The picture echoes through the ages. In 2010, it is more than just a flag. It has come to mean so many things: bravery, sacrifice, death, horror, honor, courage, etc. The American soldiers who landed on the black sand of Iwo Jima were battle hardened. They knew what to expect from their enemy. They had met them at Guadalcanal, the Marianas, and Peleliu. But as the island hopping campaign grew closer and closer to the mainland of Japan, the fighting spirit of the Japanese grew more and more deadly.
Eugene Sledge said of the Pacific War:
“You developed an attitude of no mercy because they had no mercy on us. It was a no-quarter, savage kind of thing. At Peleliu, it was the first time I was close enough to see one of their faces. This Jap had been hit. One of my buddies was field-stripping him for souvenirs. I must admit it really bothered me, the guys dragging him around like a carcass. I was just horrified. This guy had been a human being. It didn’t take me long to overcome that feeling. A lot of my buddies hit, the fatigue, the stress. After a while the veneer of civilization wore pretty thin.”
From February 19, 1945 to March 26, 1945, over 110,000 American soldiers would take on an estimated 18,000 forces of the Empire of Japan. Through those five weeks, some of the bloodiest and most savage fighting in the war took place. The Island itself was an insignificant piece of land except for its airfields. 650 nautical miles from the homeland, the island could provide US forces much easier access to attack the Japanese mainland without bombers running out of fuel.
The Japanese had dug a massive tunnel complex throughout the island including inside the dormant volcano of Mount Suribachi. The US Marines were to land on the beaches and to take the airfields – basically, cutting the island in two. The Marines landed to no resistance. The Japanese strategy was to let the Americans fill the beaches with men and equipment before opening fire. Form their positions, the Japanese had pinpoint artillery to most places on the island. For the next five weeks, the fighting was fierce. During the day, the US attacked Japanese positions. At night the Japanese would launch assaults on US positions.
Ted Allenby said:
“The casualty rate was enormous. It was ghastly. Iwo [Jima] was a volcanic island with very little concealment … Few trees. No grass. It was almost like a piece of the moon that had dropped down to earth. I don’t think there’s been any place with more dismemberment, more bodies cut to pieces.”
The Japanese would not surrender. Over 18,000 confirmed Japanese casualties were taken on Iwo Jima. The US lost only 6,000+ but suffered another 19,000 injured and wounded. The casualty rate of 25% is shocking in today’s terms, but as the US got closer and closer to the mainland, the casualty rate kept getting higher. For the men who served on Iwo Jima, it was hell on Earth. Time became the enemy of the Japanese as much as the Americans. Supplies of food, water, and ammunition could not last the Japanese forever. As March dragged on, the defeat grew imminent. Nighttime attacks grew in ferocity and frequency.
The capture of Iwo Jima came at a high cost but its capture also sped up the end of the war. Iwo Jima, in addition to its airfields, was also a key listening/radar post which could warn the mainland of approaching US aircraft. After the battle, the US set up shop at the airfields and it became a key airfield in the dropping of the atomic bombs.
On film, Clint Eastwood eloquently captured the horror of this conflict in both Flags of Our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima. There are several fine documentaries on the battle, most notably, the History Channel’s Shootout. Episode 8of The Pacific series on HBO will put its own spin on Iwo Jima through the eyes of Eugene Sledge and John Basilone who returns to combat after raising war bonds and training soldiers for combat.
Here are interesting accounts by soldiers who served on Iwo Jima and were consultants for The Pacific.