From Leatherneck: Iwo Jima: "Hell With The Fire Out"

By Col Joseph H Alexander, USMC(Ret) - originally published February 1995

Seventy-two thousand U.S. Marines assaulted heavily fortified Iwo Jima in February 1945 as the spearhead of a veteran amphibious force at the peak of its lethality. In 36 days of fighting against a disciplined enemy, the Marines achieved total victory, attained all strategic objectives, destroyed a reinforced Japanese division and contributed significantly to the nation's military heritage.

Iwo Jima was the largest Marine amphibious operation during World War II. It was also the costliest. The landing force sustained more than 26,000 casualties (including 2,600 battle fatigue cases), the equivalent of losing a division and a half of Marines. More than 6,000 died. So did 21,000 or more Japanese troops.

The casualty rate at Iwo Jima amounted to 35 percent of the Marines employed-nearly 10 percent in some rifle companies. Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Cushman, the commanding officer of 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, and a future Commandant, said, "Iwo was really a battalion commander's battle.... Hell, it was a fire-team, you know private's war, because they had to just dig these characters out of their stinking sulfuric caves." Cushman was lucky; he was one of only seven of the original 24 battalion commanders still in command at the battle's end.

Iwo Jima was indeed a battle where junior Marines stepped forward to assume leadership positions unimaginable in garrison: captains commanding battalions, sergeants commanding companies, privates first class leading platoons. Captain James C. Headley took command of 1/25 on D+3 when LtCol Justice M. Chambers went down, and led the battalion through the heart of eastern Iwo's "Meat-Grinder" for the next three weeks. Sergeant Hubert J. Faltyn, a former Raider, became the sixth commanding officer of Dog Company, 2/26 in the fourth week of the fighting. Private First Class Dale O. Cassell Jr. took command of the 2d Platoon, Baker/1/28 on March 11 and led it effectively until he was killed in action three days later. Such was the price of leadership on "Sulfur Island."

Iwo Jima represented a brief, violent wedge in the overall strategic scheme of the war against Japan in early 1945. The battle was compressed between MacArthur's reconquest of Luzon in the Philippines and the imminent invasion of Okinawa. Seizing Iwo Jima served two practical purposes. By forcibly replacing Japanese air facilities on Iwo Jima with an advanced U.S. base, the Marines provided a tremendous boost to the strategic bombing campaign against mainland Japan. Long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers based in the Mariana Islands would henceforth have a straight shot at Tokyo and an emergency landing field on the way home. The second objective was simply to facilitate the eventual invasion of Japan. The U.S. Fifth Fleet accomplished this by maintaining unremitting pressure on the Japanese, the same "whip-saw" technique that began when the Central Pacific drive kicked-off in the Gilberts.

Marine Major General Harry Schmidt commanded the Fifth Amphibious Corps, the landing force for the 5th Fleet. The corps consisted of three Marine divisions, each commanded by a decorated veteran of the First World War: MajGen Graves B. Erskine (3dMarDiv), MajGen Clifton B. Cates (4thMarDiv) and MajGen Keller E. Rockey (5thMarDiv). Much of the fighting ashore would remind these commanders of the worst of WW I: dense troop formations, "rolling" artillery barrages and heavy casualties suffered in frontal assaults against fortified positions.

The three divisions contained a rich blend of American fighting men. About half were veterans of earlier battles in the Pacific, notably Saipan, Guam or Bougainville. Most company commanders in the newly established 5thMarDiv were former Raiders or Parachute Marines with experience fighting in the jungles of the Solomons. The newcomers represented a mixture of regulars and reserves, volunteers and draftees.

Two Marines had previously received the Medal of Honor for extreme bravery during Guadalcanal and by all rights did not have to be back with "amphibious storm troops." Gunnery Sergeant "Manila John" Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal, turned down an officer's commission and walked away from the soft life on the war bond fund-raising circuit to return to his beloved machine guns. LtCol Robert E. Galer, one of the first fighter aces in the war, wanted command of another squadron, but Headquarters refused, not wanting to risk the loss of such a legendary aviator in subsequent aerial combat. Galer went along as the OIC of a new air control radar unit.

The Marines expected a tough fight on Iwo Jima. After all, this would be the first assault landing against bonafide Japanese territory. The invasion force would be vulnerable to immediate counterattacks. Tokyo was only 650 miles to the north, barely three flight hours away. The distance was comparable to the point from which Admiral "Bull" Halsey had launched the desperate Doolittle bombing raid three years before.

The island itself was a defender's dream: few beaches; broken, convoluted ground; a lunar landscape of cliffs, crags, and caves. The Japanese seemed to have spared no expense in fortifying the place, using the best mining engineers in the empire. Everything was underground, linked by miles of tunnels. There were plenty of big guns, heavy mortars and enormous rockets. No one knew much about the island commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Shortly, the Marines would describe him as "the most redoubtable commander we faced in the entire war."

The Marines were keenly interested in the extent of bombardment which would precede their assault. In this, they were both pleased and disappointed. On one hand, Iwo received the most extensive preliminary pounding of any island in the Pacific War. Army Air Forces B-24 bombers raided the island every day for 10 straight weeks. Navy ships and carrier aircraft took over the last three days prior to the landing. The island, less than a tenth the size of Saipan, received 1 1/2 times as much bombardment. Navy and Marine spotters circled overhead at considerable risk to help direct fire on more than 700 identified targets.

The Japanese inadvertently assisted this effort on D-2 by opening up on the U.S. flotilla approaching the beaches to deliver the "frogmen" swimmers. This revealed the location of most of the big guns overlooking the landing beaches. The old battleships, many resurrected from the ruins of Pearl Harbor and fresh from supporting the great Allied landings at Normandy, moved in daringly close to destroy these gun positions. This superb shooting saved hundreds of lives on D-Day.

On the other hand, Kuribayashi's elaborately camouflaged gun positions in the central highlands remained untouched. These would be waiting for the Marines to enter their preregistered killing zones.

Gen Schmidt planned to assault Iwo Jima with two divisions abreast, the 5th on the left, the 4th on the right. Facing the 3,000-yard beach, the first waves would include, left to right, the 28th, 27th, 23d and 25th Marines. The 28th Marines had the mission of cutting the island in two and investing 556-foot Mount Suribachi. The 25th Marines would seize the near-vertical inshore cliffs known as The Rock Quarry. The 27th and 23d Marines would hinge on the 25th, swinging around to the north to seize the first airfield. The 26th and 24th Marines would land in trace as reserves for their respective divisions. The Third Marine Division (less the 3d Marines) would remain in corps reserve.

The amphibious assault on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 was a wonder to behold. The huge naval task force executed the complex choreography of the ship-to-shore movement like clockwork. Guadalcanal veterans Basilone and Galer could only shake their heads. The task force was 10 times larger than the improvised convoy that sailed from Australia for the Solomon Islands 30 months earlier. Under a crescendo of well-orchestrated naval and aerial bombardments, the leading LVTs hit the black sand beaches of Iwo's southeastern shore at H-Hour, and the troops swarmed ashore.

A Japanese naval officer observing the spectacle from a cave on Suribachi compared the landing to a vast tidal wave. Within 20 minutes there were 8,000 assault troops ashore. Within 90 minutes the 28th Marines had cut the island in two. By nightfall there would be 30,000 Marines on Iwo Jima, the better part of both divisions, including most of their supporting artillery regiments.

But D-Day was neither a showpiece nor a cakewalk after H-Hour. The unusually soft sand slowed the troops and bogged down the vehicles. The surf picked up, wrecking many small craft, creating great congestion along the beaches. Extensive minefields took a toll on Marine Sherman tanks struggling over the first parallel terraces. Kuribayashi, observing these developments, waited until the lower beaches and plateaus were literally clogged with troops and vehicles, then gave his gunners "commence fire."

The ensuing barrage became a nightmare for the Marines, one of the most violent, sustained shellings they experienced in the entire war. The Japanese gunners literally could not miss. Even their notoriously inaccurate "flying ashcans," the 320-mm. spigot mortars and 200-mm. naval rockets, found targets in the clusters of Marines frantically trying to dig shelter in the loose sand.

Mortar fire killed Manila John Basilone and half his machine-gun platoon before they cleared the first terrace. LtCol Bob Galer almost suffered the same fate. The ships and aircraft responded immediately, opening a furious fire. The whole island trembled and smoked. "Hell with the fire out, but still smoking," observed an artillery officer.

By nightfall the beaches and lowlands resembled anyone's worst images of hell. As veteran Marine combat correspondent Peter Zurlinden described it: "At Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian, I saw Marines killed and wounded in a shocking manner, but I saw nothing like the ghastliness that hung over the Iwo beachhead. Nothing any of us had ever known could compare with the utter anguish, frustration and constant inner battle to maintain some semblance of sanity." The price for the beachhead: 2,400 Marine casualties the first day alone, comparable to American losses at Omaha Beach on Normandy's D-Day the previous June.

Yet Gen Schmidt now had more troops ashore than Kuribayashi; the Marines maintained unit integrity, and they were supported by their own artillery and by outstanding fire support from ships and gunboats close offshore. Japanese units in and around Suribachi were now isolated from their main forces in the north. The Marines were on Iwo to stay.

The first phase of the battle involved the ...iiizure of Suribachi and the lower airfield and immediate high ground to the north. This took about four days, capped by the dramatic flag raisings on the volcano's rim. But the battle had barely begun. Dead ahead lay Kuribayashi's main defensive positions and the island's increasingly broken terrain, all uphill from the beaches. The place was too small for major flank attacks; cliffs along the northern shoreline prohibited end-run amphibious landings. From this point the battle would be frontal assault. Schmidt, having landed the 21st Marines on D+2, brought in the 9th Marines and Gen Erskine's 3dMarDiv headquarters. The attack north would feature three divisions abreast, the 5th on the left, the 4th on the right, the 3d in the center.

"Here everything is beach," complained one sergeant, "and you never get off it." The force beachhead indeed ran from the landing points all the way north, an unremitting assault. Kuribayashi had urged each of his men to kill 10 Marines. The defenders never came close to this goal, but the final ratio was bad enough: 1.25 Marine casualties for every Japanese slain, the only time in the Pacific War where the landing force suffered higher casualties than the defending garrison.

Kuribayashi attained this distinction by exerting iron discipline on most of his troops. There were very few sacrificial banzai attacks. In fact, most Marines seldom saw a live Japanese in the daytime; most remained out of sight in their camouflaged fighting holes in Iwo's soft rock. At night the Marines went to ground while teams of Kuribayashi's "prowling wolves" probed the perimeters.

The days began to run together. An awesome combination of prep fires preceded each morning's assault. Then would come the word to advance. For the first few yards it might seem that this day would be different, that all those bombs and shells and rockets delivered on the rocky ridge just ahead had in fact buried the last Japanese soldier alive. Reality always came quickly with the first disciplined bursts of Nambu machine-gun fire, the first whickering sounds of incoming mortar shells. The Marines would drop to their bellies, inching forward behind tanks and halftracks, wrestling all day to overcome a few dozen emplacements with flame and satchel charges and cold steel.

Sometimes the Marines would succeed in capturing a long-sought hill, but then there was always hell to pay. The Japanese were good at reverse slope defenses. Invariably a large counterattack would come boiling out of nowhere-a small hole in the rocks-and the fighting would be desperate, handto-hand. Once the Marines of 3/21 seized a vital knob only to discover that most of their weapons had been fouled by the wet volcanic dust kicked up by all the explosives. The Japanese counterattack came immediately; the Marines resorted to bayonets, E-tools, picks and K-Bar knives to drive them off.

Marine aviation played a significant role in the battle. For the first three days the landing force enjoyed the rarest of combined-arms possibilities: Marine fighters flying close support for Marine ground forces. These came from eight Marine fighter squadrons flying F4U Corsairs off fleet carriers. Unfortunately, the squadrons belonged to Task Force 58, not the Expeditionary Force, and they departed in pursuit of more strategic targets after the third day. Earlier, VMB-612, a medium bomber squadron based in Saipan, helped isolate Iwo Jima by nightly rocket attacks against Japanese inter-island shipping traffic. During the battle Marine transport crews from Marine Transport Squadrons (VMRs) 932, 253 and 353 delivered critically needed supplies to Iwo from the Marianas. On March 18 VMTB-242, a torpedo bomber squadron, arrived on the island to relieve the escort carriers of antisubmarine patrol responsibilities.

Clearly, the most valuable air support came from the unlikeliest source, the fragile Piper Cub "Grasshoppers" flown by intrepid pilots and artillery spotters of observation squadrons VMO-2, -4 and -5. The Grasshoppers were among the first planes to land on Iwo Jima's still-contested airstrips. The crews somehow managed to launch more than 1,000 missions in direct support of the landing force. The troops loved their Grasshoppers. "The Japs are less likely to open up with their big guns when those boys are overhead," said one infantryman.

Iwo Jima marked the largest deployment of USMC armor in the war, some 150 Sherman medium tanks. Eight of these were M-4A3 versions further modified with the Navy Mark I turretmounted flame-thrower system, clearly the weapon of choice throughout Iwo's northern "badlands." Marine tanks led the way in forcing passage across Motoyama Airfield #2 against galling fire from Japanese 47-mm. and 57-mm. AT guns, a spectacular, high-explosive firefight. Other combat vehicles of particular value to the landing force included LVT(A)-4 armored amphibians, M-3 75-mm. half-tracks and the highly mobile 4x4 rocket trucks, whose "Buck Rogers Men" could launch a screeching barrage of three dozen 4.5-inch rockets in a matter of seconds.

Casualty handling at Iwo Jima was easily the best of the war to date. A wounded man stood a good chance of survival if he could endure those first few minutes until his company corpsman could reach him, bind him up, give him a shot of morphine and dispatch him to the rear with some sure-footed litter bearers. The battalion aid station would be backed up by a series of field hospitals further in the rear, hospital ships offshore and daily aerial evacuation flights to Guam. But the nature of the fighting on Iwo Jima worked counter to these amenities. The ratio of men dying of wounds was abnormally high. This reflected the preponderance of casualties caused by high explosivesmines, artillery and mortar shells, the giant rockets-whose triple lethality of shrapnel, blast effect and burns took a heavy toll in the first three weeks.

Gunshot wounds were also numerous, especially on D-Day, then again during the final close-range fighting in the north. The myth that the typical Japanese soldier was too nearsighted to be a good shot finally came to rest at Iwo Jima. Capt Thomas M. Fields, acting executive officer of 2/26, reported, "Marine after Marine got shot right through the head." Recalled Staff Sergeant Alfred I. Thomas, commanding a half-track platoon in Weapons Co, 25th Marines, "They were excellent riflemen. We suffered an amazing number of head and heart shots. Of course, it was damned near point-blank range."

Enemy fire killed or wounded 850 Navy corpsmen and surgeons during the battle, twice the totals of Saipan. Four corpsmen earned the Medal of Honor. So did 22 Marines. Exactly half these awards were posthumous. (A naval line officer also won the medal for his actions afloat on D-1.) Five members of the Fifth Marine Division qualified for the award on the same day, March 3, when the division lost 500 men taking Nishi Ridge and Hill 362-B. By that date, two weeks after the landing, the landing force had sustained 13,000 casualties.

The next day the first crippled B-29 made an emergency landing on Iwo's bomber strip, now "under new management." This provided a welcome morale boost. Thirty-five more shot-up B-29s would make successful landings on the island while the battle still raged. "It felt good to see them land," said Sgt James "Doc" Lindsey, a squad leader in 2/25. "You knew where they'd been."

The end of the battle was both uneven and unsettling. The 4thMarDiv eliminated the Japanese in its sector at great cost by March 14. The survivors began backloading the next week. The 3dMarDiv seized northernmost Kitano Point two days later. But the 5thMarDiv inherited Kuribayashi's final command post and hard-core survivors, holed-up in a place called The Bloody Gorge. Fighting here was at such close quarters that supporting arms could not be used, just a few flame tanks and makeshift pole charges.

By this time the division had lost most of its veteran noncommissioned officers. The battle was now being led by "new vets," replacements who had survived the first deadly period of disorientation and learned enough combat tricks to stay alive and keep functioning. The division commander further reinforced decimated infantry units with provisional rifle platoons of cannoneers, amtrackers, pioneers, truck drivers and Shore Party crews. Slowly, inexorably, these patchwork Marines snuffed out the final Japanese strong points, one by one.

The unsettling ending came when Kuribuyashi seized the initiative one final time, going out in a blaze of glory. Accounts vary, but he either led or at least directed a masterful infiltration through the encircling Marine lines by nearly 300 of the hardiest of his survivors. The Japanese force moved silently south several miles, unmolested in the darkness, and took up attack positions along the second airfield. There in the rear, things had become dangerously routine. The work was difficult, but troops had hot chow, warm showers, movies and tents.

Kuribayashi's force fell upon the tents containing the sleeping pilots of the newly arrived 7th Fighter Command in the pre-dawn of March 26. The slaughter was terrific. Within minutes 130 pilots were killed or wounded. In the uproar, a few Marines, Soldiers, Seabees and surviving pilots formed a skirmish line and counterattacked. The desperate fighting continued until daylight. Kuribayashi, never identified among the bodies, was nevertheless dead. So were all his "prowling wolves." The battle was over.

"All I wanted to get out of Iwo Jima," said Corporal Edward Hartman of 2/24, "were my dog tags and my fanny." Most Marines could not get off the reeking, nightmarish island fast enough. The 9th Marines stayed on for a while until the Army's 145th Infantry could assume full security duty. The airfields quickly began paying dividends in the air war against Japan. P-51 Mustangs took off from Iwo to escort the B-29s and conduct strikes of their own. A total of 2,251 Superforts made emergency landings on Iwo Jima before the war's end, a potential savings of 24,000 crew lives. Iwo's best benediction came from one of those airmen: "Whenever I land on the island I thank God for the men who fought for it."

That was the strategic reality of the battle. Despite Iwo's forbidding terrain, Kuribayashi's enlightened defensive tactics and the resulting high casualties among the assault forces, the Fifth Amphibious Corps prevailed totally. Japanese political and military leaders in Tokyo began to wonder whether anything could stop the American juggernaut fast approaching the previously unassailable shores of the homeland. The loss of fortified Iwo Jima in five short weeks severely shocked the Japanese people.

For the Americans, Iwo Jima was a triumph of both joint-service planning and determined execution by small groups of Marines. Fleet Adm Chester Nimitz said that "uncommon valor was a common virtue," words now chiseled along the base of the giant bronze statue in Arlington Cemetery. Iwo Jima was also LtGen Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith's final battle. He knew where to place the credit, saying before he left the beach for the last time: "I tell you, you could look back through history as far as you'd like and nowhere, not even in the armies of Napoleon at his best, could you find troops any better than these Marines right here."


Japanese Weapons at Iwo Jima

American amphibious forces faced Japanese weapons of increasing caliber, range and lethality as the Pacific War progressed. At Tarawa, the most effective weapons used by the Japanese against the Marines were 13-mm. heavy machine guns and 50-mm. grenade throwers, the so-called "knee mortars." Fifteen months later, Iwo Jima bristled with 268 guns and mortars of 75-mm. and larger, plus an abundance of smaller, equally deadly weapons. Japanese artillery, mortar and antitank units proved to be among the most effective the Marines would face in the war. Three different weapons systems used by the Japanese at Iwo will be long-remembered by the surviving Marines: me enormous 320-mm. apigot mortars, the dual-purpose heavy machine guns and the array of antitank and antipersonnel mines.

The Japanese commander considered the giant spigot mortars an extravagance. The launchers were good for only five or six shots, aiming was haphazard at best, and the 675-pound projectiles were often more a hazard to the handling crews than to the enemy. But no Americans on Iwo Jima will ever forget the sight of those huge shells-"bigger'n a damned 55-gallon oil drum"-tumbling end over end through the air, seemingly heading straight for the observer. Most of the shells missed their target, in fact missed the entire island and exploded harmlessly in the ocean. But when they did impact on land the blast was terrific, each explosion producing dozens of casualties. The Marines soon devised nicknames for the weapons, including "Old Boxcar," "Screaming Jesus," "Bubbly-Wubblies," "Goosie Gertie" and others still unprintable these many years.

The Japanese had learned from Tarawa that their 13-mm. dual-purpose (anti-air, antipersonnel) heavy machine guns were unsuitable against attack aircraft. At Iwo Jima these had been replaced by 20-mm. and 25-mm. DP guns, technically automatic cannons. The Japanese had 200 of these, many in dual and triple mounts. Trained gun crews used these to shoot down a number of American aircraft, but they were deadliest against the mass of troops trying to cross the runways of Iwo's three airstrips. Like the spigot mortars, these weapons did not last long in the battle. Their AA role meant having to forego a hardened cover. Once American prep fires had blown away their camouflage, the gunners became vulnerable to every weapon in the landing force.

Japanese mine warfare in the Central Pacific came of age at Iwo Jima. The Iwo garrison knew they would face numerous American tanks and planted hundreds of AT mines along the beach exits and the approaches to the airfields. Using considerable ingenuity in this endeavor, the defenders augmented their stocks of AT mines with 500-pound bombs, depth charges and naval torpedo heads buried vertically beneath pressure detonators. These took a toll of Marine Corps Sherman tanks. Those LVTs unfortunate to venture into these fields were blown completely upside down. In addition, the Japanese made wide use of antipersonnel mines for the first time in the theater. Some of these came with a ceramic casing to foil American magnetic mine detectors. The Japanese continued widespread use of booby traps as well, having learned the propensity of all U.S. Marines to collect battlefield souvenirs. Many binoculars, helmets and swords blew up in the hands of unsuspecting advancing troops.

-J. H. Alexander