Chidori Airstrip, Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands June 19, 1944

On this date in 1944 Japanese Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuri­bay­ashi stepped from his plane onto the dirt run­way of Iwo Jima’s Chi­dori air­strip, or Air­field No. 1. Iwo Jima, roughly 8 square miles of mostly black vol­ca­nic ash and stone (cin­der) anchored by 554‑ft‑high Mt. Suri­bachi, had been a Japa­nese pos­ses­sion since 1891. For much of its recorded his­tory the island’s worth to the Japa­nese Empire lay in a sul­fur quarry and refin­ery, which employed a small civil­ian work­force. Even before mid‑1944, when U.S. sol­diers, sailors, Marines, and air­men polished off the 40,000-strong Japa­nese mili­tary garri­sons on Sai­pan and Tinian islands (see map below for loca­tion), Tokyo realized the stra­te­gic impor­tance of Sulfur Island (Iō Tō), as Iwo was also called, to defending the home­land. Troops and supplies began pouring into Iwo Jima, chiefly from the Impe­rial Japa­nese Army’s 109th Divi­sion, since 1937 a veteran of the Sino-Japanese conflict.

Americans too grasped the impor­tance of Iwo Jima that same sum­mer and fall. Seizing enemy bases in air, sea, and ground oper­a­tions in an island-hopping drive north­ward, U.S. mili­tary brass appre­ci­ated Iwo’s poten­tial as a fighter escort base and an emer­gency air­field for U.S. Army Air Forces’ Twen­tieth Air Force B‑29 Super­fortress heavy bombers that would soon be making bombing runs over main­land Japa­nese cities, arma­ment and air­craft fac­to­ries, and army and naval air­fields and yards. The war­lords in Tokyo tasked Kuri­ba­ya­shi with making any Allied attempt to seize the island as painful as possible.

Summoned to the office of Prime Minister, War Mini­ster, and firebrand Gen. Hideki Tōjō in late May 1944, followed by an audi­ence with Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito, Kuri­ba­ya­shi (1891–1945) duti­fully accepted the no-return nature of the mis­sion for him­self and up­wards of 21,000 army and naval person­nel assigned to the island’s defense. Earlier in his career Captain Kuri­ba­ya­shi spent 2 years in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., as a mili­tary attaché and thus saw Amer­i­can mili­tary and indus­try up close. Kuri­ba­ya­shi brought his exper­i­ence and per­spec­tive to the Im­perial Japa­nese Army Gene­ral Staff in Tokyo between 1933 and 1937. Under no illu­sions about Amer­i­can pro­wess, he con­fided repeatedly to his family, “Amer­ica is the last coun­try in the world Japan should fight.”

Kuribayashi’s appreciation of the mettle of his country’s enemy must certainly have grown after he absorbed the les­sons learned from the shel­lacking Amer­i­cans in­flicted on Japan’s mili­tary on Sai­pan (June 15 to July 9, 1944) and Tinian (July 24 to August 1, 1944). Fighting on the beach’s edge or launching waves of unsuc­cess­ful Banzai charges with wea­pons that included, absurdly, swords, sticks, and stones were scraped from his play­book. No, his stra­tegy con­sisted of a pro­longed defense of the island based on building an elab­o­rate sys­tem of fortified caves and sub­ter­ra­nean pas­sage­ways and cham­bers, some capa­ble of holding 300–400 men. The idea was to mini­mize the effects of U.S. aerial and naval bom­bard­ment and, secondly and more impor­tantly, con­nect myriad Japa­nese rein­forced con­crete block­houses, pill­boxes, and openings from which small-to-large cali­ber artil­lery, mortar, and rocket fire could thwart or kill as many encroaching enemy men and pieces of armor as pos­si­ble. By the time U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 19, 1945, more than 11 miles of Kuri­ba­yashi’s pro­jected 17 miles of passage­ways connecting defensive strongholds had been completed.

Kuribayashi planned a campaign of attrition in the hope that it would delay U.S. bombing of Japa­nese urban and indus­trial centers or, better yet, impel Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt’s admin­is­tra­tion to recon­sider invading his home­land if Amer­i­can casual­ties on Iwo Jima were suf­fi­ciently high to entice Japan’s enemies to the nego­ti­ation table and quickly make peace. Kuri­ba­yashi’s cam­paign was a stub­born and costly one for Iwo’s invaders and defenders. Japa­nese troops under their ingen­ious and cou­ra­geous com­mander were respon­sible for the deaths of between 6,102 and 6,821 Marines (sources vary), a third of all Marines killed during the entire four‑year Pacific con­flict. The U.S. Navy lost 719 men, the Army 41 killed or missing. Total U.S. casual­ties amounted to a quarter of the 110,000 service­members who took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. 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.

Iwo Jima: Japanese Citadel Protecting the Homeland

Location of Iwo Jima

Above: Location of the pork-chop-shaped island of Iwo Jima in relation to Tokyo (760 miles due north) and the Mari­ana Islands (Saipan, 730 miles to the south­east). Iwo Jima was a Japa­nese cita­del pro­tecting the home­land. Iwo Jima had two com­pleted air­strips with a third under con­struc­tion when the U.S. launched Oper­a­tion Detach­ment, the inva­sion of Iwo Jima. Amer­i­can intel­li­gence reported that there were 13,000 Japa­nese defenders on the island, when in fact there were between 21,000 and 23,000 well-trained, well-disci­plined, and initi­ally well-provi­sioned men from Army and Navy units. Iwo Jima-based Japa­nese air­craft 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. An early-warning radar station was also able to garner advance notice of U.S. air strikes directed at Iwo Jima itself.

Defending Iwo Jima: Kuribayashi planning tunnel systemDefending Iwo Jima: Dotted lines indicate the underground Japanese tunnel system under Hill 362A

Left: Just weeks after Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuri­bay­ashi’s arrival, Amer­i­can air and naval bom­bard­ment had demolished all 80 Japa­nese fighter air­craft parked on Iwo Jima’s air­strips, along with every single building. In this photo Kuri­ba­yashi (center) looks over a blue­print of deep under­ground defenses drawn up by mining engi­neers. By the time U.S. Marines hit the shores of Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 19, 1944, Kuri­ba­ya­shi’s gar­ri­son men had managed to honey­comb the island with more than 11 miles of tunnels and 5,000 caves, build rein­forced con­crete block­houses and mutually supporting hidden pill­boxes, bunkers, and other for­ti­fi­ca­tions, and emplace immo­bi­lized armored tanks, dug in and camou­flaged, in the broken terrain. Iwo Jima had been con­verted into an impreg­na­ble for­tress it seemed, virtually immune to naval and air bombardment.

Right: Sketch of Hill 362A on Iwo Jima’s northwest coast looking at top and 80‑ft-tall north face. Hill 362A had four sep­a­rate under­ground tun­nel sys­tems (repre­sented by dotted lines); one system reached over 1,000 ft in length and had 7 dif­fer­ent entrances and exits. Inside the hill were com­mand posts, hos­pi­tals, and ammu­ni­tion dumps—all intol­er­a­bly hot, stuffy, and humid as Kuri­ba­yashi char­ac­ter­ized the island’s sub­ter­ra­nean con­di­tions. This sketch is one of five pre­pared by the 31st U.S. Naval Construction Battalion.

Defending Iwo Jima: Japanese soldiers fire on U.S. forces struggling up the beachDefending Iwo Jima: View of invasion beach from Mt. Suribachi's torn peak

Left: In this painting by an unknown Japanese artist, enemy sol­diers take cover behind a wrecked Amer­i­can plane and fire down on Marine rifle­men and amtracs as they slog their way from a landing beach up slopes of soft vol­ca­nic ash seemingly unswayed by in­coming heavy mortar and artil­lery shells and spouting fire­balls of buried mines. In 36 days of hellish fighting approx­i­mately 28,000 com­bat­ants on both sides died. Amer­i­can sur­vi­vors exceeded 103,000 out of the 110,000 men from all ser­vice branches who engaged Iwo’s defenders. On the Japa­nese side, only 1,083 of the 22,786 stal­wart defenders sur­vived to be taken cap­tive during the cata­clys­mic island struggle, which offi­cially ended on March 26, 1945, when Iwo Jima was declared secure. Be that as it may, enough defenders (one source says as many as 3,000) managed to slip into hiding, pos­si­bly inspired by their fear­less com­mander-in-chief to “con­tinue to harass the enemy with guer­rilla tactics even if only one of us remains alive.” Over the next 3 months 1,602 deter­mined Japa­nese resisters were killed in small unit clashes by soldiers of the U.S. Army garrison force.
Right: In this painting by artist Chesley Bonestell, from high atop Mt. Suri­bachi Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) and trans­ports are visi­ble on the inva­sion beaches that were assigned to the U.S. Fifth Marine (closest in fore­ground) and Fourth Marine Divi­sions. Today, a pris­tine white monu­ment dedi­cated to the Fifth Marines sits on the for­ward edge of Mt. Suri­bachi’s peak, facing the landing beaches below. It was from among the Fifth Marine ranks that six men were selected on the after­noon of Febru­ary 23 to climb the extinct vol­cano for the second time and raise the flag made famous in Joe Rosen­thal’s Puli­tzer Prize-winning image. Secre­tary of the Navy James Forres­tal, an on-shore eye­witness, remarked that Rosen­thal’s widely renown black-and-white flag-raising photo­graph (pos­si­bly the most repro­duced photo­graph of all time) would ensure the exis­tence of the U.S. Marine Corps for the next 500 years. Returned to Japa­nese juris­dic­tion in 1968, the island welcomes civilian visitors once a year.

U.S. Government Office of War Information 1945 Color Documentary “To the Shores of Iwo Jima”

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