Seventy-five years later, the sting of battle continues to drip through the hourglass of history.
It was Feb. 19, 1945, and the United States Marine Corps and United States Navy were poised to launch one of the bloodiest invasions in the storied history of the Marines. The target: a Sulphur-stinking pile of volcanic ash called Iwo Jima.
On this date in history, three Marine divisions were poised to assault Japanese soil. Located 800 miles from the mainland of Japan, the United States Navy and United States Army wanted Iwo Jima as a place for B-29 bombers to land if crippled after bombing runs over mainland Japan. Planners thought the Marines would capture the island in seven to 10 days, and then the final jumping off point on the way back to Japan could begin. That last stepping-stone was scheduled to take place beginning on April 1, 1945. That was the battle of Okinawa.
There were 21,000 Japanese soldiers dug in on Iwo Jima, and every one of them knew they were going to die. They had dug bunkers, built fortifications in caves, built tunnels to connect their underground positions that included interlocking fields of fire. They created a massive killing zone to welcome the Marines.
They knew they were never going home again and would never see their families. They were waiting to die for their emperor, Hirohito. They all knew the Marines were coming for them.
The Marines had marched across the southern and central Pacific beginning in 1942, and in every battle they had successfully captured their objectives and inflicted more casualties than the Japanese. The names of the islands still resonate through the ages with the Corps: Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, and a host of other islands.
Iwo Jima, however, was going to be different. The Japanese commander learned from the carnage of Peleliu and determined he would use the island’s terrain to protect his men and to inflict as many casualties as he could on the Marines. In fact, he extolled his men to kill at least 10 Marines before giving up their life for the divine emperor Hirohito.
It all began on this day. The Japanese plan was to let the first wave or two of the invading Marines land on the beaches, then they would open fire. Their machine guns, mortars and artillery had all been pre-sighted which meant the beach was going to be a cauldron of death. It was, and thousands of Marines were casualties on those beaches in the first few days.
Led by the 28th Marines, the invaders cut the island in two on the second day, thereby cutting off all the Japanese defenders in the ominous looking dormant volcano called Mt. Suribachi. The defenders holed up inside Mt. Suribachi had great fields of fire, a clear vision of the battlefield, and a determination to fight to the last man. On Feb. 23, the Marines finally captured Suribachi at great cost. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1945 the Marines hoisted a second flag on top of the volcano, and AP Photographer Joe Rosenthal was there to take one of the most famous combat photos of all-time. It was the iconic picture of six Marines planting the United States flag on top of the mountain. The flag raising photo won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, and it has been a symbol of valor and pride to all Marines and to every American to this day. In fact, there is an Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. that commemorates the flag raising. In Quantico, Va., the Museum of the United States Marine Corps is designed to reflect the same flag raising.
It took the Marines just over four weeks to take the Island, and when it was all said and done over 7,000 Marines had lost their lives. The Japanese lost over 21,000 men killed. In terms of total casualties, however, the Marines had suffered over 24,000 casualties of men killed and wounded. It was the only battle in World War II where the Marines suffered more casualties than the defenders.
When the commanders who planned the invasion reflected on the battle and reviewed what had happened, they were amazed and awed that the island was taken as quickly as it was given the intricate nature of the Japanese defenders.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, CINCPAC of the United States Navy and a native son of Fredericksburg, Texas had the highest praise for the Marines under his command: “On Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
I have met a number of veterans of this horrific battle over the years, and the scars and horror those men went through was with them all the days of their lives. A few years ago, I took two of my nephews to Washington DC to see the sights and history of our nation’s capital. I also took them to Quantico to the Marine Corps Museum. A Navy friend of mine is one of the head curators there, and after our tour was over he presented my nephews and I actual ash from the island of Iwo Jima.
It is one of my most prized possession. For me, I remember Pearl Harbor every year just as I remember 9-11.
I also remember this date. To all those brave Devil Dogs of the past, Semper Fidelis.