6-27 Iwo Jima
IWO JIMA -- Many battles of World War II claim the title of the greatest, but Iwo Jima must be the winner. More medals for valor were awarded than in any other battle. Of the 84 medals of honor Marines were awarded in four years of war, 27 of them were in that one-month battle.
Iwo Jima was one of the most intense and closely-fought battles of any war. The victors suffered more casualties than the vanquished for the first and only time in the war. The Japanese did suffer more fatalities than we did, partly because of our superior medical treatment, but mostly because the Japanese bushido code required warriors to fight to the death.
A pattern of mounting casualties and fiercer resistance emerged as our troops neared the Japanese homeland. Such considerations weighed heavily in our controversial decision-making process about whether to invade Japan.
Controversy literally surrounded the battle for Iwo Jima. The Navy wasn't enthusiastic about it, but the Army Air Corps wanted it for disabled B-29s on their return from bombing Japan.
Everyone knew it would be a major battle, but no one guessed how major. We guessed Japan had 12,000 defenders. It turned out to be more than twice that. And they were all underground in a sophisticated system of caves, tunnels and dugouts. Most of our troops never saw a live Japanese soldier. They lived in blockhouses and pillboxes from which they could fire on any advancing troops.
Gen. Holland M. "Howlin Mad" Smith wanted 10 days of heavy naval bombardment to soften up the enemy, but the Navy would only give him three days. When the Marines hit the beaches, they were pinned down from their first step. Combat units were taking 50 percent casualties. Soon, 3rd Division Marines had to be landed to replenish losses of the 4th and 5th divisions.
In a day of fighting, Marines were able to cut off the narrow isthmus that separated Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island. And then came the effort to climb the mountain. Four days later, they had fought their way to the top, clearing tunnels of the Japanese defenders.
The following morning a patrol was sent up the mountain to defend it and to fly a small flag. It met little resistance, many of the remaining defenders having been killed while trying to escape the previous night. The flag was planted with some effort in the hard ground.
Gen. "Howlin Mad" Smith, displeased that the flag was too small, ordered that a larger one be taken from one of the cruisers and placed on top of Suribachi, so every (man) on the island could see it.
Pictures of both flag raisings were taken. The first was by a Navy photographer. The second was by the Associated Press. The AP photo was in newspapers worldwide the next morning and won the photographer a Pulitzer Prize. The Navy photo eventually made it up the chain of command was cleared for release a week later. It received scant notice.
But the soldiers involved knew what had happened and weren't pleased with the way the media or the government handled the publicity. It is a fascinating story that was finally told recently in the best selling Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, the son of one of the flag raisers.
Taking Suribachi gave the Marines a commanding view of the island to fire on enemy positions. But the worst of the fighting was still to come. It would take three more weeks of carnage and death to roust the unseen enemy from its tunnels and caves.
Our Navajo code talkers played a major role in taking the island. Three of them were killed in the action. This also is the battle in which the Pima Indian, Ira Hayes, from Arizona, gained fame as the only person to be a part of both flag raisings.