Seventy Years Later, Iwo Jima Still Makes the Mind Reel
Ferocious and bloody, the island battle was one of the worst of the Pacific War
Seventy years ago, Ralph Hite was a 17-year-old U.S. Marine who had no idea why the Corps had sent to a tiny Pacific island named Iwo Jima.
Fresh from fighting on Guam but with no briefing about their mission, he and his fellow Marines arrived Feb. 21, 1945, in a landing craft on Green Beach about 500 yards northeast of the foot of Mount Suribachi.
Just two days later, a photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag on Suribachi’s summit became arguably the most famous picture of World War II.
More than 70,000 Marines and Navy personnel participated in the massive invasion. Counting Japanese defenders, at one point there were more than 100,000 people battling on an island smaller than Manhattan.
“I jumped out of that boat, all gung ho,” Hite, now 88, told War Is Boring. “Nothing. Nothing. Quiet as can be.”
That all quickly changed. Thirty days later, the former high school baseball player from rural Oregon had seen Hell on Earth as the Battle of Iwo Jima transformed into some of the worst combat in Marine Corps history and the Pacific War.
Three of his sergeants died in action. So did a good friend. He narrowly escaped death when a mortar round hit a trench where he took cover to escape Japanese fire.
He endured an incompetent officer, weapons that jammed because of rust and the island’s volcanic sand, Japanese suicide attacks and snipers.
Hite said he was always confident that he and his fellow Marines would prevail against the Japanese. But then an enemy grenade showered him with metal fragments—he still has shrapnel in his body.
“I didn’t think they could kill me, but I found out that they could,” said Hite, a recipient of the Purple Heart. The war was over for him—he evacuated to Pearl Harbor where he spent months recovering from his wounds.
The five-week Battle of Iwo Jima is one of the most significant events of World War II. Fought to seize air bases later used as emergency landing fields for U.S. bombers, the Marines’ victory there undoubtedly saved the lives of air crews fighting for survival in crippled B-29s.
February marks two important 70th anniversaries in the history of the battle. On Feb. 19, combat operations first began. On Feb. 23, the iconic flag-raising took place.
But the Battle of Iwo Jima is more than dates on a calendar or the source of a famous photo.
Iwo Jima was notable for men of uncommon valor. Congress and the War Department approved 27 Medals of Honor for veterans of Iwo Jima—more recipients of the nation’s highest military honor than for any other battle in U.S. history.
The 22 Marines who received the Medal of Honor because of their heroism on Iwo Jima represent one-quarter of all the Marine Corps’ recipients during World War II.
Iwo Jima was also a victory symbolic of the rising tide of Allied success. The volcanic island is Japanese soil, only 660 miles south of the home islands, and was considered part of the Tokyo Imperial Prefecture.
Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander of the island, and his garrison of 22,000 men had spent months riddling the eight-square-mile island with tunnels, “spider holes,” pill boxes and machine gun nests. Every inch of the island was a battle zone. No part of the island was a rear area.
Veteran after veteran tells of Japanese soldiers who ferociously attacked seemingly out of nowhere both during the day and night, or apparently empty stretches of landscape that would suddenly fill with machine gun fire from hidden emplacements.
The cost in American lives was terrible. It’s the only battle during World War II where American casualties exceeded Japanese casualties—Japanese forces suffered 21,000 soldiers killed or wounded, while the Americans lost more than 26,000 killed or wounded.
Japanese losses were staggering, as well. Japan had three times as many combat deaths as American forces in the battle, and the Americans took prisoner only 216 Japanese soldiers. Many Japanese refused to surrender and fought to the death.
Some historians later questioned whether Iwo Jima was worth so many lives. American leaders decided after the invasion began to use Iwo Jima as an emergency base for B-29s—the original plan had been for Iwo Jima to be an intermediate airfield for staging bombing missions against Japan.
Under most circumstances, B-29s had enough range to carry their payloads and complete their missions while flying from their bases in the Mariana Islands.
But Shayne Jarosz, executive director of the Iwo Jima Association of America, told War Is Boring it is clear that American control of the island fulfilled an important strategic purpose.
Jarosz said the U.S. Army Air Force estimated up to 25,000 aircrews’ lives were saved not only because of emergency landings but also because Japanese radar installations on Iwo Jima were no longer used to guide enemy fighters to intercept American bombers.
In addition, both atomic bomb missions in August 1945 planned on using Iwo Jima as their emergency landing fields if they had to abort their missions, he said.
“We had to have Iwo Jima—there was no way to fly to Japan without flying over it,” said Jarosz, whose organization works to keep the island open to veterans and their families, since Iwo Jima returned to Japanese control by in 1968. “It’s easy to second guess in 2015, but when you look back at history, those guys had their backs against a wall.”
“Any historian who has never been there and never walked the battlefield with a veteran who can tell his story is really being unfair with those criticisms,” Jarosz continued.
A paragraph from an Army Air Force assessment of the battle’s results is illuminating. As far as the Air Force was concerned, the fact that Iwo Jima was in American hands was a lifesaver.
“Located about midway between Guam and Japan, Iwo broke the long stretch, both going and coming,” states a 1945 issue of Impact, the Army Air Force’s air intelligence magazine.
“If you had engine trouble, you held out for Iwo. If you were shot up over Japan and had wounded aboard, you held out for Iwo. If the weather was too rough, you held out for Iwo. Formations assembled over Iwo and gassed up at Iwo for extra-long missions. If you needed fighter escort, it usually came from Iwo. If you had to ditch or bail out, you knew that air-sea rescue units were sent from Iwo. Even if you never used Iwo as an emergency base, it was a psychological benefit.”
“It was there to fall back on,” the article notes.