The eve of D-day at Iwo Jima found me unable to suppress a deep emotional surge. The imminence of action and the responsibility for the most appalling operation we had yet undertaken weighed heavily. I was charged with the capture of an island whose possession was indispensable to our assault on Japan, and it was my last command.
[Iwo Jima--Part II]
Marines were to be employed at Okinawa, but I knew this would be an Army operation, owing to the preponderance of Army troops. The invasion of Japan would be spearheaded by Marines, but there, too, the Army would be numerically dominant, under General MacArthur. There would be no more strictly Marine combat commands in the Pacific. Furthermore, I was approaching my 63rd birthday and I was the first to realize I should move aside for younger men. Hence, victory at Iwo Jima would be the climax, emotionally and militarily speaking, to my four decades as a servant of the Government of the United States.
The gravity of the coming battle filled me with apprehension. The man in the front line is blessed with a sense of immediacy. he knows only the danger directly in front of him. The general, however, knows far in advance what is to come and the picture is always there, spread before him. He goes into battle with a price of victory already calculated in human lives. This knowledge is a terrible burden, never to be shaken off, night or day. There is no escape.
I felt certain we would lose 15,000 men at Iwo Jima. This number was the absolute minimum calculated in our plans made at Pearl Harbor, although some of my officers wistfully predicted
a lower figure. So far as the Marines were concerned, we had made every preparation humanly possible to capture the island as expeditiously and as economically as possible. We were to land 60,000 assault troops, and the estimate that one in every four would be dead or wounded never left my mind.
I was not afraid of the outcome of the battle. I knew we would win. We always had. But contemplation of the cost in lives caused me many sleepless nights. My only source of comfort was in reading of the tribulations of leaders described in the Bible. Never before had I realized the spiritual uplift and solace a man on the eve of a great trial receives from the pages of that book.
I prayed to God that night. I am a Methodist, but I have always been able to find comfort in the literature of the Roman Catholic CHurch. I read a passage from Father Joseph F. Stedman's Daily Readings, and it calmed me.
To the Marine, there is a universality of religion transcending sect and schism. It is based on comradeship in arms. I have seen Protestants at Catholic mass and Jewish chaplains ministering to Gentiles. For many years, I have worn around my neck certain Catholic medals, including a Saint Christopher blessed by Pope Pius X and given to me by a priest in San Francisco. He took the medal from his own neck to hang it around mine, praying that it would guard me against all the dangers and perils of the unknown.
The day before D-day was Sunday. Choked up as they were on the eve of their Gethsemane, the Marines on board the Eldorado were deeply moved by a little blue card distributed by the ship's Chaplain, Curt Junker. It contained the words of the following prayer by Sir Thomas Astlie, one of Cromwell's generals, written in 1645 before he went into battle:
Lord I shall be verie busy this day:
I may forget Thee, but doe not Thou forget me.
The task force arrival was timed for just before dawn in order that the transports in our column could take up their assigned stations in time to launch the waves according to schedule.
Iwo's commander was Lieutenant Colonel [sic] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who headed the Ogasawara Forces, as the Japanese units were called in the Volcano Islands. Major General Sadasu Senda commanded the Second Mixed Brigade, 109th Division. The naval defense force and a naval air force were under Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru.
Of all our adversaries in the Pacific, Kuribayashi was the most redoubtable. Some Japanese island commanders were just names to us and disappeared into the anonymity of enemy corpses left for burial parties. Kuribayashi's personality was written deep in the underground defenses he devised for Iwo Jima. He held us at arm's length until we cornered him and the remnants of his forces in the caves of Kitano Point. Iwo Jima was notable in that organized resistance did not collapse after the first few days, but continued to the end.
As one of my officers fervently remarked, "Let's hope the Japs don't have any more like him."
Before he came to die on Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi had been a cavalryman who broadened his training to include a knowledge of all arms. Although I never saw him, and a minute search of the caves where he made his last stand failed to produce his body, we got his biography from Radio Tokyo. A short, paunchy man in his middle fifties, he had commanded a cavalry regiment at Lake Nomonhan, on the Manchurian border, during the indecisive "undeclared" Russo-Japanese War of 1938-39.
Then Kuribayashi commanded the elite Imperial Guard in Tokyo, which gained him an audience with Emperor Hirohito. Under the Japanese scheme of command, Iwo Jima came within the Tokyo defense limits and he started to fortify the island formidably when we invaded Saipan. He took with him to the island a number of cave specialists and they created the intricate scheme of underground fortifications which our bombardment could not reach.
Kuribayashi's strictly business qualities were reflected in other matters besides his defenses. He must have been a martinet. When we sailed form Pearl Harbor, we took with us rations for
the 1,500 civilians we expected to find on Iwo Jima. These rations were unnecessary. Months before we attacked, Kuribayashi evacuated to japan all civilians from the sulphur fields and the garrison. He wanted no civilian hindrance. To him, Iwo Jima was solely a military base.
He permitted none of the pleasures of Japanese camp life to undermine the morale of his men. No women were found on the island. Although he pledged his men to a typical Japanese oath--to die for their Emperor and take ten Americans with them in death--he permitted no mad charges inspired by the saké bottle. We found on large stocks of liquor on Iwo Jima, as on Guam and Saipan. As a matter of fact, I fail to recall that anyone picked up a single bottle on the island.
Off Iwo Jima that cold February morning I examined again the air photographs which showed the island literally pockmarked by bomb and shellholes. Many big gun emplacements had been taken out, but I was not surprised at the Japanese batteries shooting up a heavy cruiser as well as a dozen of our gunboats prior to our landing. If anybody had learned anything from our bombardment it was the enemy, who had gone underground so far that he was secure from 2,000-pound bombs. Some of my divisional generals thought that I was too pessimistic that morning, but they realized later that my fears had not been exaggerated.
Dawn broke for us favorably on D-day. The weather, after several stormy days, was clear; the rough seas subsided; surf conditions were as good as could be expected on an exposed rock. Iwo Jima had only two beaches, one east and the other west of the narrow isthmus connecting Mount Suribachi with the broader part of the island. Both beaches--coarse, black volcanic ash, like gravel--made for poor landing conditions, but we made the best of two bad choices when we selected the eastern.
As the Marines disembarked from transports and prepared to land at 0900, the main batteries of the battleships and heavy ships crashed on the island in a two hours' bombardment that blotted out all light "like a hurricane eclipse of the sun." Task Force 58 had returned from the Tokyo strike and joined the
brazen chorus at least briefly. On the Eldorado, we were almost deafened by the roar, and under the fire of so many guns the island smoked as though the dormant Suribachi had sprung into life against us. Gunboats went close in and delivered a rocket barrage on the landing beach; this was followed by an air strike on the flanks. Heavy bombers from the Marianas were scheduled to bomb the island, but only a third of the assigned planes arrived; the rest, they told us, were held up by bad weather at their base.
Half an hour before the Marines hit the beach in their amphibious tanks and tractors, naval gunfire was resumed, and for the first time in the Pacific we employed a rolling naval barrage. Starting at the edge of the beach, naval guns placed their fire 200 yards inland, and as the Marines began to land, the fire was lifted in 200-yard jumps ahead of the men. This scheme proved highly successful.
The Japanese lay stunned under the terrific explosive shock of our naval gunfire, and in contrast to Tarawa and Saipan our first waves got ashore with little opposition until they advanced 350 yards inland. However, it wasn't long before the enemy recovered and when our barrage lifted, his artillery, mortar and small-arms fire began to fall among the boat waves. This fire came from Suribachi on the left, and from higher ground on the right, well registered and pre-sited. A once strong line of pillboxes, some of which were still standing despite the weight of metal dropped on them, took a heavy toll of Marines on their way up the incline to the airfield, and when our tanks made the top they ran into extensive minefields, which caused many wrecks.
The nature of the Iwo Jima terrain was as obstructive as the Japanese. A series of terraces leading to the airfield made exceptionally hard going. Marine field shoes sank deep in the volcanic ash and men floundered their way to the top. Supply-laden amtracks and DUKW's bogged down. Tanks were mired in the ash, unable to move, thus becoming sitting ducks for the Japanese. until we got wire mats down and bulldozers ashore to make a semblance of a road system, the only practicable vehicle was the
light amphibian tractor known as the "Weasel." All our heavy equipment was under fire by the Japanese, and in two days thirty percent of our tanks were out of action.
After D-day, a rising surf played the devil with our boats. To hold our LSM's and LST's, we had to anchor them to tractors and tanks. The Higgins boats, smaller and more vulnerable in the angry ocean, got caught in the surf up the black beach, and were swamped by the powerful ebb. And as soon as one ship nosed into the ash, it came under enemy fire. Our losses of equipment were frightening; the beach soon looked like a row of frame houses in a tornado.
Despite the increasing volume of enemy fire which poured on the beach from every point, in an hour and a half we got eight battalions of troops ashore, with a large number of tanks. By mid-afternoon, the tank battalions of two division, though depleted by losses, were ashore; elements of two artillery battalions followed. Japanese fire mounted in intensity as the day wore on, but a few guns of our artillery were in action by the late afternoon.
By nightfall, we had secured our beachhead, expecting to land the rest of the equipment the next day. From an unloading point of view, D-day was fortunate because the relatively light surf was in our favor. But the next day, and on succeeding days, the weather changed and unloading conditions on the beach were dreadful. It became a fight against the sea, the surf, the volcanic ash and the Japanese, all joined in one colossal alliance against us. We thanked God for that D-day calm before the ocean's storm.
The result of the first day's operation was satisfactory. On the right, the Fourth Division had suffered heavily and, although reserves were thrown in, the Division was unable to improve on the initial gains of the morning. It was held u pon the right flank by resistance from a piece of high ground named Quarry Ridge, after a quarry gouged out of the cliff rising sharply from the water's edge, and strongly defended by the Japanese. One battalion was depleted 50 percent. Once company lost all seven of its officers before dark fell. But we held the tip of Motoyama Airfield
One, though the fire on our beachhead troops was murderous.
On the left, the Fifth Division, fighting on better terrain and against lighter fire, made greater progress. Striking across the 800-yard isthmus, the Fifth reached the western shore of Iwo Jima by noon, and three hours later had crossed the southern end of the airfield. As a result, Suribachi was isolated and the Japanese forces were split. The road was clear for the capture of the volcano which, with its deep patriotic appeal, was to become the crowning episode of the Pacific war.
The story of Suribachi is too familiar to be repeated. The world knows how the Marine patrol scaled the mountain face and planted the Stars and Stripes on the summit, producing the greatest photograph of this war and, perhaps, of any war. It has inspired bond drives, tableaus and postage stamps.l The men who raised the flag on Suribachi will be remembered in our history as long as patriotic American hearts beat warm and proud, although only a few are alive today.
But the capture of Mount Suribachi did not just happen. It was planned as early as December, when we started to study the problems of Iwo Jima. Suribachi was our first big target. The brown, knobby 556-foot rock at the southern end of this island of eight square miles commanded our landing beach. Long plumes of steam rose from its southern and seaward sides, heat and fumes permeated its recesses, but they did not prevent the Japanese tunnelling in and converting the "Hot Rock" into a powerful fortress. While the enemy held that position, his guns not only covered our landing beach, but he had an observation post of great value to batteries in other parts of the island. The success of our entire assault depended upon the early capture of that grim, smoking rock.
For the job we selected the 28th Regiment, Fifth Division, commanded by Colonel Harry Liversedge--called "Harry the Horse" by his men. Perhaps other officers and other regiments could have done the Suribachi job, but both Harry Schmidt and Major General Keller E. Rockey felt that Harry Liversedge was the man and the 28th was the regiment. He had a good record in
the South Pacific for tackling tough assignments and, although Iwo Jima was no tropical, jungle-covered island, this qualification was vital.
The attack on Suribachi started on the morning of February 20,l the day after we landed, but it was four days before we gained the summit. The main defenses were a series of mutually supporting concrete pillboxes ringing the base. They were close enough together to make an almost complete wall and this was supported by guns in caves, machine gun pits, trenches, and other obstacles among the scrub growth and the rocks surrounding the base.
The main problem was to break through that ring of pillboxes, and it was a Herculean task. Tanks, flame throwers, artillery, and demolition charges were used. From out at sea, warships dropped their shells, sometimes only a hundred yards ahead of the Marines. Gunboats came in as close as 200 yards and smashed at machine gun positions; air strikes and rocket attacks were all thrown into the task. The attacking troops met with heavy resistance from pillboxes, caves in the rock, and enemy artillery and mortars in the northern part of the island, which laid down terrific fire from a variety of weapons we had not experienced before. These latter included giant mortars, the largest of which fired a 320-mm. shell that "made a noise like a P-61 night fighter," as one Marine said. The big mortar shells flew right over the island and dropped into the sea, but smaller calibers caused us many casualties.
Still, Liversedge's men continued their slow but definite advance, methodically reducing the fortifications at the base of Suribachi with flame throwers and demolitions, gradually working their way around until the volcano was completely surrounded and it was possible to make an attack up the north face, which Liversedge considered the feasible route. Other paths had been worn by the Japanese, but shelling and bombing had completely obliterated them.
Once the base defenses had been destroyed, there was little opposition left in the garrison on the rock. On the morning of the fourth day, four men climbed to the summit and were followed
by Lieutenant H.G. Schrier, leading a 40-man patrol form Company "E", 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, who reached the northeast rim. The only resistance came from across the rim, where they killed several Japanese. The flag was raised at 1037 on February 23, and this vision of triumph had an electrifying effect on all our forces ashore and afloat. We were in a mood for victory, and this glorious spectacle was the spark.
The raising of the flag high atop Suribachi was one of the proud moments of my life. No American could view this symbol of heroism and suffering without a lump in his throat. By a happy circumstance, I was standing beside Secretary of the Navy Forrestal when the tiny speck of red, white and blue broke and fluttered on the gaunt crest of the volcano. Turning to me, the Secretary said gravely, "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years."
The night before Suribachi was taken, we were told by Liversedge of the final plans for its conquest. Secretary Forrestal said he would like to go ashore next morning and witness the last stage of the Suribachi battle. I was not please at the suggestion, in view of the dangers of the beach, but I acquiesced. Wearing a steel helmet and a life jacket, the Secretary boarded a boat with Vice Admiral Louis E. Denfeld and Rear Admiral Mills. I was accompanied by Mac Asbill. Before leaving the Eldorado, I extracted a promise from Mr. Forrestal that he would take orders from me. He vowed he wouldn't expose himself too prominently.
Our boat touched shore just after the flag was raised. The cry went up from all quarters, "There goes the flag!" I could see the tiny figures of the patrol on top of the volcano and more tiny, agile figures climbing up the side. The backs of the climbers glistened white in the morning sun. An officer explained to me that the men had painted fluorescent panels on their uniforms to distinguish them from the Japanese. I knew that the battle area at the base of Suribachi was so confined that we had to tape out lines as a guide to our planes, but those glistening panels on the uniforms of the men climbing the volcano seemed even more resourceful.
The beach wreckage made it difficult to find a place to land.
Small boats, tanks, tractors, DUKW's, and other massed items of equipment which had been knocked out by Japanese fire or the satanic surf were strewn down to the water's edge, and under the battering of the waves were sinking deep into the ash. Great waves raced up the beach and boats strained at their hawsers. At first glance, it seemed that the beachhead was in a state of complete confusion with 60,000 men choked up in an area that could be measured in city blocks. But this was not so. Despite the litter, wreckage, and apparent chaos, a regular movement of supplies was going ashore, often sorely disrupted by enemy shelling.
Out of the boat, Mr. Forrestal began to walk around the beach, inspecting the unloading, watching our tanks and tractors coming and going, despite the yielding sand which offered so little traction. He asked questions of several men. His admiration of their magnificent work was unstinted.
At first, some of the Marines were skeptical of his identity. They didn't believe any Secretary of the Navy in his right mind would be there on the beach at Iwo Jima, where Japanese shells and mortars still fell. But soon the news spread around and men came from all over, flocking around the visitor, shaking him warmly by the hand.
This growing concentration of men caused me considerable concern. if the Japanese spotted us, they would assume it was an important troop movement and we would have the full force of their guns on our heads in a very short time. I cautioned the Secretary that he must not leave the immediate vicinity of the beach. It was too dangerous. Artillery was falling very close to us. In fact, 20 men were killed or wounded within a hundred yards of where we were standing, but the Secretary seemed utterly indifferent to danger. His sang froid impressed us all and, though I could not hide my qualms, I knew I could not deny the men an opportunity to see, hear and shake hands with the Secretary of the Navy.
After the anxious (for me) hour ashore, I persuaded him to return to the Eldorado. As we came over the side, I heaved a sigh of relief that he was back again unharmed. Pillars of smoke
and loud crashes on the beach showed the Japanese were shelling again. Mr. Forrestal departed from Iwo Jima the next day, leaving Kelly Turner and me with an inspiring message: "The operation is in good hands."
Later, I went back to inspect Suribachi. Harry Liversedge had done a magnificent piece of work in the face of great difficulties. It cost us a thousand casualties, but now our beachhead no longer was threatened from the south and no longer could the enemy on the volcano tell the enemy on the other side of the island what we were up to.
Several hundred Japanese remained alive in the recesses of this smoking rock, necessitating mopping up throughout the campaign. As the details of the volcano's strength became known, the greater appeared the accomplishment of the 28th Regiment. Among the caves and tunnels that riddled the rock, we counted more than a thousand enemy strongpoints, Six hundred Japanese were dead and we estimated that another thousand were holed up in their caves. Suribachi was a gigantic warren and our engineers sealed nearly 20 caves and entrances as tombs for its garrison.
I found a young Marine on guard among the blasted pillboxes at the base of the volcano. He had a Japanese samurai sword at his belt.
"We flushed a Jap officer out of a cave over there," he told me, indicating a fire-blackened hole in the face of the cliff where a flame thrower had been used. "He came out waving his sword and we shot him. There were three of us and when we took his sword we couldn't decide which one had killed him and whose sword it was. So we decided to share." Drawing the blade from the scabbard, he added proudly, "It's my turn to wear it today, sir."
I wanted to climb Suribachi and look over Iwo Jima as I had looked over Saipan from Mount Tapotchau, but there was no motor road until later. Asbill went up. When he came back he shook his head and announced, "No, General, I can't let you climb that cliff. You're too old to make it." I accepted his decision. I have commanded hundreds of thousands of men in
my life, but for the first time I got ordered around by my aide.
I have jumped ahead to describe the heroic capture of Suribachi, because as an individual exploit of the Marines, it occupies a special place in history, and now I return to the main battle of Iwo Jima.
In any operation, the first night ashore always is a nervous and often critical period. We believed the Japanese would make their strongest counterattacks against us on that first night, when our position was not too strong. We had 40,000 men ashore, holding an irregular line with a gap between the divisions, but no counterattack in force came. This surprised us, because it was so contrary to enemy tactics. As we advanced up the island, we learned it was part of Kuribayashi's well planned scheme of defense. His basic idea was to occupy a position and refuse to budge until we dug him out. He would waste no men on counterattacks, which would bring the Japanese under fire in force, and tactical withdrawal did not figure in his battle plan. He later altered his scheme to include minor counterattacks, but no banzai charges.
The weather that favored us on D-day turned against us the following day and greatly complicated the beach situation. The wind whipped up a high surf, making it impossible to use small boats. All our supplies were brought in by LSM's and LST's, hawsered ashore to anchor them and keep their ramps down. This mass of shipping was an easy target for Japanese guns, but we allowed nineither beach conditions nor enemy fire to halt the increasing flow of supplies and equipment. We got all our artillery ashore in the next two days and the supply situation, which for a time was serious, improved as beach parties wrestled successfully with sea and ships. Over the yielding, ashy terrain, only amphibious and tracked vehicles could make their way up the terraces, and inland routes had to be cleared of mines before vehicles could move with safety.
On the morning of the second day, during the assault on Suribachi, the Fourth and Fifth Divisions continued their advance and by nightfall we had secured Motoyama Airfield One
and thus held a continuous line across the island. Motoyama Airfield Two, adjoining Airfield One on a slightly higher elevation, was our next objective.
The fight for the second airfield, and the third which was under construction beyond, brought us up against the enemy's main line of resistance. This was a broad, deep belt of fortifications running from coast to coast, a mass of mutually supporting pillboxes and concrete bunkers, many of them almost buried underground. Behind were thousands of caves and subterranean positions, in the rocky fastness of the north. This was the "masterpiece of impregnability" produced by the specialists from japan, who utilized natural caves and dug hundreds more, all interconnected with tunnels, and linked them to underground fortresses 30 to 40 feet below ground, hiding guns and mortars. Beyond the first line of pillboxes, protected by mine fields and accurately placed overlapping fire from hidden guns, the island was a huge warren of holes, caves and passages in rocky ridges and cliff faces. Every day of our advance on Iwo Jima showed us another marvel of defensive construction.
Motoyama Airfield Two again left us with no choice but frontal attack. Only direct hits by large caliber guns had any effect on the blockhouses. In the runways we found pillboxes almost buried in the sand, with machine gun slots protruding a foot or so above ground. on the flat, sandy stretches of the airfield we were exposed not only to fire from the first line of defenses, but also grom guns in the rear. Bitter fighting, which cost us heavily, measured our gains only in yards. The first two days of the assault on this airfield were the most costly in the entire Iwo Jima operation.
The third day after our landing on the island I released the 21st Regiment, Third Division, which was in floating reserve. This regiment Schmidt attached initially to the Fourth Division, which was in difficulties at the shore end of the ridge. This ridge disappeared into a hollow, oval rise in the ground and the attacking Marines promptly named it the Amphitheater. The enemy had burrowed inside the hollow bowl and fortified it. Our attacks seemed to leave no impression on the Amphitheater, because the
Japanese could ge reinforcements through tunnels connecting with their main positions in the formerly wooded area beyond.
Before we reached the southern end of the second airfield, we ran into a solid wall of fire from pillboxes, heavy artillery, mortars of all sizes, and flat trajectory weapons, and, although our attacks were supported by our own artillery, heavy naval gunfire and air strikes, we made little progress. We were in the very heart of the defense belt Kuribayashi had prepared against us for more than a year.
From our heavy casualties and the fact that we were scarcely moving, it was evident to me that another regiment of the Third Division was necessary to relive the battle-weary troops in the line and provide the additional push that would dislodge the Japanese. Although we appeared to have reached a stalemate, the enemy was ready for a swift punch in the belly. Then we could break through into the northern part of the island, where we thought we would have things all our own way.
I put in the entire Third Division, less the 3rd Regiment, which I kept in reserve. The 21st Regiment reverted to its original divisional control. I doubt if Major General Erskine, commanding the Third Division, his officers or his men every expected such a dramatic change in their role on Iwo Jima. They had been held in floating reserve, and instead of playing the spectator part in the battle, they were ordered to spearhead the attack down the center of the island.
I was convinced that Bobby Erskine and his able division would be able to handle the zone assigned to them, and I knew that in the field he would practice the essentials of drive and acton he preached to divisional commanders when he was my Chief of Staff. The sector was perhaps the most difficult on the island, but I predicted that if we ever got through this defense belt we could go on to complete the capture of Iwo Jima.
Erskine--or the "Big E," as he was known to his men--did punch his way to the sea, driving clear through the enemy's defenses, crossing two fire-swept airfields, and cutting the garrison in two. But this required another 20 days of bitter fighting
during which, at one stage, we were forced to call a halt and dig in for a short period to rest the men, who had been fighting under unbelievable pressure.
I went ashore every second day, calling on Harry Schmidt at V Corps Headquarters, or on Rockey, Cates, and Erskine at their Command Posts, and going forward to watch the progress of the fighting. None of these Command Posts was the Hotel Splendide the invading general seizes for himself and his staff in fictional war. Cates' post, overlooking the sea near the fortified quarry, was a knocked-out Japanese pillbox, where the smell of decomposing enemy dead, buried in the ruins, grew more loathesome every day. Erskine, just south of Motoyama Airfield Two, occupied an abandoned Japanese gun emplacement, with a tarpaulin slung over a 4.7-inch dual purpose gun. Over on the left, Rockey had a ramshackle place up against a cliff, where the Japanese had been flushed out recently.
After we captured Suribachi, we began using the western beach for unloading. This was necessary because the eastern beach, where we landed on D-day, was almost choked with wreckage and debris, and conditions were getting worse with every tide. But even on the new western beach, prodigious feats of seamanship, stevedoring, and engineering had to be performed to get supplies ashore because the surf was higher and more treacherous than on the east coast. Nevertheless, a direct transport route was opened, and through it the front line was fed and supplied.
Corps Headquarters was a group of sandbagged tents near the beach, overlooked by Suribachi, by no means a nice, sheltered rear position. As long as Japanese artillery and mortars remained unsilenced, the front line was everywhere on Iwo Jima--among the pillboxes, in the hills, on the beach, in the rear. Corps Headquarters took a score of shells one night, fortunately without much damage. Since our artillery positions were near Headquarters, it was almost impossible to distinguish the sending from the receiving when Americans and Japanese exchanged fire.
On one trip ashore, I was talking with Harry Schmidt outside his tent. An AKA, a transport loaded with ammunition, anchored off the beach not far from Corps Headquarters. The Japanese
spotted the ship's arrival and opened fire with all the artillery they could bring to bear.
The first two salvos fell in rear of the ship, but close enough to wound a man on the stern. The captain put on full speed to get away, but the second salvo fell ahead of the ship. Harry and I watched with our hearts in our mouths. (At least mine was.) The enemy had bracketed the ship; would the next shells hit the target? If so, it would be curtains for us, Corps Headquarters and the beach working parties. The explosion of several thousand tons of ammunition would have devastated the lower part of the island.
But the next salvo fell astern of the ship, which had picked up speed and was out of the danger zone. I shall never forget the look on Harry's face when those last shells dropped harmlessly in the sea, but I suppose it was the same look I gave him. It said: The age of miracles hasn't passed, thank God.
After two weeks of terrific fighting, during which each day seemed worse than the last, two-thirds of Iwo Jima was in our possession. We had broken through the main belt of defenses and captured the two operable airfields and the third embryo field. Army P-51 Mustangs and P-61 Black Widows were operating from Motoyama Airfield One, B-29's were using the island's emergency facilities. We were evacuating hundreds of wounded marines by plane, which greatly eased our hospitalization problem. But there was still bitter fighting ahead. On Iwo the bitter fighting seemed never to end.
Before we reached the wide area of crags and rocky ridges leading to the sheer cliffs at the northern end of the island, we had to pass through the Japanese sulphur wells--a valley of foul emanations that looked like something left over when they finished building Hell. Iwo Jima was a queer contrast. At the lower end of the island and around the airfields, Marines who had fought their way across the Pacific in the tropical heat of coral atolls and jungle islands shivered under blankets in foxholes at night. In the sulphur valley, the ground heat was hot house temperature. Scratching below th surface of this gnarled, misshapen earth, stained deathly white and pestilential yellow by chemical
mists, you couldn't dig a foxhole without starting a sulphur steam bath. And you could cook a can of "C" rations by burying it in the ground for 15 minutes.
Beyond this hellish valley lay the road to the sea, but it was a hard road. Kuribayashi had wedded modern fortification science to stubborn rock and earth and built his last line of defense, which ended at Kitano Point and the sea. We had to capture three high hills before we got to grips with him. He had every advantage of shelter and concealment. Crevices and ridges were honeycombed with caves and tunnels. Some of his concrete bunkers had four-foot walls and his artillery, his mortars and rocket launchers were cleverly hidden. We had learned about them the hard way--through our sickeningly heavy casualties.
His ground organization was far superior to any I had seen in France during World War I and observers said it excelled German ground organization in World War II. The only way we could move was behind rolling artillery barrages and concentrations of fire that pulverized the area. Then we went in and reduced each position, using flame throwers, grenades, and demolitions. Every cave, every pillbox, every bunker was an individual battle, where Japanese and Marine fought hand to hand to the death.
We had prepared for tank battles, but they did not materialize. The Japanese never moved a tank on Iwo Jima. They used their tanks as additional pillboxes, emplacing them in crevices and behind revetments, using tank guns to cover approaches to strategic points. We employed our tanks in a manner never contemplated in training, over terrain we never believed tanks could cross. our tanks suffered heavily from mines and the enemy's very effective 47-mm anti-tank guns, but they performed well under totally unexpected circumstances.
What the Japanese most feared was the tank bulldozer (tankdozer), a heavily armored vehicle that pushed a blade in front and could withstand much fire. In this war among caves and human burrows, our tank flame throwers, shooting out a long stream of fire, were invincible against the Japanese--if they got close enough. But they were helpless without the
dozers, which had to cut roads through otherwise impassable terrain for the flame tank to advance and burn up the area. This pattern of attack was repeated hundreds of times on Iwo Jima.
Then the Japanese got wise and started to concentrate on the devastating dozer. We had to take special measures to protect them from suicide attacks by the enemy, who always singled them out. We organized armored tank patrols as convoys, but unsuspected electric mines laid on the roads wrecked all our blades before the campaign ended. In the dozers, the Japanese saw death by fire, or entombment, staring them in the face, and our few dozers suffered.
I paid particular attention to the Third Division because I felt that Erskine's drive through the center would be a short cut to victory. Therefore, I made frequent visits to his Command post and during one visit an orderly brought in Bobby's mail.
One of the great achievements of the Pacific war was the regular delivery of mail in the forward areas. Men up front got letters from home with amazing promptness. Undazzled by brass, the American public regarded a general at the front almost as a member of the family, to be praised, criticized, and appealed to for help in time of trouble. A general's job is not all fighting. The men and women who wrote those letters expected a reply--promptly. And they usually got it.
Bobby's mail that day included a letter from a father asking that his son be sent home to North Dakota on emergency leave, because his mother was seriously ill and wanted to see her boy. A man in New York congratulated the Third Division on its excellent work in Iwo Jima and a mother, writing from a little town in Iowa, wanted the General to tell her son that his favorite sister had died and that his buddy had been killed in France.
It was a saddening letter, and I wondered how that boy, fighting the toughest battle of the Pacific war, would react when he learned of the double tragedy. I wondered if I could help soften the blow--even a little--by telling him myself, but I discarded the idea. That was the Chaplain's job and I knew that the man of God would do a better job than the soldier. Erskine
agreed and promised me, "We'll find that boy--if he's alive--and the Chaplain will tell him."
Directly in front of Erskine's Third Division, Kuribayashi's interlocking subterranean defense system reached its zenith in the center of our line. In an area of one square mile, a thousand caves and fortified points were counted and going was slow. The Fourth Division, on the right, also was having a hard time. After finally taking the Amphitheater and the commanding hill, the Division surmounted the ridge and faced what seemed a continuation of the ground just covered. on the left, the Fifth Division was having trouble in equally rugged terrain, with heavy resistance coming from a gorge which was reputed to be the headquarters of Kuribayashi himself.
On March 6, we decided a coordinated attack by the whole Corps might break through. The previous day was devoted to resting our tired men and reorganizing. To prepare for the attack we employed artillery on a scale exceeding any previous effort. We laid down a devastating barrage, using all Corps and divisional artillery and heavy guns from supporting warships. After the barrage was lifted, the assault forces ran into unusually heavy resistance. Although most of the enemy's large caliber guns in the immediate front had been destroyed, enough were left in the northeastern part of the island to resist our advances. Moreover, the rocky country made close tank support difficult and reduced the effectiveness of our shelling. As a result, the initial assault bogged down. We made slight gains and could count only a number of destroyed installations and sealed-off caves in our favor. Later in the day we attacked again, supported by a heavy barrage, and did a little better. But by nightfall we had consolidated our lines and were in a far stronger position for continued assault.
The next day we tried something we had never attempted in the entire Pacific war. As the preliminary artillery attack of the previous day had little effect, we tried a night attack. The Third Division, in the center, moved off before dawn and took the enemy by surprise. The main objective was Hill 362 C, an anchor of Kuribayashi's defense line. Another purpose was to circumvent enemy artillery fire. Our artillery drove the Japanese into
their pillboxes, but when we advanced, their artillery, registered on their own pillboxes, came down upon our attacking troops and inflicted many casualties. By making a night attack we hoped to catch the enemy off guard and reach our objective before he brought his artillery into use.
Although the Third Division did take the Japanese by surprise, the plan was only partially successful. Before the enemy was aware of the Marines, the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, had made a fair advance, but when daylight came we discovered that, in the darkness, part of the attacking force had overrun a smaller and less important hill, not the objective hill. The Japanese immediately guessed our objective and fierce fighting ensued. The marines were called upon to fight as they had never fought before. Two companies were cut off and could not be rescued for 30 hours. Another company was virtually cut to pieces. Doggedly the attack continued, with tanks doing the impossible on impossible terrain, and at the end of the day we had taken that vitally important hill.
Possession of this objective made a great change in the situation, a change reflected immediately in easier progress. On the night of March 8, Kuribayashi made a determined counterattack in the Fourth Marine sector. This was the one attack in force he made on Iwo Jima. It was preceded by heavy mortar, rocket and machine gun fire. The advance started just before midnight.
As soon as the Fourth Division received the first impact of the attack, we started to pour intense artillery fire into this area, which scattered the main body of the enemy. A number of Japanese did get through our lines and reached the Command Post areas, where they were killed. They carried demolition charges. We learned later the object of the attack was a breakthrough to Motoyama Airfield One to wreck our planes and installations. The advance troops, having found a weak spot in our line, were to be followed by a much larger force. Thus the only counterattack on Iwo Jima that promised the Japanese any results was checked, with heavy losses for them.
On the morning of March 9, we re-opened the attack in the other sector and, while the Fifth Division recorded a slight gain,
the Third Division continued to punch through the center and a six-man patrol from the 21st Regiment clambered over the last ridge dividing us from the northeast coast. To celebrate the event, they splashed in the sea in plain sight of the dumfounded Japanese manning caves on the east side of the ridge but outside the range of their guns--by now they only had small calibers left.
"We wanted to wash off the Jap dirt," one Marine explained. They also scooped up a canteen of sea water and sent it back to Erskine with the famous admonition: "For inspection. not consumption."
Now the Japanese were split in two. The Third Division advanced in the footsteps of the patrol and seized the ridge overlooking the beach. Severance of the two Japanese forces was complete. One was contained in the Fourth Division sector, but the main body of survivors held the rocky area around Kitano Point in the northwest, hemmed in by the Third and Fifth Divisions. The capture of Iwo Jima was in sight.
With the reduction of enemy-held territory to two small areas occupied by only a fraction of the original garrison, resistance decreased, but we did not relax pressure. Artillery barrages, poundings by naval guns, and air strikes were maintained as a matter of routine, although shrinking enemy terrain made these assaults somewhat unmanageable. Kuribayashi was reported still alive, commanding the group in the caves at Kitano Point, He gave no indication that he would surrender, which did not surprise us overmuch.
The last enemy artillery fire fell in our lines on the morning of March 11, a few hours before we launched our final attack. The Fourth Division, with elements of the Third, jumped off in the eastern sector without any artillery preparation and by mid-afternoon reported all organized resistance had been eliminated. The Japanese in this pocket were well dug in among deep crevices connected with caves and tunnels, and fought desperately as their lines shrank around them. It took us five days to wipe out that pocket.
For the Kitano Point assault, the fire power of all three
regiments of artillery, plus the Corps artillery, was brought to bear on that stubborn corner in a rolling barrage of exceptional intensity. This was augmented by warship fire and air attack. For nearly an hour, the rocky area was blasted, with apparently little result. The only direct route to the main enemy fortifications was a rocky gorge, 200 yards wide and 700 yards long. Entrance to the gorge was denied us by covering machine gun and rifle fire.
This was Kuribayashi's last stand. Undoubtedly he was in command and his personality was apparent in the tenacity of the defense. Although his forces had been reduced to a shadow, he suffered no lack of small arms and supplies. There was nothing to do but proceed methodically against cave after cave, pillbox after pillbox, advancing by the yard, until the enemy was wiped out.
The Third Division, on the right at Kitano Point, quickly cleared its sector, but two weeks elapsed before we finally cleaned out the area. This task fully occupied the attention of the Fifth Division after the island was declared secured and the fifth suffered heavily. There were no suicide leaps on Iwo Jima. The Japanese fought to the end and made mopping up expensive. Kuribayashi was determined to take every last American with him.
On March 26, the Japanese made a carefully prepared sortie from their caves. This was their last counterattack, and it caused much confusion and many casualties before they were annihilated. A prisoner said that Kuribayashi was among the officers who came out, swords at their sides, to make this final demonstration, but an examination of the bodies, swords, and personal papers revealed no trace of him. Perhaps he was killed at that time; perhaps he died in one of the thousands of caves sealed by the Marines. I do not know.
The official flag raising on Iwo Jima was held at V Corps Headquarters on the morning of March 14, two days before the island was declared secured. The ceremony was attended by flag and general officers of the fleet and landing force, and Military Government Proclamation Number I, proclaiming United States
sovereignty over the Volcano Islands, was published. The original flag, which had flown on Suribachi, was removed.
Tears filled my eyes when I stood at attention and saluted the flag. The ceremony marked the capture of Iwo Jima and the end of the most terrific battle in the history of the Marine Corps. The mission to take the island had been carried out successfully and I was proud, although this pride was saddened by the realization that so many brave men had given their lives to perform that mission. On a personal note, too, the ceremony was saddening, because Iwo Jima was my last combat command.
This momentous event gave pause for reflection. The amount of effort that had gone into the capture of the barren island was staggering. The Navy had put more ammunition on Iwo Jima than anywhere else in the Pacific. Marine artillery expended 450,000 shells and we used huge quantities of mortar shells, grenades, and rockets. Our air force made it the principal target this side of Japan proper. Yet, in the final analysis, it was the man on the beach with his rifle who completed the job.
Our casualties were extremely heavy among both officers and men. The average battalion, landing with 36 officers and 885 enlisted men, was reduced to approximately 16 officers and 300 men at the end of the campaign. Many company commanders, platoon leaders, and squad leaders were casualties. Pfc's found themselves platoon leaders and junior officers became company commanders. One Fourth Division captain commanded a battalion throughout all but the first few days of the battle. Iwo Jima proved the falsity of the theory that regiments or battalions which are decimated can never win battles. Our regiments and battalions were down to a record low in combat efficiency, owing to losses, but morale remained at an inspiring high, and morale is the decisive factor in a battle of such intensity.
No single chapter, no single book could describe that battle. To tell the story fo Iwo Jima, I would have to tell the individual story of every man in the assault force. As Admiral Nimitz said: :Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."
I have been criticized for my conduct of the Iwo Jima operation. "Why didn't you use gas?" has been the most frequent question. During the first week in March, 1945, a Washington newspaper came out boldly with the challenge: "Give Our Boys a Break--Gas the Japs."
I am not prepared to argue this question. Certainly, gas shells smothering the island, or gas introduced into caves and tunnels would have simplified our task, but naturally the use of this prohibited weapon was not within the power of a field commander. The decision was on a higher level. It was in the hands of the Allied powers, who alone could authorize its use in a war which would have assumed even more frightful proportions had gas been allowed.
Another suggestion, made later, was that we should have used the atom bomb. It is true that atomic bombing would have destroyed Iwo Jima, but, as far as I know, we did not possess the bomb at that time. The final successful test was made four months later, in New Mexico. Therefore we took the island the only way possible, the way I have described.
I left Iwo Jima on March 17 for Guam and after a few days there, returned to Headquarters of the Fleet Marine Corps, Pacific, at Pearl Harbor. On JUly 3, I handed over that command to Lieutenant General Geiger and returned to the United States.
I found it hard to tear myself away from the force I had commanded throughout the Central Pacific campaign, but the time had come for me to go. I said my farewell at a ceremony held at Camp Catlin. Captain John A. De Chant, USMCR, described it as I like to remember it:
He stood there, proudly, tears rolling unchecked and unashamed down his cheeks.
"Au revoir, God bless you . . . and I believe in you." With that Howlin' Mad Smith took leave of his Pacific Marines. he stepped down from the little bandstand and his fingers pushed underneath his horn-rimmed glasses to brush away the tears.
He wasn't the only 9onel. Next to me stood a young Raider colonel. He had been crying, just as unashamed, from the moment the Old Man had stepped up to make his last impromptu speech
to the command. And there were dozens like him all over the room. The leather-faced old men who'd come up through the ranks with him and the kid majors and the young lieutenants who loved him. They had gathered in the low-ceilinged officers' club at Camp Catlin--the flyers and the line alike--in their last little tribute to the man from Alabama who had inspired them across the Pacific.
General Roy Geiger had said the Old Man wasn't going home because he was tired. SAnd when you looked at him there, with the field musics grouped behind him, you were sure of that.
"When I was a first lieutenant, which was before most of you were born (and the grin wrinkled his face) I made a promise to the Great God that, if I was ever in a position to do so, I would see to it that Marines were treated with the decency and respect that are due to them. I started back in 1938, I advise you not to try it--unless you are lucky, damned lucky--because you may not be as lucky as I was."
Then he told of the Marines who had "marched across the Pacific" and of Geiger, now his successor, who took the southern prong . . . Guadalcanal . . . Bougainville . . . Peleliu . . . and turned north to Okinawa . . . while "we in the Central Pacific," and he tolled off the bloody stepping stones from Tarawa to Iwo Jima which the men under his personal command had taken.
"They went to the front door of Japan," he said, "and nothing stopped them. Nothing will!"
He had talked brilliantly and easily until the. Bushy browed, clean and smart-looking, the Old Man was telling the story that he had lived and was now his whole heart.
"Out there are the bodies of 15,000 Marines (and he choked a hurt sob) that lie buried under the burning tropical sun. Remember them."
he tried to gruff himself back into line with "I shouldn't say any more. I'm getting too damned sentimental."
And the young colonel cried silently, not even bothering with the crumpled handkerchief in his hand. Like the other hundreds in the room, this was hurting him as deeply as the Old Man himself.
At the end, he joked a little about fishing. "I'm going to try that," he said, "they tell me it's good for old men." And we laughed with him at that.
Roy Geiger had paid him the adequate compliment. "He fought enemies--and friends--for what he believed in. And that
was you." And no one knew it better than the living who stood there or the 15,00 Marines who died violently with their faces to the enemy. He had lived on their courage and devotion . . . and they on his.
His staff of the Fleet Marine Force went out there to the airfield in the gathering dusk to see him off from his last mission. He said a few words to each one of them. Nothing trite or hasty nor in bravado because he couldn't. That wasn't his way. What little he said hit the men around him below the belt. And the cold-blooded beachhead veterans cried again because this was finality. The lovable and brilliant Old Man was going home from his last war.
Somewhere in history--or tomorrow-other general may have more stars, or better profiles, or more headlines, or more on the political ball. But Howlin' Mad Smith was like a military Franklin Roosevelt; when he left, something of you went with him. He had bulldog courage . . . to beat and beller down all who stood in the way of his Marines. He is the unchallenged master of amphibious warfare . . . a brilliant tactician . . . and unbested field general. But it was his heart that made him truly great. A big kindly heart . . . even bigger it seemed, at times, than his own body. For this great and grand Old Man had inside him the hearts of all his Pacific Marines . . . living and dead . . . as they had his. Tonight, he cried and they cried . . . in simple, unaffected proof.
My last assignment was as Commanding General of the Marine Training and Replacement Command at San Diego. I retired from the Marine Corps on May 15, 1946, at the age of 64.
Today I live in a little white house by the side of the road, strive to be a friend to my fellow man, and raise flowers, vegetables, and grandchildren.
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