direction the war was going for years. But when he heard the government was planning to surrender, he thought they were betraying the emperor’s wishes and joined a conspiracy to overthrow them. Only after hearing from a trusted representative of the emperor did he quit the conspiracy and prepare to live instead of die.
Where the flag-raising picture was taken
"Saved My Life" - Veterans and the Bomb
The general consensus among Marine veterans of Iwo Jima seems to be that the atomic bomb saved their lives; the next step for survivors of Iwo Jima and Okinawa was to prepare to invade Japan itself. Other preparations were being made – there were so many Purple Hearts cast for expected casualties of the invasion of Japan itself that those WWII surplus medals are still being presented to wounded soldiers today. In other words, US casualties of the invasion were expected to be greater than all the actual casualties of every war in over 65 years since!
A Veteran Recommends: Books and Articles
This is a list of books about Iwo Jima and the Marine Corps which Bill Hudson compiled in 1999.
Bartley, Whitman S. Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic: Washington, D.C. Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps, 1957
Chapin, John C. The Fourth Marine Division in World War II. Washington: Headquarters USMC, 1945
Cushman, Robert E. Amphibious Assault Planning: Iwo Jima. Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal, December, 1948
Henri, Raymond. Iwo Jima: Springboard to Final Victory. New York: U.S. Camera Publishing Corporation, 1945
Lardner, John. D-Day; Iwo Jima. New York: The New Yorker, March 17, 1945
Newcomb, Richard F. Iwo Jima, New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, Inc. 1965
Proehl, Carl W. The Fourth Marine Division in World War II. Washington, Infantry Journal Press 1946
Russell, Michael. Iwo Jima, New York: Ballantine Books, 1974
Once I finished my own book about Bill Hudson's experiences, Hudson recommended it too:
Tallentire, Karen; Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos. Denver, Colorado. Outskirts Press, Inc. 2015