Historic Events: The Battle of Iwo Jima

The Battle of Iwo Jima was a major engagement between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan during the Pacific War of World War II. Major combat operations lasted from February 19 – March 16, 1945 with some Japanese forces maintaining resistance on the island all the way into 1949. The battle stands out in history as an extraordinary example of the bravery, tenacity, cunning, and determination of both American and Japanese warriors. The Battle of Iwo Jima holds a particularly special place in the culture and history of the United States Marine Corps.

Prelude to the Landing

General Kuribayashi Tadamichi was in charge of the island’s defense and instructed his forces to change their strategy after studying reports from previous engagements with the Americans and taking stock of his limited resources. The Japanese had lost a significant amount of their air power and could not rely upon close air support for their ground forces. Kuribayashi also did not see the utility of banzai charges and felt his forces would be better off digging into fortified positions and waiting for the Americans to advance under heavy fire, although some banzai charges did still occur. Artillery positions were camouflaged and hidden from U.S. aerial reconnaissance and bombardment. Japanese infantry also dug deep into foxholes, building underground tunnels with stockpiles of ammunition and food for a protracted engagement. The also used the natural tunnel networks of caves in the mountains to establish a dense net of heavily fortified, heavily fortified, and virtually invisible positions with which to rain fire down upon the invaders.

Tadamichi Kuribayashi
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Army General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Charles Nimitz disagreed about the strategy to be used in the Pacific War. MacArthur emphasized the importance of regaining control over the Philippines and expelling the Japanese occupation there, while Nimitz felt it would be more important to launch an island-hopping campaign to root out Japan’s small island fortifications in the Pacific. Ultimately, it was decided both plans would be necessary to put the U.S. within striking distance of the Japanese mainland.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet was dispatched to Iwo Jima under the command of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance to facilitate the amphibious landing, air support, and logistics for the invasion. The Fifth Fleet carried with it the V Amphibious Corps led by Major General Harry Schmidt; an expeditionary task force led by General Holland M. Smith; the U.S. Army’s 147th infantry regiment; as well as the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions. In total, approximately 60,000 U.S. servicemen were brought to the battle against 21,000 Japanese troops.

Raymond A. Spruance
Admiral Raymond A. Spruance of the U.S. Navy.

Iwo Jima was subjected to an extensive bombing campaign for months leading up to the invasion. B-24 bombers from the 7th Air Force launched raids against the island, along with a final 3-day naval bombardment just before the landing which was intended to last 10 days, but was cut short due to ammo and weather concerns. Bombardment of the island – intended to soften up the Japanese fortifications prior to the landing – was started all the way back in June of the previous year. However, due to the use of camouflage and the natural cover of the mountains, this bombardment had very little effect the Japanese defenders. Most of the fighting on the island would ultimately be decided by the Marines on the ground launching frontal assaults on fortified positions under artillery fire.

Troops Begin to Land

When the Americans began landing, they were impeded by the soft, volcanic stand on the shores of Iwo Jima. The Japanese forces waited to open fire until the Americans came in closer and began to experience difficulties moving in the sand. Vehicles and men alike got stuck, with pile-ups forming on the beach. The Americans had assumed their bombardment was effective at first, facing little to no resistance as they struggled with the sand. However, this was a trap. The battle began in earnest when the Japanese defenders opened fire.

USS New York
The USS New York bombarding the island of Iwo Jima.

The Americans suffered heavy casualties securing the beaches during the initial landing due to the inability of their armored vehicles to get into the action and the need for infantry forces to charge headfirst into Japanese positions and root out heavily defended foxholes one by one. Given the terrain and the well-hidden positions of the Japanese forces, close fire support was ineffective, despite the Americans having established air superiority in the theater. The Americans and Japanese both battled tooth and nail against one another in a harsh battle of attrition, but the Americans had the advantage of blockading the island with over 450 ships supporting their ground forces, as well as the use of flamethrowers burning out the entrenched positions of the Japanese defenders.

General Kuribayashi knew it was only a matter of time before the island fell and there was no way to effectively dispel the invading American forces. As such, he focused his strategy on delaying the Americans as long as possible while inflicting maximum casualties. The Japanese dug in line after line of heavily armed and fortified positions which needed to be fought head-on one after the other. Even after securing the Japanese strongholds at the Quarry and Mount Suribachi on the first day of the battle, there was still a substantial amount of work to be done. The battle waged on for almost a month, with each day being a ravenous ordeal for both sides.

U.S. Marine with flamethrower
Flamethrowers were critical to the success of the U.S. Marines at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

The Americans and Japanese both fought to no end, against immense pressures, pushing each other to the limits of human bravery. The Japanese refused to give up even an inch of land, making the Americans pay for every step with relentless resistance. In turn, the Americans charged position after position under heavy fire, never turning back in the face of certain death. Neither force allowed themselves to give into the futility of their situation. The Japanese warriors knew there was no escape and no hope of victory. The American warriors knew there was no easy or clever way around the meat grinder they needed to clear. The brave souls who stood against certain death on both sides in the Battle of Iwo Jima embodied the human spirit of bravery, courage, honor, and commitment.

Aftermath and Legacy

By the end of the battle, an estimated 17,000 Japanese warriors had perished of the original 21,000 defenders. General Kuribayashi took his own life near the end of the battle, preferring death to capture. The rest were either taken prisoner or went into hiding. Those who evaded capture never gave in and continued to resist the Americans for years after the island fell. Their determination in the face of certain defeat and an overwhelming enemy force provides inspiration to us all on the importance of keeping heart and never wavering in the face of an invading force.

Captured Japanese Position
U.S. Marines fought through mountain caves, underground tunnels, and through all manners of difficult terrain to capture the island of Iwo Jima.

The Americans suffered 27,000 casualties among the 110,000 brave souls sent into the fray. There were 22 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. Marines and five to U.S. Navy sailors after the battle. The brave American men who stormed into the face of certain death with an unflinching sense of bravery and honor rings across the halls of history. Their legend lives on for eternity and speaks to the importance of maintaining courage, certainty, and our force of will during the hardest of times. They remind us to never give up and never give in. Not until our task is done.

As Admiral Nimitz said of their historic deeds: “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The image of U.S. Marines raising the American Flag atop Mount Suribachi became an icon of endurance and unending bravery. Both sides in the conflict fought valiantly and with tremendous honor. The Battle of Iwo Jima serves as an example of careful planning, strategy, cunning, bravery, honor, determination, and many more values. It is one of the finest moments in the history of both American and Japanese warriors.


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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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