Military history



The capture of Mount Suribachi signaled only the beginning of the battle for Iwo Jima. On Tuesday, the second day of fighting, when Harry the Horse and his 28th Marines had wheeled south against the volcano, the rest of the 5th Division, together with the entire 4th, had faced north for the up-island drive to victory.

It was a nightmare battle. No less than 23 of the men participating would later be awarded the Medal of Honor. In all, the astonishing total of 26 was earned by valor displayed during the fighting on Iwo Jima. One of these was earned by 17-year-old Private First Class Jacklyn Lucas. Standing only 5 feet 8 inches, but weighing 200 pounds, Lucas was a young bull. He was also a “deserter.” Eager to see combat, tired of tame duty in a quartermaster shed, he had “joined” the 5th Division by simply going aboard ship when that outfit left Hawaii.

On the first Tuesday morning at Iwo, Lucas and three other Marines were fighting in the 5th’s drive up Iwo’s west coast. They came to a ravine and were ambushed. Grenades began to fall. One of them dropped among the four Marines. Lucas dove on it. Another came in… Lucas pulled it to him, telling himself: “Luke, you’re gonna die.” The grenades exploded, but Lucas did not die. Though horribly wounded, and left for dead by the men he had saved, he survived to accept his Medal of Honor.

That same day, on the left, or western, flank Captain Robert Dunlap’s company was pinned down while they were attacking a cliff. Dunlap crawled forward through enemy fire to spot the Japanese gun positions. Then he crawled back to relay the information to the artillery and naval gunfire ships. He did this for two days and nights, until the Japanese guns were knocked out and the western beaches were made secure. With these beaches open, supplies could now be unloaded there and thus relieve the congestion on the landing beaches in the east. For his part in this key victory Captain Dunlap won the Medal of Honor.

On the right, or eastern, flank the 5th Division was fighting a fierce battle to overrun Airfield Number One. Throughout the morning, its units were riddled by enemy artillery. Land mines sown in deadly abundance all over the island took a toll of men and tanks. Before the day was over, the Marines were calling for their reserve.

The 21st Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division was ordered to go ashore. Its men were astonished. Calling for the reserve on the second day? It had never happened before in all the war. Many of these Marines had been confident that they would not be called into Iwo. “This one will be over in five days,” they said. Even General Schmidt did not believe the conquest of Iwo would take more than ten days.

Yet here, before noon on the second day, the 21st Marines were climbing over the side into their waiting boats. For six hours, in rain and a rough sea, these men circled off Iwo. Then they were ordered back to their transports. They would not come into Iwo until the following day.

Meanwhile, the Marines tried to get more artillery into Iwo. Ducks loaded with heavy 105-millimeter howitzers tried to make it ashore through mounting seas. One after another, eight ducks rolled out of Landing Ship 1032, only to be swamped and sunk by heavy waves. Of twelve guns, only two got safely ashore. Nevertheless, the bigger 155s got in. Landing Ship 779, already famous for being the first to beach at Iwo and for supplying the second flag to fly over Suribachi, came plowing up to the beach. She smashed through the wreckage, swung open her great bow doors—and disgorged four of the heavies on the sand.

The arrival of the 155-millimeter howitzers was an important turning point. These “high-angle fire” guns fired in a looping, up-and-down trajectory. Thus, they could drop shells on the enemy behind his hills, something not possible for the naval guns with their flat line of fire. Moreover, being on land and having their targets pinpointed for them by forward observers, the 155s were also more accurate than bombers. Because of these factors, they were a great help to the Marines as they drove deeper into General Kuribayshi’s bristling defenses.

On the third day, the cold rain that had slowed down the Marines moving against Suribachi also bogged down the Marines attacking north. The 4th Division on the right took heavy casualties as its men tried to overrun the high ground along the east coast. Here, Captain Joe McCarthy won a Medal of Honor by charging across open ground to knock out two pillboxes single-handedly. His objective achieved, he called his men forward to occupy a vital ridge.

On the same flank, little Sergeant Ross Gray fought like a one-man battalion. Sergeant Gray was known as “Preacher,” because he read his Bible regularly and had once maintained that he could not take another man’s life. But when his buddy was killed on Saipan, he changed his mind. On Iwo, Preacher Gray destroyed six pillboxes and killed 25 Japanese soldiers, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

That was how it went on the right flank during that desperate third day, February 21. By nightfall, the 4th Division had lost another 500 men, and the total casualties were up to 2,500.

On the left, the 5th suffered even more grievously. Here the relative flatness of the terrain enabled the Marines to use tanks. Behind these, and supported by shells, rockets and bombs from land, sea and air, the 5th ground out a large gain of 1,000 yards. But it cost 600 men and the 5th’s total casualties for the first three days now stood at 2,100

During the day, General Schmidt committed part of the reserve. The 21st Regiment of the 3rd Division came ashore and prepared to go into the center of the line the next day. In the meantime, the Japanese began an aerial counterattack.

Japan had one weapon left to halt the American advance in the Pacific. This was the kamikaze. The word means “divine wind,” and it commemorates an event immortal in Japanese history. In 1570 the Chinese Emperor assembled a vast fleet to invade Japan. Helpless, the Japanese awaited their doom. But then a kamikaze in the shape of a typhoon sprang up to wreck the Chinese fleet and Japan was saved.

In 1944 and 1945 the Japanese leaders made a desperate attempt to save Japan once again, this time from American “invaders.” Their strategy was based on the use of suicide pilots, called kamikaze. During the battles of Leyte and Luzon, kamikaze fliers had appeared in large numbers and, instead of dropping their bombs, they had flown directly into the ships of the American invasion fleet.

At dusk on February 21, fifty kamikaze attacked the ships lying off Iwo. Their first victim was the veteran aircraft carrier Saratoga. Six planes came plunging down on old “Sara Maru,” and two of them crashed in flames near her starboard waterline. A few minutes later another kamikaze grazed the Saratoga’s flight deck and blew a hold in it before crashing overboard. Nevertheless, Saratoga survived the attack. Her fire-fighting crews put out the fires and she began to receive her planes.

Twenty miles east of Iwo Jima the kamikaze came upon a circle of six American escort carriers. One of these was the Bismarck Sea. A mixture of rain and snow was falling when, at a quarter to seven, a kamikaze came boring in on Bismarck’s beam. A destroyer saw the plane but withheld fire, believing it to be friendly. It was not, of course, and the suicide plane struck squarely amidships. The stricken ship bucked and quivered. Torpedoes fell from a rack and exploded. Parked airplanes caught fire. Ammunition fell into the flames and began exploding.

At seven o’clock came the order: “Abandon ship!” Over the side, into the cold, black water, dove 800 American sailors and Marines. Down came the Japanese aircraft to strafe them while escort ships rushed to their rescue and fought off their inhuman assailants. Then there was a rocking explosion. Bismarck Sea’s stern had blown off, and she rolled over and sank. Lost in the waters around her were 218 Americans.

Three other American ships were also attacked that night, but none was lost. And of the 50 enemy aircraft that had come from Japan in the only successful counterstroke of the Iwo campaign, not one returned to base.

In the early morning darkness of February 22, the 3rd Division entered the fight. Its 21st Regiment relieved the exhausted 23rd of the 4th Division. Now forces advancing up the island consisted of the 5th on the left, the 3rd in the center and the 4th on the right. But the 3rd could make little headway in the center, attacking during a cold rain and under heavy enemy fire. By nightfall they had gained only 250 yards. The men of the 3rd had quickly learned that Iwo Jima was indeed an iron nut of an island to crack.

On the right, meanwhile, the 4th did little more than hold tight. But there were still casualties, and one of them was Jumpin’ Joe Chambers. A machine-gun bullet struck him in the left collarbone, piercing his lung and going out his back. As Colonel Chambers lay on the ground receiving medical treatment, Captain Jim Headley came up and tapped him gently on the foot. “Get up you lazy bum,” Headley teased. “You were hurt worse on Tulagi.” But Jumpin’ Joe could not get up this time, and with his evacuation the 25th Regiment had lost all three of the battalion commanders who had landed on D day.

On Friday, February 23, when the flag was raised over Suribachi the news was broadcast to the men attacking to the north.

“Mount Suribachi is ours,” a beachmaster blared over his bull horn. “The American flag has been raised over it by the Fifth Marine Division. Fine work, men.”

Marines in the north who dared to take their eyes from the front turned to squint to the rear. Some of them saw the flag. But they did not cheer, because their objectives still had to be taken. The bull horn might blare again: “We have only a few miles to go to secure this island,” but these young Marines knew what they would have to pay for a few miles. “Only,” they repeated. “Only…”

In the 3rd Division’s central sector the Marines would knock out a bunker or a pillbox and discover that they had ventured into a wicked maze that struck at them from every side. It was just not possible to find a weak spot. The destruction of a single position did not blast a hole which could be widened for a breakthrough. This was because Kuribayashi’s defense system was “mutually supporting.” An attack on one position not only drew the fire of its guns, but also the massed, converging fire of the other positions around it. Knocking out one position put only one small dent in the enemy’s front. It was as though the Japanese had constructed a gigantic Swiss cheese made of steel and concrete. Into this the 3rd Division rammed again and again with very little success.

One company simply could not move. While trying to budge the enemy they had lost eight of their nine flame throwers. The ninth was carried by Corporal Hershel Williams. Covered by four riflemen, Williams attacked. The first yellow burst from his flamer incinerated a Japanese sniper. Next, he destroyed four more enemy soldiers. Moving slowly forward, Williams burned out position after position. In a four-hour assault he destroyed one of the enemy’s key networks, and he won the Medal of Honor.

Nevertheless, the center had not moved forward far enough. The 3rd still lagged behind the 5th on the left and the 4th on the right. This prevented the formation of a straight line of attack from coast to coast. The flank divisions did not dare to move ahead for fear of opening gaps between themselves and the 3rd. General Schmidt saw the necessity of straightening the line of attack when he came ashore on the 23rd to take charge of the entire assault. It was also painfully obvious to General Erskine, commander of the 3rd, who had landed on Iwo, too. That night he told his Marines that they must drive forward next day “at all costs.”

February 24 was a Saturday. It began with the full weight of American firepower falling on the entrenched, unseen enemy. But the Marines of the 3rd Division had to attack without the benefit of their tanks. Very quickly two company commanders were killed. Lieutenant Raoul Archambault took over one of the companies. A decorated veteran of Bougainville and Guam, the tall, lanky Archambault was an inspiring leader. His men began to yell as he led them forward. Wind-whipped sand pelted their faces like fine buckshot. Yelling louder, the Marines swept through the first line of pillboxes. Then they sprinted up the slopes leading to Airfield Number Two.

Behind Archambault’s men the tanks were finally able to come up. They began to clean out the by-passed enemy positions. The Marines were at last punching out that long-desired hole. Now the yelling Americans swept over the airfield. Men in green dungarees fell, but others pressed forward. They rushed up a 50-foot ridge just north of the airfield, and then their own artillery fired on them by mistake. To avoid it, the Marines came back down the hill. The artillery fire stopped and they went up again. Then the Japanese counterattacked and drove them down once more. At this point, another company had come through the hole and joined Archambault’s. But both of them were being hit on their exposed flanks and the only way to go was forward.

For the third time, Archambault’s men surged up the ridge. As they did, a wave of Japanese soldiers flowed over the crest and came down among them. Brown mingled with green. Hoarse shouts arose in both languages. “Banzai! Banzai!” “Kill! Kill!” Standing back to back in ankle-deep sand, fighting with clubbed rifles and bayonets, with knives and fists, the Marines held firm. When the skirmish was over they stood alone among the bodies of 50 dead Japanese. Now the key ridge was theirs, and as they went up again and dug in for the night, the orders to advance “at all costs” were changed to “Hold at all costs.”

On that same Saturday the Japanese on the other end of the island received news that Suribachi had been conquered. The report came from one of their naval lieutenants and a party of men he had led through the American lines after their escape from the volcano. But the lieutenant, weary and bloodstained, got a strange reception when he arrived at the headquarters of Captain Samaji Inouye. The captain accused him of leaving his post.

“You traitor!” Captain Inouye bellowed. “Why did you come here? Don’t you know what shame is? You are a coward and a deserter!” Grasping his thick-bladed Samurai saber with both hands, Captain Inouye raised it above his head. “Under military regulations a deserter is executed right away,” he shouted. “I shall behead you myself!”

Without a word the lieutenant knelt and bowed his head. He would not argue with a captain. He would not even tell him that he had been ordered to escape. But the blade did not fall. Captain Inouye’s aides rushed up to wrest his saber away from him. They knew that the captain believed that every position must be defended to the last man. But they also knew that the lieutenant had escaped to report on Suribachi’s fall and to fight again in the north.

Still, Captain Inouye could not restrain his tears. Over and over he murmured, “Suribachi’s fallen, Suribachi’s fallen.” This, he well knew meant the beginning of the end. Thus, the Marines had begun to shake the enemy’s belief in their ability to defend Iwo Jima.

Victorious though the Americans might be, they were paying for their progress. After six days of fighting they had lost 1,600 killed, 5,500 wounded and 650 others hospitalized for “combat fatigue,” a phrase describing men so shocked or exhausted by battle that they simply cannot go on. In all, the Marines had suffered about 7,750 casualties. Such losses were staggering. With only a little more than a third of Iwo Jima in American possession, the reserve had already gone into action and replacements were being brought ashore to fill out riddled units.

These replacements were not “second-stringers;” they were good, trained men who were the equal of the dead or wounded Marines whose places they took. Instead of being assigned to a regular “outfit,” they were part of a big pool of men that each division took along on an invasion. They remained on the ships until they were needed.

Going into battle was doubly hard on replacements. They had no friends, because the squads they had trained in had been broken up so that the men could be fed piecemeal into the units already engaged. Replacements were the waifs of war. They joined a squad as perfect strangers and, as often happens, the “dirty duty” fell to them. A group of replacements arriving at the headquarters of a battle formation might receive a greeting like this: “Okay, you men are in F Company now. In a couple of minutes we’re going to be moving out. So remember this: keep both ends down, your heads and your tails, and don’t shoot no Marines.”

With that, the replacements entered their baptism of fire. Once they had survived a day or two of it, however, they came to be regarded as “good Marines” and were accepted into their squads with all the comradeship accorded any “original.” Actually, on Iwo Jima it was a rare squad that survived with most of its originals. By the time the battle was over, the “boot” replacements had become the “old salts.”

As the replacements went into line on February 25, the seventh day of battle, the last of the reserve was also committed. These men were the 9th Marines of the 3rd Division. The 9th relieved the 21st in the center. It moved through the small hole punched in the enemy line by Archambault’s men, and went slugging with an agonizing slowness toward Hill 199.

This hill was vital. It commanded Airfield Number Two. And the enemy there held out for three days. A major factor in the capture of the hill was the one-man battle fought by Private First Class Wilson Watson. After destroying a pillbox single-handed, Watson climbed a ridge and stood boldly outlined against the sky while killing 60 Japanese with his automatic rifle. He came down only after he ran out of ammunition, and many Marines believed that it was a miracle that Wilson Watson lived to receive his Medal of Honor.

When Hill 199 passed into American hands on February 27, the uneven Marine line was at last straightened out. All but a few yards of Airfield Number Two had been captured and roughly one third of Iwo Jima was not conquered. Some 50,000 Americans were ashore and 2,000 of them were Seabees already at work expanding and improving Airfield Number One. Beneath the rising and falling roar of battle there now ran the steady growling of the bulldozers. Not all of them, of course, were at work on the airfields.

Some of them were building cemeteries.

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