Barely eight square miles in size, Iwo Jima was a desolate volcanic island – a seemingly inconsequential speck in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean – that, beginning 75 years ago on Feb. 19, 1945, served as the unlikely ground for one of the most vicious and pivotal battles of World War II.
Almost 30,000 men died or went missing.
They were killed with guns, grenades, bombs, tanks and flamethrowers that, after the battle, left behind a landscape covered with black sand, craters, downed trees, charred corpses and discarded military equipment.
But, atop that scarred island, an American flag flew. The United States had, for the first time, captured territory that was part of Japan.
“It was kind of the lynchpin of all the battles in the Pacific,” Iwo Jima Association of America Director Shayne Jarosz said during an interview in his Quantico, Virginia, office. “It was the very first Japanese homeland island that we had assaulted in 1945. Prior to that, the United States was basically taking back territory that had been taken away from others.”
Approximately 110,000 Americans – from the Marine Corps and Navy – served in the fight.
Jarosz said no definitive count exists of how many are still alive.
Twenty-seven Americans received the Medal of Honor for their heroics on Iwo Jima, more than for any battle in the country’s history.
In a famous quote from March 1945, Navy Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz said: “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Survivors are now in their 90s, including Marine veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams – one of only two living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II. Williams, a resident of Ona, West Virginia, earned his medal for heroic actions on Iwo Jima.
“I lost the very best friend that I ever had in my life on Iwo Jima, Vernon Waters, who was my assistant flamethrower operator,” Williams, 96, said. “I lost him on March 6, 1945.”
Williams said he also vividly remembers “the action of doing my job, eliminating pillboxes. We called them pillboxes. Now, we use the term ‘bunkers,’ but to me it will always be a pillbox.”
He said it was necessary “to get an explosion or flame in a pillbox, because it was so well built with reinforced concrete that artillery and bazookas and that sort of thing didn’t have any effect on them.”
Waters was among the approximately 6,800 Americans who died during the battle.
Their sacrifices are commemorated with a display inside the National Museum of the Marine Corps, located in Triangle, Virginia.
“This wall memorializes the Marines and sailors that were killed on the island of Iwo Jima,” said museum docent Larry Britton, speaking in front of the rounded wall that, when viewed from a certain angle, reveals an image of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.
“This is 6,141 emblems,” Britton said. “These are just people who set foot above the high-water mark on the island. If you include those that were killed coming ashore on landing craft and on the ships around the island, the total call for Iwo Jima for Americans was (almost) right at 7,000. That’s a horrible number, especially when you consider Vietnam officially lasted (almost) 10 years with 13,095 Marines killed in action and nearly 400 Navy doctors, corpsmen and chaplains attached to the Marine Corps killed in 10 years of fighting. Over half that many were killed on Iwo Jima in just 36 days. It was our bloodiest battle of the war.”
Iwo Jima was home to two Japanese military airfields. A third was being built.
An early warning radar system was in place to give advance notice of Army Air Force B-29 attacks heading from islands in the south, including Guam, toward the mainland. The United States forces – under the command of Nimitz and Marine Corps Gen. Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith – wanted to occupy the island in order to eliminate the layer of Japanese defense and secure the airfields for their own use.
Operation Detachment began with a bombardment that was largely ineffective.
“It had no impact on that island,” said retired three-star Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, a former congressman and 2020 presidential candidate.
Before the attack, Japanese forces created an entrenched maze of fortified bunkers, caves and pillboxes, as opposed to putting the main defenses on the beaches.
“I don’t think anybody envisioned that there would be the digging in that the Japanese did, that they actually would just burrow themselves,” Sestak said. “The ones before that, they met us on the beach. This was – I think – the first time that they did not. They just burrowed in and made life, as you can tell from the great losses, hell for our Marines.”
A Marine amphibious assault started at 8:59 a.m. Feb. 19, plodding at first as the men struggled to move through the soft ash when weighed down with their equipment. The attack originally focused on the narrow southern part of the island that was divided into landing zones identified by different colors on a map.
Fighting lasted for five weeks – pitting the Marines V Amphibious Corps, Seventh Air Force and Navy’s 5th Fleet against Japan’s 109th IJA Division and Imperial Navy – until the United States declared the capture and occupation phase complete at 8 a.m. March 26.
The conflict was devastating to the Japanese. Among the 20,000 to 22,000 combatants on the island, all but about 200 were killed, hiding or missing. Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the Japanese forces at Iwo Jima, clearly understood the gravity of the situation for his nation.
“We are sorry indeed we could not have defended the island successfully,” he said in his last radio transmission to Japanese military headquarters. “Now I, Kuribayashi, believe that the enemy will invade Japan proper from this island. … I am very sorry, because I can imagine the scenes of disaster in our empire. However, I comfort myself a little, seeing my officers and men die without regret after struggling in this inch-by-inch battle against an overwhelming enemy with many tanks and being exposed to indescribable bombardments. … I would like now to apologize to my senior and fellow officers for not being strong enough to stop the enemy invasion.”
Iwo Jima proved to be of limited strategic value to the American military, as either an Army staging base or Navy fleet base, although rebuilt landing strips provided a spot for planes to land in emergencies. But the battle foreshadowed what United States forces might have encountered during an invasion of mainland Japan – which was avoided by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I think it just told everyone that, man, if we have to land in the homeland, it is really going to be doubly hell,” Sestak said. “Every one is going to buy in. I don’t know this at all, but perhaps that might have led toward more openness to the decision to use the atomic bomb.”
American flag was raised
On Feb. 23, atop Mount Suribachi at the southern tip of Iwo Jima, six Marines – Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, Cpl. Harold Keller and Pfc. Harold Schultz – raised an American flag.
Strank was born in Jarabina, Czechoslovakia, and grew up in Franklin Borough, outside of Johnstown.
They were following orders to replace a smaller flag that had been raised earlier to much fanfare – the shouting of Marines on land the blaring of horns from ships at sea. In contrast, putting up the second flag went largely unnoticed by the fighters below, as it occurred simultaneously with the first being taken down, as a way to ensure no American thought that the Japanese regained control of the hill even for a second.
But, unbeknownst at the time, they had participated in one of the most iconic moments in American military history. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the event in a photo showing six members of the American military, moving as one, almost indistinguishable from each other. It widely circulated across the United States, appearing in newspapers, theaters, post offices and storefronts.
Rosenthal earned a Pulitzer Prize.
Hayes and two participants in the battle who had been incorrectly identified as flag-raisers – John “Doc” Bradley, a Navy corpsman, and René Gagnon, a Marine – came stateside and supported the Seventh War Loan Drive that raised more than $26 billion. Sgt. Hank Hansen was also among those originally credited with the flag-raising.
Strank, Block and Sousley were among those killed on Iwo Jima, giving their lives during a final island-hopping push in the Pacific.
“That flag was important,” Gwenn Adams, the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ public affairs chief, said. “It was absolutely important. But we can’t put so much emphasis on the flag that we forget about all the other men who fought on that island who never touched that flag. Yes, for some of them, the flag helped rally them. Some of them never even saw that flag. They were too busy embroiled in the battle. That’s what we need to focus on.
“Yes, the flag helped to raise a lot of money. But it’s not the most important thing that happened on Iwo Jima. What happened on Iwo Jima were the battles that paved the way for the end of the war.”
Block was correctly identified in 1947, Schultz and Keller in the 2010s.
Hayes shied away from attention, even leaving the bond tour early to return to the Pacific. Keller and Schultz are believed to have made a few comments about being in the picture, but never pursued being publicly acknowledged.
“The three that survived didn’t talk much about it,” Keil Gentry, Marine Corps University’s vice president for business affairs, said. “After years of reflection on this, I think the reason why is it was a replacement flag and it was just a flag. And to be lionized for simply putting up a flag seemed wrong to them, I think, when they thought about the sacrifice and the 70,000 other Marines and sailors on the island. That’s what it’s really about.”
‘What they remember …’
On a Tuesday afternoon in January, Adams sat in a chair – in front of the Iwo Jima flag – talking about the impact of the Marines museum, which opened in 2006.
She recalled that a few months earlier, a veteran of the battle had visited for the first time.
“He started telling stories that they weren’t stories that you necessarily want to hear,” Adams said. “But it was things that his family didn’t know. And, so for them to hear those things explained a lot. We get letters like that all the time – I finally understand my dad, my grandfather, my mom, my sister, my brother – because they come here and talk about things that they never talked about. Or, if that person’s already gone, then they come here and they read the history, and they read the quotes from other Marines and they’re instantly more aware of what it must have been like.”
About 500,000 people visit the site every year to learn about the history of the Marines, from the Corps’ founding on Nov. 10, 1775, in Philadelphia through the Vietnam War, with exhibits about the modern era scheduled to open possibly by 2023. The museum – with its glass-and-concrete-tiled pyramid roof that was inspired by the image of the flag-raising – is one of several places that preserve the history of Iwo Jima and honors the surviving combatants.
Iwo Jima Association of America sponsors educational symposiums and an annual trip to the island for the “Reunion of Honor” memorial service that is held in conjunction with the Iwo Jima Association of Japan. Veterans, family members, historians and journalists attend the gathering every year.
“It’s not just that place,” Jarosz said. “Any time you take a veteran back to where they have fought, the nice thing is that with the passage of time it tends to kind of heal a lot of these wounds.
“Most of the vets of Iwo Jima, what they remember is the landing beaches. They remember the black and white and red of war. The black and white of the smoke and burning, and then the red of the blood all over the beaches, the bodies that were lying there. The nice thing about being able to take veterans back to a place where they had the biggest trauma of their lives is they actually can kind of see how the island has healed itself. They’re actually able to put into perspective of ‘Wow, now Iwo is a beautiful place.’”
Williams has been to Iwo Jima twice and plans to return for a third – and final – time in March.
“The first time it was very emotional,” Williams said. “It really was because of the loss of my best friend. I thought maybe I could find the location and have some sort of a tribute, memorial service or something there. But the island has changed so much. When we were there, there was no greenery whatsoever. We’d bombed everything off of it. But it’s all green now. The contour of the land, you can’t even tell what it is, so I couldn’t find the location. I thought – in my mind – I could, but I couldn’t. So it was kind of an emotional trip.”
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