February 2015

World War II: 70 Years Ago: 10 Days on Iwo Jima

Volume 98, Issue 2
Wrecked amtracs and other vehicles litter the black-sand beach of Iwo Jima.
PhoM3c Robert M. Warren, USN, courtesy of the Marine Corps History Division

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 1945 issue of  Leatherneck. In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of one of the Corps’ most historic battles, we are publishing/reprinting this firsthand account, written within weeks of Capt Stott’s landing on Iwo Jima’s black-sand beaches.)

Save for Mount Suribachi at the southern tip, Iwo was an unimpressive-looking island. It had no height comparable to Mount Tapotchau. We could see no terrain that looked as rugged as Saipan’s or which possessed such defensive possibilities. So it seemed almost impossible to prevent optimism in the pre-invasion speculation.

This was the fourth invasion in 13 months for the Fourth Marine Division, and the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines was in division reserve again—fortunately. At Roi-Namur on Kwajalein we’d feared a late arrival, but landed in time to catch our share of the fighting. At Saipan we drew reserve again, and by nightfall of that D-day, heavy artillery fire was dropping on our too shallow holes. Here on Iwo we waited out aboard ship as the assault waves successfully hit the beach and began working inland.

The signal bridge of our transport was jammed with Marine and naval officers. Someone had set up a map and was penciling in the moving lines. We listened to reports and turned our glasses on the beaches where the Fourth and Fifth Marine divisions’ leading waves were landing on a stretch of sand extending from the volcanic Suribachi north, to a group of destroyed Japanese supply ships rusting on the shore just below the rising ground spreading out at the northern end. We picked out the black dots which were men and the larger spots which were tanks.

The radio told of good progress in the Fifth Division sector, with indications that shortly the island would be split in two, isolating Mount Suribachi. And it also told of flanking fire of increasing intensity driving in from both ends of the beachhead.

Casualty reports were slower in arrival, but we heard and could see that our own division lines were inching forward, if not halted, only a couple of hundred yards in from the beach. By noontime, the Japanese mortar and artillery crews were emerging from their hiding places into which they had been forced by the pre-“H” hour bombardment. And they were laying down fire on areas previously registered upon. Optimism vanished quickly when you saw a large cluster of black dots one moment, and in the next, the dots were blotted out by the smoke from exploding shells.

In the early afternoon, indications of casualties started trickling in, mainly from the 3d Bn, 25th Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Justice M. “Jumping Joe” Chambers [later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo]. One of his companies had lost all seven officers in a matter of five hours, all the battalion’s artillery forward observers were hit, and the effectives of the battalion had been cut to a third of their landing strength. Such reports put us to tightening gear and stomachs, for we knew our call was coming and that it would be a hurry call.

Clambering into the small boats, we spent less than two hours circling and headed straight in for the beach, barely pausing at the control craft to acquire sufficient interval. Two hours was the briefest time we had ever spent in the boats in the transition from ship to shore, and the brevity meant we were urgently needed.

Blue beach was as confused as all invasion beaches are and for the moment untroubled by enemy fire, which was falling farther south. Almost without casualties, the rifle companies pushed up across the beach terrace in behind Chambers’ depleted lines. At dusk and even during the early hours of night, we were busy filling in gaps and strengthening the defense.

Japanese doctrine has been known to switch, but it was our expectation that a heavy counterattack would materialize that first night as at Tinian. And if it failed to crack the fragile toehold, then, as at Peleliu, the enemy could be expected to retire to their caves and pillboxes until rooted out. We dug deeper than ever before, and the digging was easy in the sandy soil already pocked with innumerable bomb and shell craters.

Evidently we guessed wrong as to current Japanese strategy, or the brilliant illumination and drumfire from the warships close offshore forced a change in strategy, for the uncertain lines were not challenged throughout the night. The small-arms fire which we had expected to be unceasing in the early dawn was sporadic or non-existent, and there were no new gaps needing repair in the morning.

Within our battalion it proved necessary to move Company B and Co A after dark. The former had occupied the dominant terrain above the northern (Blue) beaches, taking over several gigantic concrete fortifications where the Japanese had housed 5-inch coast defense guns. The tenants had been killed or driven out by the 14- and 16-inch shells which ripped gaps through solid masonry walls 10 feet thick. This bare ridge above the quarry with its four destroyed pillboxes atop was a key to the protection of the troops and supplies pouring into the Blue beach area. And while the advance northward was minuscule in the coming days, the ridge’s retention was important, and Co B remained solidly entrenched upon it.

With daylight on D + 1, we soon felt the artillery, mortar and rocket power still possessed by the Japanese despite more than 60 consecutive days of land-based bombing, followed by four days of the most intensive naval bombardment. Barrages began falling on areas throughout the entire beachhead. These barrages were carefully calculated, ranged and observed, in contrast to the hit-or-miss artillery tactics often practiced by the enemy. Our holdings on Iwo presented a concentrated target subjected to battery fire which scarcely could miss. On Saipan we received occasional salvos, but never the concentrations now dropping. Shortly after noon, I counted more than 250 missiles falling within a 600-square-yard area in one 15-minute period.

Such fire was tearing up men and supplies. In more than two days, the beach dumps were destroyed almost as rapidly as the gear could be ferried ashore. Infantry battalions are accustomed to speak contemptuously of beach party personnel as rear echelon, but that contempt vanished immediately as we saw the bursting hell through which these parties were striving to bring in our needed gear. As late as D + 2, our division dump was fired with all its precious stores of mortar and artillery ammunition.

Meanwhile, as this pounding continued, the riflemen at the front were meeting infantry and mortar opposition which made all gains meager and limited. Protecting tanks were smacked with heavy antitank fire which knocked out many more than had fallen to such fire on Saipan. Unbelievable exploits transpired about these damaged tanks, as some that were overturned and caved in by explosions still yielded up two, three or four living crewmen.

On the Fifth Division front, a hand-planted land mine blasted away the side of one tank after the “planter” had withdrawn 20 yards into the brush to snipe off any who might emerge alive. Up flew the turret and then the head and shoulders of the tank commander, massive Second Lieutenant Will Jarvis. It seems incredible, but Jarvis spotted the sighted rifle of the hidden enemy, and before the latter could fire, Jarvis had whipped his .45 out of a shoulder holster and neatly drilled a slug through the middle of the man’s skull.

Gradually, from experience on the lines, at the beach, and with the tanks, the pattern of the Japanese defense was taking form. There would be no grand, wild initial effort which would spend most of the defensive strength in one great burst. The Japanese had done well with their period of grace which followed the Marianas campaign. They had emphasized giant mortars, artillery and their new rocket—all high-angle fire weapons which could be sited safely in the tangled, cave-covered high ground in the north. They had de-emphasized the infantry attack force which could be mowed down so easily by the waiting Marine machine-gunners. Their defense appeared to be one of depth, soundly based on heavy weapons which would whittle away attacking troops at tremendous cost for small yardage, and which might eventually force a virtual statement due to the excessive casualties. The Japanese were out to buy time by raising the price.

Their diggings were as extensive as anything encountered at Peleliu; they were bombproof and shellproof, and all lined with plentiful foodstuffs and ammunition. Thus the Japanese had contrived to deny us the effective use of our supporting weapons of air, sea and land; the tools which previously had proved the big margin of victory. We could bomb, strafe and shell the enemy in their fortresses, and it would do little more than disrupt communications, prevent gatherings, and stun some of the less fortunate defenders.

It left the main burden up to the Marines on the line to squirm, inch and hack their way into the prepared defenses to where hand-carried weapons could be used at short range. This war has provided no clearer illustration of the military adage that physical occupancy by the infantry is the seal of victory.

The sector which fell to the 1st Bn, 24th Marines was on the Corps’ right flank touching the sea along the eastern beaches. At the water’s edge were giant rocks which, after a short space of level terrain, rose in a cliff-line to the table land on top. This lower shore area was sufficiently rugged with a plentiful supply of caves, small canyons and fixed fortifications. But atop the cliff the terrain almost defied passage. Trees and vines twisted in confused fashion over an area in which erosion and excavation had created cuts, dips, rises and pinnacles which made direct line progress impossible. Rock piles and dirt mounds jutted everywhere, and no man could be certain that the ground 10 feet to his front was devoid of Japanese. It was into this area that we drove throughout our first week on Iwo Jima.

Companies A and C took turns in moving along the shoreline 200 to 300 yards as supporting gunboats (with Marine spotters aboard) laid 40 mm fire on the cliff. Twice, heavy casualties forced retirement from exposed positions whose value was nil until the troops on top advanced. A third attempt was moderately successful, yet when relieved in the afternoon of D + 6, Co C was no more than 400 yards forward from where Co A had dug in on that first uneasy night.

Concurrently, atop the cliff the switching companies were alternating in trying to push ahead into the tangle. Daily were these pushes which netted scant yardage and always casualties from knee mortars or invisible point-blank rifle and machine-gun fire. On only one day were Co A and Co B able to reach the higher ground to the front, not more than 600 yards from the ridge Co B occupied D night. And once there, increasing fire, 50 casualties, and no supplies all combined to force a withdrawal.

Nor could passed-over caves be neglected. They lined the route up which we carried supplies by hand and on which we evacuated the wounded. Demolition charges blocked up many, but Japanese popped out of other unknown entrances. Late one afternoon a Japanese soldier flung a grenade out of one hole and received a flurry of rifle fire and grenades in return. Undamaged, he popped up again shortly and got a squirt from a flame thrower which backed him down a second time. Still unhurt, he appeared a third time with a bayonet which he hurled with a banzai cry at the closest Marine. This time the bullets and flame thrower caught him squarely and he sizzled in death.

Sometimes the wounded were stretcher cases, and many hard-working bearers didn’t escape the hidden guns as they sought to evacuate the helpless casualties. Others managed to walk or stagger back to the aid station, suffering from shock or minor wounds. I recall one small and youthful 18-year-old private from New Orleans who was stumbling back unaided. He was dazed from concussion, carrying small bits of shrapnel in his skin, and in his hand was his prize possession—a Japanese rifle! His own weapon had been discarded, and he would accept no help, nor allow anyone to lay a hand on his own prized souvenir. His action was typical and the kind which prompted a flushed Japanese soldier in a Roi Island shell hole to yell—“Come in and get me, you g------ souvenir-happy Marine!”

Another enemy soldier on Iwo with a flair for the humorous must once have worked the butts of some Honshu rifle range. Having caught a glimpse of his helmet behind some rocks, a couple of patient Marine marksmen waited and sniped at him whenever he reappeared. Three times after their firing he slowly waved a board to and fro over the top of his rock—his improvised variation of Maggie’s drawers.

Through the day, we struggled against unseen death until night drew down a blanket which isolated the front from any supporting troops to the rear. There were the defensive advantages that the foe could not muster a sizeable counterattack in such land, and that any movement was bound to be detected by its noise. But at the same time, illumination was of small help, machine-gun protective lines were impossible, and a hand grenade could be looped easily into a foxhole without chance of locating the thrower. Further, we knew that some caves within our lines undoubtedly housed Japanese back in their recesses who waited on darkness to come out.

It was on one of the first nights that three Japanese were killed in the Co C CP [command post]. In a nearby foxhole, Private First Class Kye Harris received a scare which kept him awake for the balance of the night. Shortly before midnight he awoke with a start to see a large Japanese man silhouetted against the light of a flare and running toward him, bayonetted rifle extended. Lacking time to use his own weapon, and without pulling the pin, he flung a grenade which landed squarely on the man’s chest two steps away. It must have bewildered him, for he stopped short, threw his rifle at Harris, wheeled and fled.

Another Co A Marine had an enemy even closer as he jumped suddenly into the middle of the foxhole. Having nothing but his hands, the Marine used them to grab the man’s neck which he started to throttle. The Japanese soldier let out such a weird unearthly screech, that the startled Marine loosened his grip and the man made off.

That was how the nights passed, with occasional encounters, few casualties, and no real enemy forays. But the tension from the unknown of such nights was wearing and a strain. It was with joy that we saw relieving troops coming into the line on the afternoon of D + 6. Neither on the lower flank nor on the cliff top had we advanced anywhere more than a quarter of a mile. The strain had tired us, the casualties were steady, and moreover it was extremely disheartening to morale to strive so hard with so little apparent success.

For three unbelievable days and nights we rested in reserve. It was unbelievable because all former reserve experience on Saipan and Tinian was temporary, and we would be fortunate to remain so situated for one full day. The recently vacated, pre-dug foxholes were pleasant. We were plentifully supplied with water for washing, drinking and even shaving, and with quantities of appetizing “10 in 1” rations. We lazed around, ate, slept, ducked an occasional sniper bullet, and by the end of the third day were in better shape than when we landed.

The real “chow hounds,” whose appetites demanded more than was provided, raided the beach supplies which were assuming sizeable proportions. Balked on one attempt by MPs, Corporal Robbins of Co C merely turned his back, pulled out pencil and notebook, and then turned about again presenting a slip which read: “Issue two cases of ‘10 in 1’ rations to the bearer. Signed: Franklin C. Robbins.” He got the rations without a question.

Such a state of relaxation couldn’t be prolonged indefinitely, nor was it desired. We realized we would have to return to the line, and further delay would bring no new benefits. So in a way we welcomed the orders which came after dark on D + 9 and which called for a pre-dawn relief of another battalion near the center of the Marine lines on the highest ground.

By this point in the campaign, the lines had consolidated from east to west across the island with the Fourth Division on the east, the Fifth on the west, and two regiments of the Third Division filling in the center. Both airfields were in Marine hands, and the southern one was supporting a few observation planes. Mount Suribachi, too, had been secured for several days, and all our strength was concentrated on the one remaining sector. Nonetheless, the progress while we were in reserve was just as painfully slow as it had been when we were on the line.

The holes into which we filed just prior to dawn of D + 10 were in terrain which had more level space, fewer woods and caves. Two hundred yards to the front was a wooded area that contained all the varieties of defensive emplacements with which we already were familiar. Here, as in our former zone, troops had pushed forward more than once, only to be thrust back. The outgoing troops cautioned us about certain known enemy gun locations, telling us that daylight would be sure to bring enemy fire. Then they left.

Their prophesy was correct for we ducked from a mortar salvo shortly after sunrise, and incautious exposed Marines drew immediate small-arms fire. Using tanks as flanking forts, and supported by mortar and artillery preparations, Co C jumped off, and by the rapid movement of small groups, two platoons managed to cross the open ground to the nearest woods without casualty.

Once there, it was the same old story of knee mortars, rifles and machine guns, all unseen, and within half an hour, we had 10 men hit. It was then that Cpl Robbins voluntarily led a tank up into position to protect some wounded men from a machine gun. He put the tank in position, and then went back to the battalion aid station with the wounded men.

At that point a knee mortar landed too close to me, and I dropped with a fractured leg bone and shortly was carried from the fighting scene. I thought our advance had carried us to a spot from which a successful penetration of the enemy line could be effected. But back aboard the hospital ship the next day, later casualties told of being forced to drop back at nightfall with a total cost of close to 40 men in the one company alone.

That is the last I know directly of the Iwo Jima campaign, though as I write on D + 20, all reports show that the pattern is still the same painful one.

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