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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 vial of sand from the beach at Iwo Jima.  You can see that Mt. Suribachi is a bit greener now than during the battle.
A vial of sand from the beach at Iwo Jima. You can see that Mt. Suribachi is a bit greener now than during the battle.

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

Map of Japanese defense installations on Iwo Jima, 1945
Map of Japanese defense installations on Iwo Jima, 1945 | Source

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.

Indomitable Defense

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?

show route and directions
A markerIwo Jima -
Iwo-jima
get directions

Halfway between Tokyo and Saipan, Iwo Jima was good for emergency landings and bad for having Japanese there warning Tokyo of raids

B markerTokyo -
Tokyo, Japan
get directions

Tokyo

C markerSaipan Island -
Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands
get directions

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.

"Pork-Chop" Shape

A markerMt Suribachi -
Mt Suribachi
get directions

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

Comments 23 comments

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

Thought I would check out your hubs and here we have this. Very interesting. So glad to see it being shared this way.

Would like to link this hub to mine on Memorial Day, if you have no objection. Thanks!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

That's pretty much the sort of thing I wrote it for. I am so impressed with what I have learned about veterans of the "Greatest Generation". Besides everything else, they have mostly just kept their mouths shut about how spoiled we later generations must sound to them!


Will 4 years ago

Looking for photos from Iwo Jima about March 1965. There was a memorial commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of taking Mt. Surbachi with Marines, Japanese newspapers and the Drum & Bugle Corps from the Marine Barracks Guam.

Send any photos or references to: wcdsd45@att.net


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Hope you will find what you're looking for, Will. Besides the Marine Corps itself, some sources of photos or information related to Iwo Jima are the Marine Military Academy Museum in Texas (http://www.mma-tx.org/MMA/facilities/Museum.htm) and the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago (http://www.pritzkermilitarylibrary.org). I am taking a (longer than I'd planned) break from writing more Hubs right now to write a book for children about Iwo Jima.


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

My compliments, this is a most entertaining hub. Packed with information. A pleasure to read such an informed article. Well done!

Best Wishes.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, old albion. There is so much more interesting stuff that doesn't fit in one article, and I'm still in the middle of writing the book. Meanwhile another resource I've come across that I'd like to recommend is a book, "More Than 36 Days", by Carron Barrella; interviews with four very different Colorado veterans of Iwo Jima. I got to hear one of them speak for Veteran's Day.


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Thank you for the information, I shall look it up.

Best Wishes.


Will Dawson 4 years ago

In March of 1965 there was a ceremony making the securing of Iwo Jima in 1 March og 1945. The Marine Barracks, Guam Drum % & Bugle Corps was there to commemorate the event. I am looking for any photos or references to that event. The Drum Major was Sgt Vanshack and he retired and worked for the post office in Vista Calif. Another member was PFC "DOC" Williams from Compton, CA


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Sorry, Will, I don't have information about that, but I hope somebody reading this will be able to help. I'm still frantically working on my book, hoping to get it together by Memorial Day.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 4 years ago from United States

I am so glad you wrote this hub, as you have added to my knowledge concerning Iwo Jima. I love history and this is a very well written article. I saw the statue in Washington and we have a small replica in my home. Very interesting hub.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Pamela99, thank you. I am hoping to write some more articles about Iwo Jima this summer, on interesting things I learned that didn't fit into the book I've been writing. Iwo Jima turns out to be a very big subject, though I think it would still be completely unknown if airplanes had been invented a decade or two later!


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 4 years ago from United States

That is probably true as the 2 bombs that ended the war were essential to saving lives. I wonder if Japan would have ever surrendered otherwise. I'll look forward to reading some more this


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Pamela99, some people ask if the atomic bombs were actually necessary in getting Japan to surrender. The more I look at it, the more I wonder if even they by themselves would have been enough...but that's another whole article!


Robert Erich profile image

Robert Erich 4 years ago from California

Fantastic article about the history and geography of Iwo Jima! I have so much respect for the men who fought in that battle and the men and women who continue to fight. I appreciate you taking a minute to write something that reminds us to remember them. Well written!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, Robert Erich. There is much more to say, and my goal is to get some more about it written this summer - but it's just not happening in July!


TRACIE STILL 4 years ago

I have origional pictures from the battle of Iwo Jima. They are very graphic. How can i find out more about them or what i should do with them. They are from my husband's grandfather a US Seabee during the battle.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Tracie Still - well, whatever you do, don't throw them away! If they are graphic photos, sounds like they might be from someone having an unauthorized camera, and so they would be valuable as pictures from a point of view other than the official one.

You might contact the National Museum of the Marine Corps for better advice. Also the Pritzker Military Library has been helpful in preserving original history from Iwo Jima.


CZCZCZ profile image

CZCZCZ 4 years ago from Oregon

Very detailed hub and interesting to read.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

CZCZCZ, thank you. Actually, I am somewhat embarrassed by the state of my knowledge at the time I wrote this; I wrote a couple more articles about Iwo Jima after reading more about it. Still, those who were actually there have so many more experiences that will never fit in any book.


JPB0756 profile image

JPB0756 3 years ago

Excellent Hub. Yes, the position of saving lives was one reason for dropping the bombs, as the Japanese needed to live for their nation to remain as just that. The Soviet Union, which the Japanese had had conflicts with at the war's onset, deeply feared the Russians, with good reason: they kept all that they gained in victory(see ETOW). We wanted Japan( 52nd state, following Puerto Rico, lol), so that was no option. Truman had to walk in F.D.R.'s shadow, national righteousness demanded U.S. satisfaction....==bombs away; politics were the decisive factor. My Dad, R.I.P., served in both the European and Pacific Theatre, and accompanied MacArthur in the Occupation.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, JPB0756. I'm not sure what ETOW is, and I don't get any sense that this veteran I know ever wanted Japan as part of the US, or knew anyone who did. In recent years, he has become very good friends with the daughter of the Japanese officer who started building the defenses on Iwo Jima, but was relieved when Kuribayashi came, and went on to work on the (very serious) defenses against US invasion of the home islands.

I thank your father, and those like him, who made the US the country I grew up in.


Mimi 23 months ago

I think of kids today who are only concerned with the prenest.There is so much history of our military and all the details that are so important to teach kids in school today. I don't know of anything better than films that depict the second world war.I know how I loved history in High School. I imagined all sorts of things that went on, and the horror of injury and death. We fought two fronts of horrible people who really wanted our country for themselves. If either had won, we would be the slaves of that empire.Only about 10% of all classmates every year are qualified to know all about our country.There is little in our education system, and especially in California where I live to teach a trade. When I was in high school in Oklahoma, I took a wood class for three years.I made a cedar chest by hand . No power tools. It took me the whole year to do it, but it still exists today much as it was the day I finished it, and also the A I got in that class every year.My father who was in the 2nd world war was not the same man I knew when he came home from the war. He flew b-17 s over Germany. A terrible dangerous job. My mom warned me not to try to wake him while he was asleep. He had bad dreams for about a year after he came back, and he was one of the lucky ones that wasn't injured physically. However, mentally he suffered, with out treatment. Those days were in 1945 and on. We should all take the responsibility to help a veteran who comes back from any war., anytime. I hope that if you're reading this, you will take some time out to inquire about veterans in your area. Find out if you can help even in a small way at Veterans hospitals .Especially help veterans trying to find a job. Nothing helps better than that.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 3 days ago from American Southwest Author

I'm sorry I missed your comment when you made it, Mimi. Not that there's much to add to what you've said! It is perilously easy to forget what veterans have done for us before we were around, or even now, when it's on the other side of the world and it's easy to ignore.

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