Securing the Island1
17 March-1 June 1945
Although Iwo Jima was declared "secured" at 1800 March 16, and "operation completed" at 0800 on the 26th, there was a good deal of ground fighting between these two dates, and even later. The Marines suffered 3885 casualties between 11 and 26 March.
1. The Mopping-up Process
It took a weeks' work -- 16 to 24 March -- to overcome an exceptionally tough pocket of resistance, a rocky gorge that led down to the sea not far west of Kitano Point. By the 24th it was reduced to an area of about 2500 square yards. General Kuribayashi's radio informed Major Horie at Chichi Jima on the 21st: "We have not eaten or drunk for five days. But out fighting spirit is still high. We are going to fight bravely till the last." On the 24th Horie received the last word from his commanding general: "All officers and men of Chichi Jima, goodbye."2
These Japanese defenders did not simply hole up and die; they continued to do all the mischief they could. On 26 March, shortly before dawn, a body of about 350, including a large number of officers wearing swords, crawled out of the gorge. They were heavily armed with knee mortars, rifles and hand grenades (some of them
American); a few were even wearing U.S. Marine uniforms. They took by surprise an insufficiently guarded VII A.A.F. and Seabee camp just south of Hirawa Bay. The Marine 5th Pioneer Battalion, which fortunately had bivouacked in this area, hastily formed battle line, and after a bitter struggle, lasting three hours, killed or drove off all attackers. The Japanese left some 250 of their number dead, but succeeded in killing 53 and wounding 119 American officers and men. General Kuribayashi may have been killed in this foray; but his body was not identified, and it seems more likely that this brave and resourceful officer committed hara-kiri in his subterranean command post.3 The Japanese naval commander, Rear Admiral T. Ichimaru, also disappeared.
The smoke of this battle of 26 March had hardly cleared when General Harry Schmidt USMC announced that the Iwo Jima operation was completed. To all intents and purposes it was, with airfield No. 1 already doing business for the B-29s. Admiral Nimitz, upon his first visit to the island on the 24th, ascertained that so far 65 Superforts had been saved from destruction by being able to make emergency landings on Iwo, and between 24 March and 21 April about 230 more used the island facilities.
On 25 March, when the Japanese air forces attempted their last raid on Iwo, they were picked up by radar and intercepted by island-based P-61s which shot down several and drove off the rest.
General Schmidt closed his command post and departed on the afternoon of 26 March. The 3rd Marine Division began loading for Guam next day. The 147th Infantry Regiment U.S. Army, which had begun landing on 21 March, now took over responsibility for mopping-up and garrison duty. Major General James E. Chaney USA became island commander.
Down to 1800 March 27 the Marine Corps and Navy casualties incurred in capturing Iwo Jima were as follows: -- 4
Marine Corps Navy5 Officers Men Officers and Men Killed in action 215 4,339 363 Died of wounds 60 1,271 70 Missing, presumed dead 3 43 448 Wounded in action 826 16,446 1,917 Combat fatigue casualties 46 2,602 ?
Up to and including 26 March the count of Japanese killed and sealed up in caves was 20,703,6 and only 216 had been taken prisoner. General Harry Schmidt then estimated that only 100 to 300 of the enemy were left alive on the island, which proved to be too optimistic.7
The Army now organized a systematic mop-up. An officer and ten men, Nisei who spoke Japanese, accompanied by prisoners who lent themselves to this work, broadcast invitations to surrender through loud-speakers, promising the Japanese good usage and plenty to eat and drink.8 Caves on the northwest coast of the island and northeast of the East Boat Basin, whose occupants proved deaf to these appeals, were blasted by flame-throwers and explosives and sealed. These methods netted 867 more prisoners in April and May, during which time 1602 more Japanese were killed. Isolated pockets long held out in various parts of the island. During the week of 2 April about 200 Japanese attempted to rush an infantry command post just above East Boat Basin; this fight lasted all night and all Japanese participating were killed. They also managed to blow
up a dump of 6000 cases of dynamite, which rocked the island and caused a number of casualties.9
On 1 April a submarine gasoline pipeline, buoyed at its seaward end, was brought ashore to reduce dependence on drummed gas, and four 1000-gallon gas tanks were set up ashore. Aviation gas could now be delivered directly from tankers. A second pipeline was later establish on the west side. Seabees began to construct No. 3 airfield in the north part of the island on 3 April. The 7th was a red-letter day, marking the first B-29 raid on Japan escorted by P-51 fighter planes based on Iwo. About 100 participated and they were aloft seven hours; 54 B-29s used Iwo fields during the day. Possession of Iwo more than doubled the efficiency of the Superfortress bombing missions against Japan.
2. Air Base and Conclusion
The writer, landing at Iwo 20 April 1945, counted 5330 crosses and stars in the Marine Corps cemetery. But there were about 31,000 soldiers, Air Force ground crews and Seabees on the island very much alive, healthy and in high spirits. Army officers said they wouldn't trade Iwo for any South Pacific island. The weather was cool and pleasant, and there was complete absence of mosquitoes and other wild life. The fact that everyone was active and helping the war effort kept morale high. The Seabees,10 three of whose battalions landed on D-day, and who started to activate No. 1 airfield on D-day plus 5, did outstanding work; General Holland M. Smith on his departure sent a message: "Let us remember the skillful work of the Seabees who, laboring under fire, immediately began to transform this barren wasteland into a powerful advance base." Over 7600 of them were on the island 20 April; their sick list, and average of only 40 per day, was less than it had been in the United States.
Iwo Jima as a Developed U.S. Air Base, September 1945
Survey ship Sumner (Commander Irving M. Johnson USNR) was busy making soundings and erecting beacons off shore; she had already published a preliminary chart of the island and surrounding waters.11
Above all, let us not forget the United States Marines, who conducted this, one of the toughest battles in their entire history, with exemplary endurance, skill and valor. Never before had that great fighting arm of the United States Navy covered itself with so much glory; the more so because it was not a spectacular battle, but one of steady slugging against a relentless, dug-in enemy. Battle casualties amount to 30 per cent of the entire landing force, 60 per cent in the infantry regiments of the 34d Division and 75 per cent in the infantry regiments of the 4th and 5th Divisions. During the five weeks of the campaign, 7500 battle replacements were provided, most of them coming under fire for the first time.12
The chief beneficiary of the seizure of Iwo Jima was the Army Air Force. Before the end of the war about 2400 B-29s landed on the island, carrying crews of some 27,000 men. One, nicknamed by her crew the "Oily Bird", crash-landed after being shot up over Tokyo so many times that the ground crew would bet every time a B-29 landed that it was she. Once a B-29 came down when the weather was so thick that the pilot had to land by guess, and when the plane stopped one wing was hanging over the cliff.1 Air-sea rescue planes based on Iwo Jima also rescued many crews of planes that splashed. Not all would have been lost without the island's facilities; but the fact that these facilities were there gave a tremendous boost to aviators' morale. There is no doubt that the capture of Iwo Jima, expensive as it was, became a major contribution to victory over Japan.
Unfortunately, and, in my opinion, unjustifiably, there developed two controversies over this operation, one within the Marine Corps
and the other in criticism of the Marine Corps. Marine historians have made much over the fact that General Schmidt originally asked for ten days' preliminary naval bombardment but Admirals Spruance and Turner would provide only three. Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, in his pungent postwar narrative, denounced this decision, brushed off the reasons for it,1 and implied that the adamant attitude of the Navy caused unnecessary casualties.
This serious charge deserves examination. All accounts agree that the nature of the defenses on Iwo was such that only direct hits on specific targets paid off. Aside from a lucky hit, about all that area bombardment could do was to blast off camouflage and reveal hidden targets. General Kuribayashi had purposely designed his defense to minimize the effect of bombardment, so that rules about dropping so many rounds of shell per hundred square yards meant nothing. There is no reason to believe that ten or even thirty days of naval and air pounding would have had much more effect on the defenses than the bombardment that was delivered. The defenses were such, by and large, that the only way they could be taken out was the way they were taken out, by Marine Corps infantry and demolitions. Combat engineers of the 5th Marine Division destroyed 5000 cave entrances and pillboxes in their divisional zone of operations alone. As many as 1000 caves and underground entrances were blasted on Mount Suribachi.15 Aerial bombardment and naval gunfire simply could not reach underground into the maze of caves and tunnels; yet these had to be cleared or sealed shut before the island could be secured as an air base on the Bonins' road to Tokyo. Robert Sherrod well said (in a dispatch that appeared in Time magazine on 12 March): "On Iwo the Japs dug themselves in so deeply that all the explosives in the world could hardly have reached them."
Commodore W.R. Carter has estimated that Iwo Jima, one-
fifteenth the area of Saipan, had one-third more bombardment ammunition expended on it than was expended on the Marianas island. The total amounted to 10,650 tons.16
The other and more serious controversy began with an attack on Navy strategy and Marine Corps tactics by the Hearst and McCormick press. This was largely a rehash of the arguments used against taking Tarawa in 1943. Why sacrifice men for a useless piece of real estate? Why do the Marines squander lives, in contrast to General MacArthur who saves them? To these criticism Hanson W. Baldwin patiently and convincingly replied in the New York Times. 17 He pointed out that Iwo was necessary to protect and enhance the B-29 strikes on Japan and that there was no easy alternative. He defended Navy stragegy and Marine Corps tactics as the best suited to the situation. He replied to armchair critics who demanded "Why wasn't poison gas used?" by pointing out that poison gas is a defensive weapon, the use of which on Iwo would have done the invaders more harm than good. He observed that many false notions about what can be accomplished by air and naval bombardment of islands stemmed from the fall of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean in 1943, where the Italian defenders had no heart to fight it out on the ground.18 He reminded the public that it cannot have an omelet without breaking eggs, and that the infantryman, in the last resort, is the one who has to push a campaign through to victory. All this is a true today as it was in 1945.
Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were three operations conducted in whole or in part by the Marines after the Japanese had adopted their new tactics of defense in depth against an amphibious invasion; and Iwo Jima was the hardest nut to crack because there the coastal shell, too, was tough. But in all three the Japanese made a highly intelligent use of natural features to exact the utmost in casualties. A comparison of casualties in the three regimental combat teams
that suffered most in each of these three operations is instructive.19
On Peleliu the 1st Marine RCT had 1749 casualties, highest of the three involved. On Iwo Jima the 26th CT of the 5th Marine Division suffered 2675 casualties. On Okinawa the 29th RCT of the 6th Marine Division had 2821. These comparisons indicate that losses at Iwo were not disproportionate to those in similar operations at that stage of the war.
Robert Sherrod wrote a succinct conclusion to this operation. "To the Marines, Iwo looked like the ugliest place on earth, but B-29 pilots who made emergency landings months later called it the most beautiful. One pilot flew eleven missions in the three months following the island's capture, and landed on it five times. Another said, 'Whenever I land on this island, I thank God and the men who fought for it.'"20
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (4) * Next Chapter (6)
1. Bartley Iwo Jima and Action reports cited earlier, especially those of Generals H.M. Smith and Harry Schmidt USMC.
2. The Horie document (see Chap. IV Note 4).
3. HQ Army Garrison Force G-2 Weekly Report No. 1, 2 April.; data obtained by the writer at Iwo 21 Apr. 1945. Different figures in Bartley p. 192.
4. Bartley pp. 220-221.
5. Including Navy Medical and Dental Corps officers and hospital corpsmen serving with Marines, Seabee, crews of gunfire support ships, aircraft carriers, transports and air units; but not including losses of TF 58 in strikes on Tokyo. There were also 37 casualties in Army units attached to V 'Phib Corps.
6. Writer's notes from Col. John K. Gowen, Head of Intelligence Section A.A.F. Command at Iwo, 26 Apr. 1945.
7. Writer's notes at Iwo Jima 21 Apr. 1945.
8. A merry peasant-type Japanese soldier, nicknamed "Tojo", was particularly effective on these propaganda forays. He became a great pet of the soldiers, who, in answer to his request for a few English words of politeness, taught him the most horrible blasphemies. It became routine for any work party passing "Tojo's" group to call out "Hey, Tojo! How are you today, Tojo?" upon which the little fellow would come to attention, spread a broad grin, bow politely and call out an obscenity which he had been led to believe meant "Thank you very much!"
9. HQ Army Garrison Force G-2 Weekly Report No. 2, 8 Apr.
10. These were the 8th Naval Construction Regiment, comprising the 8th, 90th, 95th, 106th and 23rd Naval Construction Battalions, and the 41st Naval Construction Regiment, composed of the 31st, 62nd and 133rd NCBs. (Notes from their War Diary, seen at Iwo 20-22 Apr. 1945.)
11. Sumner Monthly Report of Survey Activities for Mar. 1945; conversations with Cdr. Johnson at Iwo.
12. Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt Action Report 20 May 1945.
13. Honolulu Advertiser 2 June 1945.
14. The reasons were (1) that the carrier strikes on Tokyo, necessary to keep the kamikazes away, could not be extended beyond three days; (2) difficulty in replenishing ships' ammunition so far from base; (3) by the law of diminishing returns, three days' bombardment should accomplish about 90 per cent of the maximum.
15. 1st Lt. Walker Y. Brooks USMC "Engineers on Iwo" Marine Corps Gazette (Oct. 1945).
16. Beans, Bullets and Black Oil pp. 289-290.
17. Five installments, 5-9 March 1945.
18. See Vol. II Chap. XII.
19. This yardstick is best, as the total number of Marines in the three operations differed widely. The average combat strength of a Marine Corps RCT in World War II was 7500 officers and men.
20. Sherrod On to Westward p.153.
Last updated: February 4, 1996