IWO JIMA RECON: The U.S. Navy at War, February 17, 1945.
“Iwo Jima Recon” tells the chilling account of our daring reconnaissance Marines and U.S. Navy frogmen, and the supporting gunboat flotilla, that cleared the way for Marines to land on that tiny sulfuric island just two days prior to D-day. Colonel Dick Camp, USMC (Ret), author of the recent works “Leatherneck Legends” and “The Battleship Arizona’s Marines at War,” has produced another well-documented, -researched and -compiled must-read edition.
Replicating the winning formula used in these two volumes, he carefully pieced together Navy after-action reports and eyewitness accounts, all suitably supported by numerous never-before-published photos. The resulting combination brings the reader up close to the opening shots of the fiery fray that was the battle for Iwo Jima.
As World War II progressed, Navy-Marine amphibious doctrine underwent many improvements. The lethal lessons experienced during the landings on Tarawa were learned. There was a howling call for preinvasion beach and shoreline reconnaissance. From these vital needs came the dawn of the Underwater Demolition Team. By 1945, UDT teams effectively cleared the fire-swept invasion beaches of Normandy, Guam, Peleliu and the Philippine Islands.
Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, tagged the frogmen, “half fish and half nuts.” The death-defying mission of these half-naked warriors required them to slip into dangerous, often uncharted offshore waters, swim to the hostile shore, and destroy mines and other obstacles while charting both the landing approaches and beach defenses. In addition, these courageous young warriors were required to wade ashore and obtain samples of beach sand. Invasion planners needed firsthand assurance that both track and wheeled vehicles could drive over the volcanic ash of Iwo’s foreboding shoreline.
Camp artfully describes the preassault plan, which called for a flotilla of small gunboats carrying Marine observers to approach the island and provide direct covering fire for the advance reconnaissance. These floating gunboats, classified as LCI (G), were armed with a rocket launching system, 40 and 20 mm cannons, and .50-caliber machine guns. These tiny thin-skinned boats took the savage brunt of the island defenders’ rage.
Of the original 12 boats, nine suffered heavy damage and one was sunk. The butcher’s bill was significant—40 percent of the men engaged became casualties, and 43 seamen were killed in the Feb. 17 operation.
Nine boat captains were awarded the Navy Cross, and one captain earned a Medal of Honor.
While the gunboats kept the Japanese large guns occupied, the swimmers were cast into the surf by the “waterbug” landing craft, LCI. The frogmen avoided mortar and small-arms fire by ducking underwater as they swam into the beach. One diver’s account simply stated, “Bullets drifted down like falling leaves.” Amazingly, all but one of the divers returned safely.
The data gathered by the recon teams proved worth the price. The Japanese, they found, had not laid mines, and there were no coral or man-made obstacles to be destroyed. Importantly, the sandy beaches would support the tanks and other vehicles. Marine officers promptly pored over the remarkably detailed maps and charts furnished by the frogmen.
With this essential intelligence, the stage was now set for the main invasion to commence. The principal tactical error made by the Japanese was firing large-caliber guns at the tiny gunboats and swimmers. This blunder exposed many of Mount Suribachi’s hidden gun emplacements to preinvasion ship-to-shore bombardment. The Fleet Marine Force naval gunfire officer noted: “Had the Japanese not opened up on the UDT units, it would have been murder [for the troops on the beach]. I thought the landing would have been touch and go.”
After the carnage of Feb. 17, wishful thinking led the Japanese to believe they repelled the invasion; for that evening, Tokyo Rose announced: “The brave defenders of Iwo Jima have repulsed the Marine Corps landing after the heaviest concentration of fire in the war.” Then she went on to cheer, “The Marines have turned tail and ran.” Poor sad Rosie; she didn’t have a clue!
Superbly written and studded with newly uncovered photos, “Iwo Jima Recon” beckons us to join the UDT Iwo Jima reconnaissance force. It truly can be said that the horrendous battle for Iwo commenced, with vigor, on Feb. 17, two days before the first Marine landed. During WW II, Underwater Demolition Teams, forerunners of today’s SEAL teams, proved to be a great assist to invasion planners and to the Marines who safely splashed ashore.