The Battle of Iwo Jima
The Battle of Iwo Jima, memorialized for all time by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's inspiring photograph of marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, was one of the bloodiest engagements of the entire war. When it was over, almost all of the 21,000 Japanese defenders were dead. U.S. losses totaled 6,821.
Iwo Jima lies only 660 miles from Japan. Because of its relative proximity to the Japanese mainland, it was an essential target for U.S. forces. The Japanese knew this and created a tremendous defense on and beneath the island. More than 600 pillboxes and gun positions dotted Iwo Jima, which also contained a number of caves.
Because the Japanese were so well entrenched on Iwo Jima, U.S. forces spent seventy-four consecutive days softening it up with a constant barrage of shells and bombs from air and sea. The bombardment, which began in November 1944, was the longest of the war, but it was necessary if the island was to be taken.
Underwater demolition teams were used to survey the proposed landing sites and clear away anything that might impede troop carriers. But the Japanese misidentified the demolition teams as an actual landing force and opened fire, killing 170. The mistaken attack gave away hidden gun positions, which greatly aided the invasion planners.
Operation Detachment — the actual amphibious landing of U.S. troops — began on February 19, 1945, observed from a special amphibious command center by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. The first divisions to hit the beach were greeted with only sporadic gunfire. But once all seven battalions were on the beach, the Japanese let loose with a blistering defense. Antitank guns picked off marine tanks stationed on the beach while the troops pinned down on the volcanic sand were hit with machine gun fire. When the sun set, 566 marines had been killed and 1,854 wounded.
The goals of the invasion were 550-foot Mount Suribachi and an airfield directly inland. By the second day of the assault, the marines targeting Mount Suribachi had advanced just 200 yards, their movements impeded by incessant Japanese gunfire. Members of the Twenty-eighth Regiment of the Fifth Division spent three full days battling their way up the volcano, using flamethrowers and grenades to clear the Japanese ahead of them. On the morning of February 23, the marines reached the top of Mount Suribachi, where they planted an American flag.
Figure 6-7 The planting of the flag at Iwo Jima.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-413988)
A total of twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to the fighting men who risked their lives to take the tiny island of Iwo Jima. It was the largest number awarded for any single action of World War II.