Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands March 14, 1945

On this date in 1945 the U.S. flag was raised over the 10‑sq‑mile island of Iwo Jima in a for­mal flag-raising cere­mony. The Battle of Iwo Jima—a battle for the bar­ren Japa­nese-held island lying some 760 miles south­east of Tokyo—was the most bitterly con­tested of the war. Iwo Jima’s cap­ture was a pre­lude to the battle for Okinawa, 340 miles closer to the Japanese Home Islands.

Japanese Army and Navy troops had burrowed deep into the vol­ca­nic rock and powdery soil, creating a defen­sive strong­hold of well-con­cealed tunnels, bunkers, and machine-gun nests intended to inflict max­i­mum casual­ties on U.S. forces and delay their pro­gress toward their home­land. Each side inflicted enor­mous car­nage on the other, partly because the bar­ren terrain offered little cover, and partly because the key wea­pons for clearing out the thou­sands of Japa­nese posi­tions were hand gre­nades, hand­held flame­throwers, and “Ronson” or “Zippo” tanks that shot flaming liquid on targets almost 500 ft away.

Over 22,000 Japanese defenders died or committed suicide during the 36‑day cam­paign, which began on Febru­ary 19 when landing craft unloaded 30,000 men from the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Marine Divi­sions (the first of 70,000), along with am­phib­ious vehicles and equip­ment. Marines and sailors suffered over 6,700 killed out of some 26,500 casu­al­ties. Mt. Suri­bachi, at 556 feet the defining geo­graphical land­mark on the island and the site of the flag-raising made famous by Joe Rosen­thal’s iconic photo­graph, was captured on Febru­ary 23, but resis­tance con­tinued at the north end of the island for three more weeks.

Capturing Iwo Jima, which lay mid­way between the Mari­ana Islands and Japan, had been moti­vated by the desire to fly long-range P‑51 Mus­tang fighters from the island to escort four-engine B‑29 heavy bombers from their Mariana bases in day­light raids on Japan. That proved unneces­sary when U.S. Army Air Forces resorted to low-alti­tude (under 10,000 ft) night aerial attacks that met no signif­i­cant Japa­nese resis­tance. The island served as an emer­gency landing strip for Amer­i­can bombers for the rest of the war. Some 2,400 emer­gency stops were made over the next five months. Most of the landings were pre­cau­tionary, but if 10 per­cent of the crews were saved, that represented about 2,600 airmen.

Battle of Iwo Jima, February 19 to March 26, 1945

Iwo Jima map

Above: Location of Iwo Jima in relation to Tokyo (760 miles due north) and the Mariana Islands (Saipan, 650 miles to the south­east). Iwo Jima was a Japa­nese cita­del pro­tecting the home­land. Japa­nese air­craft from Iwo Jima were able to bomb U.S. B‑29 bases in the Marianas, and radio opera­tors on Iwo Jima were able to send advance warning to the Japa­nese Home Islands every time B‑29s passed north overhead.

Battle of Iwo Jima: Marines seek cover on Iwo Jima beach, February 21 or 22, 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima: A Marine fires Browning M1917 machine gun at Japanese position

Left: Members of the 1st Battalion 23rd Marines burrow in the black vol­canic sand on an Iwo Jima beach while their fellow Marines unload supplies and equip­ment from landing craft under a rain of artillery fire from Japanese positions in the back­ground. Amphib­ious tractors floundered in the sandy soil and trenches and fox­holes collapsed as soon they were dug. Marines crawled across the island’s blasted landscape yard by yard.

Right: A Marine fires his Browning M1917 machine gun at a Japa­nese posi­tion. Marines encountered intense artil­lery fire on Iwo Jima. Japa­nese troops under their ingen­ious and cou­ra­geous com­mander, Gen. Tada­michi Kuri­ba­yashi, were respon­sible for the deaths of a third of all U.S. Marines killed during the entire four‑year Pacific con­flict. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors, many post­humously, more than were awarded for any other single operation during the war.

Battle of Iwo Jima: Firing on Japanese cave positions Iwo Jima: Joe Rosenthal’s raising Stars and Stripes over Mt. Suribachi

Left: A U.S. 1.5‑in (37mm) gun fires against Japa­nese cave posi­tions in the north face of 556‑ft‑tall Mt. Suri­bachi. These light but extremely accu­rate wea­pons did some of their best work in the south­ern part of the island. Over 35 days approx­i­mately 28,000 com­batants died, in­cluding 6,821 Amer­i­cans and nearly 22,000 Japa­nese by fighting or ritual sui­cide, making Iwo Jima one of the cost­liest battles of World War II. Only 216 Japa­nese defenders were captured during the cataclysmic battle.

Right: Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image depicts six Marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Mt. Suri­bachi five days into the Battle of Iwo Jima. Their flag, borrowed from an off­shore Navy ship, replaced a smaller one raised earlier in the day. Three of the flag-raisers—privates Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and Harold Schultz (formerly thought to have been Phar­macy Mate Second Class John Bradley)—sur­vived the horrific com­bat. Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes partici­pated in a war bonds tour in the States that featured reenactments of the flag raising.

The Battle of Iwo Jima, February–March 1945