Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands March 14, 1945

On this date in 1945 the U.S. flag was raised over the 8.1‑sq‑mile/­21‑sq‑km island of Iwo Jima in a for­mal flag-raising cere­mony. The Battle of Iwo Jima (Febru­ary 19 to March 26, 1945)—a battle for the iso­lated and bar­ren Japa­nese-held island lying some 760 miles/­1,223 km 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/­547 km closer to the Japanese Home Islands.

Japanese Army and Navy troops had burrowed deep into the vol­ca­nic rock and black powdery soil, creating a defen­sive strong­hold of well-con­cealed tunnels, bunkers, machine-gun nests, and spider (one‑man) holes 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/­152 m away.

Nearly 22,000 Japanese defenders died or committed suicide during the 36‑day cam­paign, which began on the third Monday of Febru­ary 1945 when U.S. 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, on a 2‑mile-long/­3.2‑km-long inva­sion beach on the island’s southern coast and on a second landing site north of Mt. Suri­bachi on the western coast. Marines, sailors, and Sea­bees suffered over 6,700 killed out of some 26,500 casu­al­ties, 548 men killed out of 2,420 casu­al­ties the first day. Identified as “Hot Rocks” in the opera­tions plan for its assault, Mt. Suri­bachi, at 556 ft/­169 m the defining geo­graphical land­mark on the island as well as the site of the flag-raising made famous by Joe Rosen­thal’s iconic photo­graph, was captured on Febru­ary 23. Later that day Chap­lain Charles Suver and his assis­tant trudged to the moun­tain­top and promptly cele­brated Mass under the flag while other Marines were still clearing near­by caves of Japa­nese defenders. His altar—a board propped across two empty fuel drums. On Easter, a Pres­by­te­rian chap­lain held services there complete with a volunteer choir of Marines.

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/­3,048 m) night aerial attacks that met no signif­i­cant Japa­nese resis­tance. For the rest of the war the island served as an emer­gency landing strip for Amer­i­can bombers that were damaged by anti­air­craft fire, low on fuel, and/­or carrying wounded crew­men returning from a bombing run. (The first crippled B‑29 to make an emer­gency landing, Dinah Might, did so as U.S. Marines were still fighting to secure the island.) Some 2,400 emer­gency stops were made over the next 5 months, saving more than 27,000 trained and there­fore val­u­a­ble air­men from an un­cer­tain fate when their planes landed safely on Iwo Jima’s air­strips. Per­haps equally val­u­a­ble to the war effort were the damaged aircraft that were repaired and returned to service.

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

Iwo Jima map

Above: Location of the pork-chop-shaped island of Iwo Jima in relation to Tokyo (760 miles/­1,223 km due north) and the Mariana Islands (Saipan, 650 miles/­1,046 km to the south­east). Iwo Jima was a Japa­nese cita­del pro­tecting the home­land. Iwo Jima had two com­pleted air­strips with a third under con­struction. Amer­i­can intel­li­gence reported that there were 13,000 Japa­nese defenders on the island, when in fact there were nearly 22,000. 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 flo­tillas of the long-range Super­for­tresses passed north overhead. Operators were also able to garner advance notice of U.S. air strikes directed at Iwo Jima itself.

Battle of Iwo Jima: Marines seek cover on Iwo Jima beach, February 21 or 22, 1945Battle 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 the size of BBs 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 searching in vain for cover. A colonel who had landed 900 men on the morning of L‑Day (landing day) reported only 150 men were still on their feet at the end of the first day.

Right: A Marine fires his Browning M1917 machine gun at a Japa­nese posi­tion. Marines encountered intense artil­lery fire on Iwo Jima. Japa­nese troops on the island cita­del served under their ingen­ious and cou­ra­geous com­mander, 53‑year-old Gen. Tada­michi Kuri­ba­yashi. A deputy mili­tary attaché to Washing­ton, D.C., in the late 1920s, Kuri­ba­yashi was a veter­an of the con­quest of Hong Kong (Decem­ber 18–25, 1941), served as the chief of staff of the Japa­nese 23rd Army, and then com­manded the pres­ti­gious Impe­rial Guards Divi­sion in Tokyo. A strong believer in the con­cept of defense in depth, he and his men 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 positionsIwo Jima: Joe Rosenthal’s raising Stars and Stripes over Mt. Suribachi

Left: A U.S. 1.5‑in/37‑mm gun fires against Japa­nese cave posi­tions in the north face of 556‑ft‑tall/­169‑m-tall Mt. Suri­bachi, an extinct volcano. 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. Indeed, unique among Marine battles, total U.S. casual­ties (wounded and dead) exceeded those of the enemy. Only 216 Japa­nese defenders were captured during the cata­clys­mic battle. Marines came to grudg­ingly respect the bravery of the Japa­nese sol­dier on Iwo Jima and agree that Gen. Kuri­ba­yashi was the best defen­sive commander they faced in the Pacific War.

Right: Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning black-and-white image depicts six Marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Mt. Suri­bachi on Febru­ary 23, 1945, five days into the Battle of Iwo Jima. Their 8 ft by 4 ft 8 in/­2.4 m by 1.45 m flag, borrowed from a Navy LST (Landing Ship, Tank), replaced a smaller one (5 in by 28 in/­1.4 m by 0.7 m) raised by 40 Marines earlier in the day. “Horns and sirens all over the island erupted and even the ships off­shore chimed in,” one Marine wit­ness recalled. Another Marine said at the time that the iconic moment “didn’t mean any­thing to me. All it meant was that now we won’t take any fire from behind us.” Three of the flag-raisers depicted in the Rosen­thal photo died at Bloody Gorge on the north side on the island, where the worst of the fighting took place. Three flag-raisers—Harold “Pie” Keller (formerly thought to have been Pvt. Rene Gagnon), Pvt. Ira Hayes, and Pvt. 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. Secre­tary of the Navy and eye­witness James For­res­tal remarked that the flag-raising image would ensure the exis­tence of the U.S. Marine Corps for the next 500 years. Former Army Air Forces cap­tain and Com­mander-in-Chief of all U.S. Armed Forces Presi­dent Ronald Reagan said: “Some people spend an entire life­time wondering if they made a differ­ence in the world. But Marines don’t have that prob­lem.” Today, a pris­tine white monu­ment dedi­cated to the Fifth Marine Divi­sion, whose men raised the famous flag, sits on the forward edge of Mt. Suri­bachi’s peak, facing the landing beaches below. Returned to Japa­nese juris­dic­tion in 1968, Iwo Jima welcomes civilian visitors once a year.

Contemporary Color Documentary from U.S. Government Office of War Information: “To the Shores of Iwo Jima”