Iwo Jima

The Pacific: Iwo Jima

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.

For further reading on places in the mini-series The Pacific:
Iwo Jima
Australian War Effort

Here are interesting accounts by soldiers who served on Iwo Jima and were consultants for The Pacific.


Defining Images and the Homefront – The Camera at War

In February of 2009, the Department of Defense reversed a long-standing policy of allowing the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers to be shown to the public. This new policy reverses the restriction put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and carried out by George W. Bush for soldiers killed in the War on Terror. Photography has had the power to change the course of wars here at home – for good and for bad. In the one hundred seventy year history of photography, images of war not only have captured our hearts, but they have also changed our minds.

The Mexican-American War saw the first images of soldiers being captured for posterity. Rather than battlefield scenes, the soldiers posed for portraits for their loved ones. But it would be Matthew Brady’s photographs in his gallery in New York City that began to show the impact that war would have on the public.

Had the linotype been mass-produced at the time, the magazines and national newspapers could have had an effect.

During the fight for the great plains, The Battle of Little Big Horn spurred the American public to put the Indians on the reservations. But it was the Massacre at Wounded Knee that caused the American public to recoil. The frozen images stunned the public in to calling off the Cavalry.

During World War I, president Wilson placed restrictions on what could and could not be said about the war in the press. Lincoln had done the same in the Civil War, but the images and reaction towards the US and the “merchants of death” would not be felt until after the war.

During World War II, it was actually an image that helped save a country and inspire the nation to finish up the task at hand. The second photograph taken at the raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi would inspire not only these down below on the 8 square mile island, but those at home. The US army would actually send the flag raisers on a tour to help raise money for the nearly bankrupt country.

However, it was in Vietnam that the whole photography and freedom of the press corps set up the policy envisioned first by Reagan in Grenada and then George H.W. Bush in 1991. War photographers in Vietnam had total freedom to go wherever and whenever they wanted or needed to. All they needed was a ride. And if they couldn’t find a ride, chances were the combatants were going to be killing each other the next day.

About ten years ago the History Channel released a documentary called “The Camera at War” about the photographs and the photographers that helped changed the war. The documentary is my favorite of all time. I still show it to my students spread out over the course of two days. From a burning monk to Eddie Adam’s execution (below) to My Lai to Kent State, the Vietnam War was the first “in-your-face” war. My earliest memories are of sitting around the dinner table and watching the images filter into the living room.

As a result of these images, and many more, the government would end its relationship, and funding, of the South Vietnamese regime. As the images on the news combined with images in Life Magazine slowly filtered to the American public over time, so did the support for Johnson and the military in this country.


When the 1980s and Reagan’s military excursion against Grenada came to be, the press was not even involved. In Grenada, as in Operation Desert Storm, the Defense Department strictly controlled the flow of information and images. It was only after Desert Storm ‘s ground war ended did the carnage become clear. Up until then, the only images seen were of laser guided weaponry. The images most Americans remember are actually the sight of Schwarzkopf and his amazing press conferences and smart weapons.

September 11 reminded Americans how Democracy and the press worked. Some of the images of the day were not only staggering but also acted as inspiration for a generation of Americans.

However, when it came to go into Iraq, the press was embedded with a specific unit. The images that flooded into the living rooms of the 1960s did not come as quickly in the spring of 2003. However, striking images did come and they would change the course of the war.

Initially, the falling statue of Saddam and the shoe beating it took struck a chord with many Americans. When President Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier that summer, it was a banner behind him that prematurely signalled the end of the war and also began the long insurgency which would last almost five years.

The most famous images from Iraq actually do not come from the press but they would have a huge impact. The pictures taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib would do more to keep the anti-war movement going just as Eddie Adams “The Execution” did in the 1960s.

When it is all said and done, the images can sway public opinion either way. The images last long after the war and remain a record of the war. Along with letters of soldiers, they are just a valuable record of the events and more valuable than the government record. However, when the next war comes, even in Afghanistan, the battle will be fought again between the press and the government for the hearts and minds of Americans.