“You were sacred to death. You just wanted to dig deeper into the sand. But on Iwo, you couldn’t. It was this damned black volcanic stuff. Besides, you had a job to do. We tried to pull our guns into position, but it was impossible by mechanized means. We just had to muscle them up to their place. It was crazy.”
This was one of the memories of John P. Bolten, Battery A, 14th Regiment, Fourth Marine Division of his experience on Iwo Jima. On today’s date, February 19 in 1945, the Fourth marines were part of an invasion force which landed on that island with the intention of taking it from it’s Japanese defenders. The ultimate objective was to construct a forward air base for operations directed against the Japanese homeland. The next month would witness one of the most murderous crossfires which human beings have ever unleashed upon each other, but it would also be the site of the most iconic and heroic images of the war, and perhaps the most reproduced photograph of all time.
Iwo Jima – Japanese Home Soil
Iwo Jima, a largely barren volcanic rock in the Pacific ocean was home to a small civilian population, all of which had been evacuated long before the battle that February. But it was the first of what was considered to be a part of the Japanese home islands to be attacked by the Americans, so the Imperial Japanese Army was prepared to defend it tenaciously. There really was no way for them to prevail, but they were prepared to make the Americans pay a very heavy price in blood for every foot of ground, and in this effort they were indeed successful. The Japanese Commander, Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribiyachi had decided to break with established Japanese
practice in not contesting the landings themselves. Instead, he elected to wait until the beaches were crowded with men and materiel before opening fire. Further, he built strong defensive positions a bit further into the island’s interior. Towards this end, he created interlocking fields of fire with machine guns, tanks in fixed positions, plus thousands of land mines and hidden mortar positions all over the island. The positions were mutually supporting via a network of tunnels which the Japanese had had years to prepare, and which therefore had survived the massive bombing and naval artillery barrage that preceded the assault. B-24’s launched from bases in the Marianas had been pounding Iwo for 74 full days. But intelligence reported that this was having little effect. The top Marine at Iwo was Lt. General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who had wanted a more extensive naval action. Smith had wanted the Navy to hit Iwo for a full ten days, but the Navy, saying it needed to conserve ordinance for the coming assault on Okinawa, begged off, and bombarded the island for three days instead.
The Raising of the Flag on Mt. Suribachi
At 8:59 a.m., the landings began. The scene at the very beginning was eerily quiet. It was only as that first wave advanced to the first line of Japanese bunkers that they took withering enemy fire. The black volcanic sand on Iwo proved to be a double-edged sword. While it made for very poor cover for the advancing marines, and provided equally poor traction for the U.S. tanks and other heavy equipment, it also absorbed a considerable portion of the fragments from Japanese shells. Artillery positions dug into the interior of Mt. Suribachi, the mountain which dominated the south end of the island eventually opened fire on the beaches once they had become clogged with marines and equipment. Due to heavy naval, air and ground bombardment, the marines were eventually able to cut Suribachi off from the rest of the island, but only by the fifth day was it possible to get to the summit of the heavily defended peak. Most of it’s defenders remained in caves, so actually reaching the top was not nearly so difficult as securing the entire mountain. Nevertheless, a first flag was placed in the ground, the first American flag to fly on Japanese soil (below).
But this flag was replaced by a larger version, when Navy Secretary James Forrestal, who had just arrived on the island wanted the first one for a souvenir. This resulted in the famous photograph of the second flag raising by photographer Joe Rosenthal. It became the very image of the war, the only photo to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year in which it was made.
John P. Bolten Remembers
But the rest of the island would not be taken for over three more weeks. The infantry units took dreadful casualties, having to fight desperately, sometimes for just a few yards at a time. They would observe a position, and then call in artillery barrages from the Marine guns that had been landed. John Bolten remembered this carnage all too well, including the particular view that he and the men of Battery A had from their emplacement of a 105 MM artillery gun:
“They took a beating in those infantry units. One of my friends, Marty Fiorie – his brother was a boxer, and while he wasn’t big – he was built like a battleship – kept saying that he got into the war to kill Japs, and he never got to see one. So he transferred to a recon unit, and had one of those big damn radios attached to his back while he called in Jap positions. He got killed. And then later, right in front of (our fox hole) was a severed leg, still wrapped in it’s legging. There was a rosary wrapped around it. It was about 50 yards in front of our machine gun and we had to look over it. Those guys in the infantry really took it in the teeth. If I had had to go in on the first wave like they did, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The Heavy Casualties on Iwo Jima
By the time Iwo Jima was officially declared secured in March, the USMC had suffered 26,038 casualties, with 6,821 of those having been men who were killed in action — a larger casualty list than
the total Allied losses on D-Day itself in Europe. In fact, it was also the only operation in which the total American casualties exceeded those of the Japanese. Of the 22, 786 Japanese soldiers defending Iwo Jima, only 216 survived to be captured. The Japanese soldier’s code of Bushido made surrender a disgrace. Thus many, perhaps 3,000 or more committed ritual suicide rather than surrender. The last two stragglers hid out in caves and eventually surrendered in 1951.
Heroes? In my opinion, yes. We owe our safe comfortable lives to these men who were willing to put their own lives on the line to protect us — these and all of the men and women who have been willing to do this from Lexington and Concord back in 1775, on through to Afghanistan and Iraq in the last few years. But I suspect that they never did and never will look upon themselves as heroes, but rather as men and women who simply had a job to do, and who were lucky enough to survive where others were not. Whatever the case, may God Bless them all!!
“Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor” by Bill D. Ross, Vanguard Press, New York,1985.
The Wartime Memories of John P. Bolten, unpublished, possession of the author.
“Marines Remember the Bloodiest Battle” – Lew Moores, Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 19, 1995
THE Flag Raising = http://www.survival-spanish.com/IwoJimaMyring.htm
Map = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iwo_jima_location_map.png
The first Flag raising = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:First_Iwo_Jima_Flag_Raising.jpg
Marines on the beach = http://olive-drab.com/od_history_ww2_ops_battles_1945iwojima.php