Little Bits of History

March 26

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 26, 2017

1945: The Battle of Iwo Jima ends. The 8.1 square mile island is part of the Japanese Volcano Islands and with two other groups forms the Ogasawara Archipelago. The island is 750 miles south of Tokyo. Pre-World War II the island was inhabited by 1,018 people living in 192 households in six settlements. They had a school, a Shinto shrine, and one policeman. A mail ship arrived once a month. A garrison was built on the island which was off limits to civilians and run by the Imperial Japanese Navy. By 1944, they were building up troops on the island and in July, all the civilians were forcibly evacuated. The primary goal of either keeping or taking the island was to control the airfields built there.

Operation Detachment was the US campaign to take over the island and control the two airfields in order to provide a staging area for future attacks on mainland Japan. To that end, they engaged in the Battle of Iwo Jima commencing on February 19 under Admiral Chester Nimitz for the Navy and General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith for the Marines. The US had 110,000 military personnel and over 500 ships to take the island defended by 21,000 Japanese soldiers armed with 23 tanks, 438 artillery pieces, 33 naval guns, 39 anti-tank guns and about 300 anti-aircraft guns. The outcome was determined even before the first shot was fired, but the cost of taking the island is the stuff of which legends are made.

The Americans and allies lost 6,821 men and another 19,217 were wounded. One carrier was sunk, one carrier was severely damaged, and one carrier was lightly damaged. The Japanese had over 18,000 killed or missing and another 3,000 went into hiding in the caves of the island. The last 216 were taken prisoner. The fighting was so intense the airfields were useless by the end of March. The Americans controlled the air and they had superior numbers on both land and sea. The Japanese were unable to retreat and had limited supplies and food. The iconic picture of the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi by six US Marines was taken by Joe Rosenthal from the Associated Press. It became a symbol of the Pacific War and the USMC.

After the fighting ended, there were still thousands of Japanese hidden in the caves. Due to a combination of Bushido honor code and propaganda depicting the US military as barbarous and cruel, the men were fearful of surrender. When the need arose, they finally succumbed and were surprised to find humane treatment. The last holdout finally gave himself up on January 6, 1949. The island proved unsatisfactory as a staging area for the Army and useless as a fleet base for the Navy. The Seabees rebuilt the landing strips and they were used in emergencies. The US kept possession of the island until 1968 when it was returned to Japan.

Marines were trained to move rapidly forward; here they could only plod. The weight and amount of equipment was a terrific hindrance and various items were rapidly discarded. First to go was the gas mask. – Derrick Wright

Shells screeched and crashed, every hummock spat automatic fire and the very soft soil underfoot erupted underfoot with hundreds of exploding land mines … Marines walking erect crumpled and fell. Concussion lifted them and slammed them down, or tore them apart. – Robert Leckie

A nightmare in hell. – Robert Sherrod

On the 40th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans met again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades, living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray together that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never be repeated. – memorial plaque

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