Until 1945 most Americans had never heard of Iwo Jima.
However, as the war progressed, that was going to change. Exactly 75 years ago, between Feb. 19 and March 26, Iwo Jima was the focus of some of the most intense violence in the history of warfare. It was a mark of honor for the U.S. Marines and, sadly, a place where many of them made the supreme sacrifice.
The Pacific War was different than its counterpart in Europe. As local writer Laura Lacey, who is the historian of the famous 6th Marine Division and author of “Stay off the Skyline: A history of the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa,” noted, the war in the Pacific was fought with a degree of ferocity that’s known few equals.
The Japanese Imperial Army gave no quarter and expected none. The norms of European warfare, the model our military followed, weren’t part of the Japanese way of thinking. It was a fight to the last man.
But back to Iwo Jima. In 1944 in the Pacific, the U.S. military had taken Tinian Island and was using it as a base for our long-range B-29 heavy bombers. These were the first planes with enough range to hit Japan.
The thing is, the distances are so vast in the Pacific that a round trip between Tinian and Japan was at the limit of the B-29’s operational capacity. An engine problem, battle damage, loss of fuel or just bad weather could mean ditching in the emptiness of the open ocean.
However, between Tinian and Japan, was Iwo Jima. If our bombers could use it as an emergency landing base, our ability to directly attack Japan would be that much improved.
With that Iwo Jima became a target for U.S. invasion.
My father was on Iwo Jima, and he described it as one of the most God-forsaken pieces of real estate on earth. It was a comparatively tiny island formed by a volcano. It still stank of sulfur, and the sand was warm to the touch.
There were no natives, only the Japanese army, which for years had been fortifying the island. When U.S. Navy and Marine planners began developing their charts, maps and battle plans, the Japanese had already dug over 11 miles of tunnels. There are probably more that were never discovered.
There were hundreds of fi ring positions, booby traps and lots of heavy artillery.
The fields of fi re had been plotted out well in advance, and some 20,000 Japanese soldiers vowed to fight to the death to hold this foul little island. By the battle’s end only 216 Japanese soldiers were alive to be taken prisoner.
Recently I read an account of the battle that said its outcome was always a forgone conclusion. Really? That’s an arrogant comment.
Guadalcanal was in doubt for the better part of a year, and our initial landing on Tarawa almost failed. Th ere was no such thing as a given to any of our Pacific battles.
The Navy tried to do its best to make sure Iwo Jima was softened up. But, in spite of massive bombardments and weeks of sorties by Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps bombers, the impact on the defending Japanese appeared to be minimal. They were just that well dug in.
Even with continuous artillery support by sea, and continuous air support, the fight, originally predicted to take a week, took six weeks.
Perhaps one the most iconic of all the photographs of World War II was the raising of the flag on the old volcano’s peak, Mount Suribachi. It was raised early in the battle and showed the determination of the Marines to carry the day.
What’s more, while the battle was just beginning, no matter where you were on the island, there was the U.S. flag. It made a clear statement. The Marines weren’t going back.
The battle was fought yard-by-yard and sometimes battle lines, as understood in conventional warfare, weren’t clear. The Japanese, thanks to their labyrinth of tunnels and what my Dad called rabbit holes, could pop up anywhere.
After intensive fight and over 6,000 casualties, the Marines did carry the day; the island was under U.S. control.
In the 75 years since then, Iwo Jima has become a solemn part of the Marine Corps’ heritage. On the inscription just below the Marine Corps Memorial is a quote from Admiral Chester Nimitz, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” That says it all.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com