Saipan Island, Northern Marianas January 7, 1945

In early October 1944, nearly three years into the Pacific War, the U.S. high com­mand decided that, after securing the Philip­pine island of Leyte (done before the end of Decem­ber), Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur was to lib­er­ate neigh­boring Lu­zon Is­land, while Fleet Adm. Ches­ter Nimitz, from his station in the Cen­tral Pacific, would attack the Japa­nese-held island of Iwo Jima, eight square miles of steaming, sul­fur­ous, vol­can­ic rock located 675 miles from the Japa­nese capital, Tokyo (see map). The cap­ture of Iwo Jima would be followed up by an attack on the island of Oki­nawa 950 miles to the north­west. Oki­nawa was mid-posi­tioned in the Ryu­kyu Island chain some 325 miles from the southern­most Japa­nese home islands and pre­sented itself as a po­ten­tial for­ward base for land, air, and naval formations in the invasion of Japan.

On this date, January 7, 1945, the U.S. Seventh Air Force sent eleven B‑24 Liber­ators from Sai­pan Island in the west­ern Pacif­ic Ocean to pum­mel and destroy the three enemy air­fields on Iwo Jima. (One of the three was under con­struc­tion.) Since the start of the year, more than 130 air­craft from Saipan and Guam had bombed Iwo Jima day and night. Typ­i­cally com­prising less than 20 air­craft, day­light missions bombed air­fields, anti­air­craft­ posi­tions, and radar sites. Night­time harass­ment mis­sions, or snooper (radar-assisted bomb release) mis­sions, comprised half that.

The island’s Japa­nese defenders, with their fighters and bombers, posed seri­ous problems for XXI Bomber Com­mand’s fleet of long-range B‑29 Super­fort­resses; for exam­ple, bombing U.S. bases on Sai­pan and sending advance warning to the home islands every time Super­for­tresses passed over­head. At least 39 more days of bombing runs would take place before Oper­a­tion Detach­ment, the con­quest of Iwo Jima, began on Febru­ary 16, 1945, when fire-support ves­sels and carrier air­craft began a three-day pre-landing bom­bard­ment of the pork-chop-shaped island. U.S. Marines would face over 21,000 armed, well-trained, and well-led Japa­nese soldiers and marines sheltered in a vast spider web of caves, tun­nels, and hidden rein­forced con­crete forti­fi­ca­tions, block­houses, pill­boxes and dug­outs nearly im­per­vi­ous to U.S. air and naval bom­bard­ment. For nearly 40 days, Iwo Jima became the most bitterly con­tested spot on the planet, a place of death for 6,821 Amer­i­cans and some 20,000 Japa­nese. The signi­fi­cance of the Amer­i­can victory meant that begin­ning April 7 P‑51 Mus­tang fighter escorts based on Iwo Jima would accom­pany B‑29s from the Marianas on their deadly mission to end Japan’s ability to continue the war.

Some of the most vicious combat anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific. Of the many fine first­hand accounts by those who fought there I have three favor­ites: Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Oki­nawa, and Chuck Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Along­side John Basi­lone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima. For those less keen on reading about com­bat in the Pacific than viewing it, I recom­mend HBO’s homage to the men and women who fought and died in the Pacific Theater. Pro­duced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spiel­berg, and Gary Goetz­man, The Pacific is a 10part mini­series that delivers a gritty and real­is­tic por­trait of the war’s island-hopping cam­paigns as seen through the inter­twined odys­seys of Marines Leckie, Sledge, and Medal of Honor recipi­ent John Basi­lone, who was trag­ically killed on Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 19, 1945, the first day of the island’s invasion.—Norm Haskett

Iwo Jima, Japanese Citadel Protecting the Homeland

Iwo Jima map

Above: Location of Iwo Jima midway between Tokyo (675 miles to the north) and the Mari­ana Islands (Sai­pan, 650 miles to the south­east). Enemy air­craft from Iwo Jima were able to bomb U.S. B‑29 bases in the Mari­anas. Also, Iwo Jima radio opera­tors were able to send two hours advance warning to the Japanese home islands every time B‑29s passed north over­head, as well as garner advance notice of U.S. air strikes directed at Iwo Jima itself.

U.S. naval bombardment of Iwo Jima, February 16, 1945Marine Corps Iwo Jima pre-invasion briefing aboard ship

Left: The battleship USS New York uses its 14-in main guns to bombard Japanese defenses on Iwo Jima, Febru­ary 16, 1945. Eight months earlier, starting on June 15, 1944, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Air Forces began naval artillery shelling and aerial bombings against Iwo Jima that would become the longest and most intense conflict in the Pacific theater. The cata­clys­mic bom­bard­ments and aerial bombings con­tinued through Febru­ary 19, 1945, the first day of U.S. Marine Corps amphibious landings.

Right: A Marine lieutenant discusses the overall impor­tance of seizing Iwo Jima at a pre-invasion briefing aboard ship. On Febru­ary 19, 1945, the first of nearly 30,000 U.S. Marines from the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Marine Divisions invaded the tiny volcanic island, less than a third the size of New York’s Man­hat­tan Island, in what was supposed to be a 10‑day battle against 9,000 Japa­nese. About 40,000 more Marines would follow. Over the next 35 days, approx­i­mately 26,000 com­bat­ants died or went missing, including 20,000 Japa­nese and 6,821 U.S. Marines and sailors, making Iwo Jima one of the cost­liest battles of World War II.

Marine Corps landing, Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945 (1)Marine Corps landing, Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945 (2)

Above: U.S. Marines going ashore on Iwo Jima, Febru­ary 19, 1945. Photos made by a U.S. Navy photo­grapher who flew over the 450‑ship armada. Marines, who began landing on the south end of the island at 8:59 a.m., said the island looked like it was on fire due to the preceding three-day naval bom­bard­ment. The initial wave was not hit by Japa­nese fire for some time. Only after the front wave of Marines reached a line of Japa­nese bunkers defended by machine gunners did they take hostile fire. Many concealed Japa­nese bunkers and firing positions opened up, and the first wave of Marines took devastating losses from the machine guns.

Tracked landing vehicles approach Iwo Jima beaches, February 19, 1945Marines inch their way up a slope toward Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi

Left: With Mt. Suri­bachi, an extinct volcano, looming 556 ft above the six invasion beaches, tracked landing vehicles (LVTs), jam-packed with 4th Marine Division troops, approach Iwo Jima at H‑hour on L‑Day (landing day), Febru­ary 19, 1945. Inside two weeks two-thirds of the infantry­men who were put ashore on L‑Day were casual­ties. Three weeks later, on March 26, 1945, at the con­clu­sion of the Battle of Iwo Jima, 9,098 of the original 24,452 offi­cers and enlisted men of the 4th Marine Division were either dead or had been wounded.

Right: Men of the 5th Marine Division inched their way up the vol­canic sand slope toward Mt. Suri­bachi at the south end of the island as smoke from the battle drifted above them, Febru­ary 19, 1945. The first minutes of fighting took a terrifying toll on the Marines. From their beach­head they could not see where the Japa­nese, who were heavily dug in and forti­fied, many in bunkers and caves, were hiding. Marines ran 2 miles across the open beach while taking heavy machine-gun, mortar, rocket, artil­lery and rifle fire—long ago zeroed-in to create a deadly blanket of fire. Weighed down with over 20 pounds of gear, running across the soft, yielding volcanic sand was an unimag­i­nable horror—like running through thick, fire-raked molasses. Seven hun­dred and sixty Marines made a near-sui­ci­dal charge across to the other side of the island on the first day. By that evening the 554‑ft-tall Japa­nese citadel, with its heavy artil­lery behind rein­forced steel doors, had been cut off from the rest of Iwo Jima.

Marines landing on Iwo Jima, February 1945Marines seek cover on Iwo Jima beach, February 21 or 22, 1945

Left: U.S. Marines encountered intense artillery fire from enemy posi­tions, Febru­ary 19, 1945. Japanese troops under their com­man­der on Iwo Jima, Lt. 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.

Right: Members of the 23rd Marines’ 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Division burrow into the black volcanic sand on Yellow Beach 1, while their com­rades unload supplies and equip­ment from LSTs (landing vessels) despite being pounded by heavy artil­lery fire from enemy posi­tions in the back­ground. Their initial objec­tives were Air­fields No. 1 and No. 2. Based on the LSTs shown on the beach­head, this photo was taken on either the February 21 or 22, 1945.

U.S. Government Film Circa 1945 Titled “To the Shores of Iwo Jima”