The Days Before the Assault

There was a large beach on both sides of the long southern neck of the island but the American planners advised landing only on the southeast side. Prevailing northerly or north westerly winds generated rough surf on the southwest beaches, creating dangerous conditions for landing craft and amphibious vehicles. On 8 January 1945 V Amphibious Corps revised its assessment and believed that landing craft could transfer unloading operations to the southwest beaches if the wind changed direction.

The plan was for 4th and 5th Divisions to land side-by-side on the southeast beaches, with 26th Marines waiting offshore as the Landing Force reserve. 3rd Division had been slated as Expeditionary Corps reserve and it would wait off Iwo Jima’s coast until ordered ashore. While the divisions had their own organic artillery, limited space on the beachhead meant that 1st Provisional Field Artillery Group would be limited to two battalions of 155mm howitzers. V Amphibious Corps would have to rely on close air support and naval gunfire to compensate for the lack of heavy artillery. 138th Anti-aircraft Artillery Group would land as soon as possible to provide protection for the beachhead.

The Invasion Plans

Major General Keller E. Rockey’s 5th Division would land on the southern section of the beach, codenamed Green and Red. Colonel Harry B. Liversedge’s 28th Marines would land on the left on Green 1 Beach, advance across the narrow neck of the island and then turn southwest to cut Mount Suribachi off from the rest of the island. Colonel Thomas A. Wornham’s 27th Marines would land on the right, on Red 1 and Red 2 Beaches, cross to the opposite shore and then advance northeast along the west side of Airfield 1. 1/26th and 3rd/28th Marines would be released from the division reserve when required and land on Red or Green Beaches. Colonel Chester B. Graham’s 26th Marines would be ordered forward from corps reserve when necessary. Colonel Louis G. DeHaven’s 14th Marines were the division artillery and gun crews would occupy designated battery positions as soon as they were captured.

Major General Clifton B. Cates’ 4th Division would land on the northern section of the beach, codenamed Yellow and Blue Beaches. Colonel Walter W. Wensinger’s 23rd Marines would land on Yellow 1 and Yellow 2 Beaches and advance across the west half of Airfield 1 before turning northeast towards Airfield 2. Colonel John R. Lanigan’s 25th Marines would land on Blue 1 Beach and clear the rest of Airfield 1, Blue 2 Beach and the Quarry. Colonel Walter I. Jordan’s 24th Marines would be called forward from 4th Division reserve when necessary and land either on Blue or Yellow Beach. Colonel James D. Waller’s 13th Marines were the division artillery and gun crews would occupy designated battery positions as soon as they were captured, like the 14th.

Major General Graves B. Erskine’s 3rd Division was due to be released from Expeditionary Troops Reserve on or after D-plus-1. 9th Marines would land on Yellow Beach while 21st Marines would land on Red Beach.

Aerial reconnaissance showed that the Japanese defences covering the beach had been considerably strengthened over the winter, resulting in last minute changes to the landing plans. General Schmidt wanted to extend the three-day naval bombardment based on previous bad experiences. General Smith also wanted 5th Marine Division to take Mount Suribachi quickly and 26th Marines was transferred from corps to divisional reserve while one battalion was assigned to 5th Division ready to go ashore if necessary. One of 3rd Marine Division’s RCTs took 26th Marines’ place in corps reserve.

The plan was for 68 LVT(A)4s (amtracks) armed with 75mm howitzers to hit the shoreline at H-Hour and drive up onto the first terrace of the beach ready to give covering fire while waves of LVTs delivered the Marines to the shore. 4th and 5th Tank Battalions would wait offshore in Landing Ships until called forward, to avoid congestion on the beach. A similar plan to land on the western beaches was prepared in case the wind changed direction. A small island off the west coast called Kangoku Rock would be also be checked out and used as an artillery site if suitable.

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This aerial view over the south tip of the island, looking from the west, shows how V Amphibious Corps had to develop both beaches. The area between was crammed with all manner of headquarters, logistics units, stores and medical facilities. (NARA-111-SC-206876)

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The acronym RCT is an American military term for the Regimental Combat Team. On Iwo Jima a Combat Team was composed of a Marine regiment and all the attached combat and support units, including tanks platoons, specialist engineers, logistics units and medical facilities. While the Regiment was responsible for carrying out the divisional orders in its sector, the attached units could be transferred between regiments at short notice.

Gathering Intelligence

A lot of intelligence about Iwo Jima was already available when V Amphibious Corps began planning for Operation Detachment. Data had been gathered for air strikes by carrier planes in June and July 1944 and it was used to prepare preliminary situation maps and beach studies; however, more detailed information was needed. Documents captured on Saipan in June 1944 gave General Schmidt’s staff an idea of the Japanese Order of Battle on Iwo Jima. However, additional troops had been moved onto the island ready to repel the invasion and V Amphibious Corps intelligence section had to collect new information.

A total of 371 aerial photography sorties were flown over Iwo Jima during the weeks that followed and they charted the progress of the Japanese defences as well as the damage done by bombing. The staffs of the Amphibious Forces, Pacific, and the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, produced a Joint Situation Map on 6 December 1944 and at the end of January 1945 their photo interpretation officers met on Guam to collate information. A few days later they produced the ‘Joint Enemy Installation Map’, identifying all known Japanese positions on the island.

The Navy also wanted to know more about Iwo Jima, and the submarine Spearfish had been observing the coast since early December 1944. The commander spied on the island and took photos of the shoreline, concluding that while tractors could cross the beach, wheeled vehicles would struggle to get off it. He also noted gasoline drums had been half buried close to the waterline, ready to be set on fire as soon as the Marines stepped ashore.

The overall conclusion was that the Japanese had nine battalions deployed in extensive field works across the island. Major General Osuka had divided his defences into four sectors, with one infantry battalion manning each sector; a fifth battalion was deployed around the coast. The expectation was that the remaining four battalions would be held in reserve ready to counterattack. If the counterattack failed the survivors would probably fall back to the high ground at the northeast end of the island and fight to the last man.

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Mount Suribachi Sector

312th Independent Infantry Battalion

Southern Sector

309th Independent Infantry Battalion

Western Sector

311th Independent Infantry Battalion, 1st Company 26th Tank Regiment

Eastern Sector

314th Independent Infantry Battalion, 3rd Company 26th Tank Regiment

Northern Sector

3rd Battalion, 17th Independent Mixed Regiment, 2nd Company 26th Tank Regiment

Airfield 1

1st Battalion, 145th Infantry

Each sector was reinforced by Naval Land Force units, coastal defence troops and antiaircraft units.

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The Japanese defences on Iwo Jima and the deployment of the main infantry units.

The Japanese had concentrated a large part of their efforts in covering the beaches, deploying artillery and mortars at each end. Anti-tank ditches had been dug to funnel tanks onto minefields while more mines protected bunkers and pillboxes. It was clear from the aerial photographs that the number of fortifications had more than doubled between December 1944 and February 1945, in spite of the air raids. It also appeared that the Japanese had prepared a new defensive line across the centre of the island. It ran diagonally from Hiraiwa Bay on the northwest coast in a south-easterly direction to the high ground north of the East Boat Basin.

The additional fortifications meant only one thing: that there were far more troops on Iwo Jima than anticipated. The Japanese had been reinforcing Iwo Jima by sea and on 6 January intelligence officers increased their estimate of the garrison to over 13,000 troops. The new outline of the Japanese Order of Battle was as follows:

•   4720 men of 2nd Mixed Brigade, 109th Division, commanded by Major-General Koto Osuka

•   3950 men of 145th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Masuo Ikeda

•   2 anti-tank gun battalions and a mortar battalion with 1650 men

•   A detachment of the 26th Tank Regiment with 350 personnel, 30 medium and 10 light tanks

•   The Iwo Jima Naval Guard Force with 1750 men

•   400 naval airbase personnel and 700 airbase construction personnel.

Intelligence also assumed that Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had overall command of the Defence Sector covering the Volcano and Bonin Islands – part of the Nanpo Shoto Islands – and that he controlled it from 109th Division Headquarters on Chichi Jima. It also supposed that Major General Osuka was in charge of preparing Iwo Jima’s defences.

While V Amphibious Corps always referred to Iwo Jima as ‘Island X’, there was a serious security breach on 22 December 1944. The Honolulu Advertiser printed an illustrated article on US Air Force bombing raids and noted that the target was Iwo Jima. Anyone studying operational photographs could see that the two photographs accompanying the article were of Island X. V Amphibious Corps responded by putting out information that the recent build-up of ships and troops were preparing for an attack on Formosa. It made no difference to General Kuribayashi’s defensive plans; his men continued to dig themselves deep into Iwo Jima’s rocky terrain.

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Japanese submarines had shadowed Task Force 51’s build up in the Marianas and reported its journey towards Ulithi to Tokyo. Japanese Imperial Headquarters was sure that Iwo Jima was the likely target. On D-10 Tokyo warned 109th Division headquarters of an imminent attack and gave the size and composition of the invasion force to General Kuribayashi.

Logistics and Administration

A successful invasion had to be supported by a well planned logistical operation. The troops ashore had to be supplied with ammunition, food and water, while the wounded needed to be evacuated quickly. Landing Ships had to bring everything to the waters off Iwo Jima ready to be transferred to landing craft and delivered to the beach. The Marines could then haul what they needed to the front line. The same applied to evacuating the wounded, in reverse.

While Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, had prepared outline logistical plans, General Schmidt’s staff began working on the details as soon as V Amphibious Corps took over. Their final plan involved three different Pacific-based logistic organisations. Fleet Marine Force’s Supply Service would supply the Marines with ammunition, equipment and supplies. The US Army Forces Quartermaster would supply Army troops with ammunition, supplies, equipment; it would also supply rations for Marine and Army units. The Navy’s Service Force would provide fuels and lubricants for all units ashore.

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Once the amtracks had delivered the Marines to the shore, they were kept busy ferrying supplies to the front line and returning with injured men. Twin-mounted machine-gun turrets kept snipers at bay. (NARA-127-GW-109691)

Supplies were delivered to Saipan and then packed onto ships; some were loaded onto amtracks and DUKWs ready to be driven ashore. During the battle they would wait offshore until the supplies were required and then be loaded onto landing craft and ferried to the beach. There were no offshore reefs, so all types of landing craft could carry supplies direct from the transports to the beach. Colonel Leland S. Swindler, the Landing Force Shore Part Commander, then had the job to make sure that 8th Field Depot coordinated the division shore parties. The danger was that stores would clutter up the shoreline, creating a dangerous logistical bottleneck and an inviting target; they had to be moved inland as soon as possible. If all else failed, V Amphibious Corps’ Air Delivery Section was on standby to make emergency air drops to front-line troops.

Five Provisional Amphibian Truck Companies equipped with DUKWs had been assigned to V Amphibious Corps; 4th and 5th Marine Divisions had one each and three were Army units. Two new transport vehicles had also been made available and while the Clever-Brooks amphibian trailer could carry a 3.5-ton load, the M-29C Light cargo carrier, or Weasel, was capable of hauling a half-ton load.

There were concerns that wheeled vehicles would not be able to carry supplies off the beach and several contingency plans had been prepared. Supply pallets would be stacked on runner sleds so that tracked vehicles could drag them off the beaches. Steel matting was also provided to create temporary roads. Steel planks, called Marston matting, were normally used for temporary airstrips but hundreds had been hinged together in groups of seven, ready to be stretched out across the beach to form temporary track ways. A total of 8.5 miles of Marston matting was prepared in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard.

Landing Ship, Mediums (LSMs) would carry five Sherman tanks each directly to Iwo Jima’s beach so they could drive straight onto the shore. The tanks had been fitted with exhaust and air intake vents in case the landing ships could not get right to the beach and they had to drive a short distance through shallow water. The first tank company to land close to Mount Suribachi was carried by a Landing Ship, Dock and three much smaller Landing Craft, Tank (LCTs) transferred them to the shore.

While each division had its own organic engineer battalions, 133rd and 31st Naval Construction Battalions, known as Seabees, had been attached to 4th and 5th Divisions. Engineers would have to clear mine fields and obstacles, build roads and facilities and establish water supplies. They would also be called upon to support the Marines, using their demolition skills to destroy bunkers and emplacements. V Amphibious Corps also had a number of specialist engineer units to deal with bomb disposal and mapping.

The Japanese airfields had to be repaired and improved and work would commence as soon as they were captured. 62nd Naval Construction Battalion had to open Airfield 1 as soon as possible for observation planes and fighter aircraft while 31st Seabees would repair Airfield 2 and extend it to 7000 feet, ready to receive crippled B-29s returning from Japan.

One thing that V Amphibious Corps was sure of, there would be high casualties, both during and after the landings, and the wounded had to be evacuated and treated quickly to maintain morale. Each of the divisional medical battalions had 144 beds and V Corps had an extra medical battalion; it also had Evacuation Hospital Number 1 and 38th Field Hospital. The corps could care for 3160 casualties while 8th Field Depot could look after another 1500.

Once patients were well enough to travel, small Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVPs) would transfer them to one of the four LSTs that had been converted into evacuation control centres, situated a mile offshore. Patients would receive emergency treatment and their details would be logged before they were transferred via another LCVP to one of the three hospital ships, the Samaritan, the Solace and the Bountiful. The auxiliary hospital ships Pinkney and Ozarkwere also available. Casualties would then be shipped to Saipan and Guam, where 5000 beds were waiting. The plan was to evacuate the wounded directly from Iwo Jima as soon as transport planes could land on the island.

Training and Rehearsals

All three Marine divisions trained continuously throughout the winter of 1944/45. Troops practised loading and unloading from amphibious vehicles and landing craft. They also perfected the new tactics they would be expected to use on Iwo Jima, with the emphasis on how to silence bunkers and pillboxes.

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Pole-charges, explosives strapped to a long handle, were effective for knocking out bunkers. The Marines had to work their way forward under covering fire until they were close enough to push the charge through the embrasure. (NARA-127-GW-112017)

Towards the end of November 1944 each division received around 2500 replacement drafts and although they had basic combat skills, it was too late to integrate them into the training programme. Instead they would be used to unload stores on the beaches and help move them inland. They would join units as soon as needed to replace casualties. The late delivery of DUKWs and new M4A3 Sherman tanks also caused problems.

Troops practised loading in the Hawaiian Islands over the Christmas and New Year period before they joined the Joint Expeditionary Force at Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. Large rehearsals followed between 12 and 18 January, but the LSTs could not be beached because of underwater reefs, and the DUKWs stayed onboard because they were vulnerable to corrosion after spending time in seawater. Despite the problems, the Hawaiian exercises were valuable for everyone, particularly the inexperienced 5th Division.

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Marines cross the forward well deck of their landing ship to take their place at the top of a cargo net. Their tiny landing craft are being lowered into the sea in the background. (NARA-127-GW-112470)

The final rehearsals were held in the Marianas Islands in mid February and while the Marines climbed aboard their landing craft, they did not land on the shore. Instead, the emphasis was on bringing together the different shipping and air elements. The manoeuvres allowed the Attack Force carrying the Marines (Task Force 53) to check communications and coordination with the armed landing craft of the Amphibious Support Force (Task Force 52) and the ships of the Naval Gunfire and Covering Force (Task Force 54). Once the training was over the combined elements of Fifth Fleet (Task Force 50) and Joint Expeditionary Force (Task Force 51) headed for Saipan.

Sailing to Iwo Jima

While 5th Division loaded at Hawaii, 4th Division loaded at Maui and 3rd Division loaded at Guam; corps and garrison troops loaded into six APAs and four AKAs in the Hawaiian area. Eventually, 485 ships were loaded and heading for Saipan to assemble as Task Force 51. There were 70,000 men and around 98,000 tons of cargo on board, the largest amphibious invasion assembled so far in the Pacific. The transport squadron carrying Task Force 51 was organised into three transport divisions, one for each of the Marine divisions. Each transport division allocated four troop transports known as Auxiliary Personnel, Attack (APAs) and one cargo ship known as Auxiliary Cargo, Attack (AKA) to a transport assault division which carried the divisional troops. It also allocated one APA and one AKA to carry corps troops and their supplies.

Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs) and Landing Ship, Mediums (LSMs) carried the assault infantry and their amtracks, the artillery and their DUKWs, as well as tanks and other mechanised equipment. The assault troops were loaded in LVTs and carried to Iwo Jima in LSMs. 4th Division had sixteen, 5th Division had thirteen; two LSMs carried Corps troops. The planners had made sure that men, equipment and ammunition would be landed together ready to go straight into action. They also saw to it that the LSMs were loaded with spare water, ammunition, rations, fuel and lubricants so that the Marines were self sufficient until their supply chain was established.

Each division had nineteen LSTs and while 3rd Division had two extra to carry its tank battalion, four carried Corps troops. The LSTs were also preloaded with spare cargo. 50 amphibian cargo trailers were also loaded and sailed on LSV Ozark ready to go ashore on D-Day; the Ozark would then serve as an evacuation hospital.

The Landing Force convoy started arriving off Saipan on 14 February and the following afternoon it started heading north with an aircraft carrier and naval ships for protection. The transports carrying RCT 21 followed two days later so that it would ready off Iwo Jima by mid morning on D-Day. The transports carried 3rd Division and RCT 9. The Expeditionary Troops’ reserve followed over the next 48 hours; they would be in position 80 miles off the island by D-Day.

The Preliminary Bombardment

By 19 February 1945 Iwo Jima had already endured the longest and most intensive aerial attack delivered in the Pacific during the Second World War. It had started with a carrier raid in June 1944 and Seventh Air Force’s B-24 Liberator bombers stationed on the Marianas Islands began a six-month bombing campaign in August. The frequency and intensity of the air raids steadily increased and Marine B-25 medium bombers started their own raids in early December from new bases on the Marianas. Fighters also carried out low-level attacks, often targeting Japanese ships delivering troops and supplies to the island; 23 ships were sunk, leaving the garrison short of many essential items.

The Iwo Jima Air Support Plan began on D-20, by which time the Marianas-based Liberators were flying an average of 30 daily sorties over the island. V Amphibious Corps hoped that the intensive air raids would neutralise the Japanese airfield installations, knock out gun positions and destroy camouflage, uncovering new targets.

One point of contention between the Navy and the Marines was the duration of the preliminary naval gunfire bombardment. The original plan had a cruiser division opening the bombardment on D-8 while seven pre-Second World War battleships and six more cruisers would join in on D-3. The Marine naval gunfire specialists thought it would be insufficient based on their experiences on Tarawa, Saipan and Peleliu, where the assault troops had suffered heavy casualties on the beaches. They either wanted more ships or a longer bombardment to soften up the Japanese defences.

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Support Carrier Group (Task Group 52.2) had eleven escort carriers: Sargent Bay, Natoma Bay, Wake Island, Petrof Bay, Steamer Bay, Makin Island, Lunga Point, Anzio, Bismarck Sea, Saginaw Bay and Rudyerd Bay. The Group’s planes carried out most of the close air support missions for the Marines until Airfield 1 was open on 8 March.

General Schmidt initially requested a ten-day bombardment by one cruiser division and three battleships but his request was denied. He reduced his request to nine days and then to four days but the naval planners insisted on only three days. Schmidt finally asked if the ships could concentrate their shelling on the landing beaches; he was turned down again.

While it appears that the Navy planners were being inflexible, they had a good reason based on the strategy they had chosen. Fast Carrier Force (Task Force 58) was scheduled to attack Tokyo at the same time as Task Force 51 approached Iwo Jima, forcing the Japanese Navy Air Service to protect the capital rather than attack V Amphibious Corps. If heavy seas or enemy action forced Task Force 58 to withdraw, the Japanese planes could head to Iwo Jima. The naval planners argued that the bombardment had to be kept to a minimum period to limit the chances of it being disrupted. The Navy was also concerned about the amount of ammunition its battleships and cruisers could carry. They would have to be resupplied if the bombardment lasted longer than three days, a dangerous activity in the middle of a battle.

By the end of January it was clear that several major support vessels would not be ready. Some were still needed in the Philippines, others were being repaired. It meant that the Navy commanders had to look for alternative ships while their planners issued a revised bombardment plan on 28 January. The new battleships North Carolina and Washington were allocated to the invasion force but while they had powerful 16-inch guns, they would not reach Iwo Jima until D-Day.

On 27 January, Admiral Spruance took over from Admiral William F. Halsey on Ulithi in the Caroline Islands and the US Third Fleet was renamed the Fifth Fleet. At the same time, Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher replaced Vice Admiral John S. McCain as commander of the Fast Carrier Force and it was renamed Task Force 58.

Task Forces 52 and 54 reached the Marianas on 12 February and two days later all the shore bombardment units headed for Iwo Jima. While Rear Admiral Bertram J. Rodgers’ Gunfire and Covering Force (Task Force 54) controlled the battleships and cruisers, Rear Admiral William H.P. Blandy’s Amphibious Support Force (Task Force 52) controlled the smaller vessels. Its Gunboat Support Units, Mortar Support Group and Rocket Support Group would target the beach defences while the Air Support Control Unit and Support Carrier Group would coordinate airstrikes. The Mine Group and Underwater Demolitions Group would carry out beach reconnaissance and destroy underwater obstacles.

On the morning of 16 February, Rear Admiral Rodgers’s Naval Gunfire and Covering Force (Task Force 54) began shelling Iwo Jima. Admiral Blandy’s staff on board the Estes (AGC 12) controlled the bombardment and its target priorities were as follows:

Priority A

Coastal guns and anti-aircraft guns which threatened ships and aircraft

Priority B

Bunkers and pillboxes threatening the Landing Force

Priority C

Caves, bivouac areas, ammunition and fuel dumps

The Task Force had three days to neutralise 724 A and B targets. It was a tall order for the 6 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers and 1 light cruiser.

Rear Admiral Alexander Sharp’s Mine Sweeping Group (Task Group 52.3) led Task Force 54 to its firing positions and although they were ready to open fire at 08:00, intermittent low clouds blinded the airborne observers. Firing schedules had to be abandoned and the ships’ guns only fired when there was a break in the clouds. To make matters worse, anti-aircraft fire forced observation planes to stay above 3000 feet so they could not assess the effects of the bombardment. By the end of the first day it was clear that the naval bombardment had achieved little. The overcast skies also prevented Army Air Force bombers from flying over Iwo Jima, although the planes belonging to Rear Admiral Calvin T. Durgin’s Support Carrier Group (Task Group 52.2) had flown 158 sorties.

Meanwhile, planes from Admiral Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Force hit the Tokyo area for two days, drawing the Japanese Air Services away from the island as planned. The carriers then headed south for Iwo Jima, aiming to be there by 19 February.

As 17 February dawned clear the three battleships, Nevada, Idaho, and Tennessee, sailed to within 3000 metres of the shore and opened fire. They in turn came under fire from Japanese shore batteries and both the Tennessee and the cruiser Pensacola were hit. Two hours later 12 Landing Craft LCI(G)s sailed close to the shore and fired rocket salvoes at the beaches while Underwater Demolition Teams swam ashore. The teams checked the surf conditions, took samples from the beach and destroyed underwater obstacles while the Japanese guns and mortars hammered the gunboats. The gunboat crews retaliated with their 40mm guns but it was a one-sided battle and they had suffered heavy casualties by the time they withdrew an hour later; nine boats had been put out of action and three had been damaged.

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TBM-3 Avengers and FM-2 Wildcats of Composite Squadron (VC) 96 aboard USS Rudyerd Bay (CVE-81), circa April 1945.

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Lieutenant Herring was knocked unconscious when LCI (G) 449 was hit on 17 February. He recovered only to be wounded a second time when a mortar shell knocked out the conning station, killing or wounding most of his fellow officers. As the landing craft lurched out of control, Herring climbed into the wrecked pilot house and gave instructions to the engine room. Herring was awarded the Medal of Honor for keeping the landing craft on the firing line.

The Tennessee, Nevada and Idaho also bombarded the beach with smoke shells until the demolition teams withdrew; they suffered only one casualty. The teams went on to check the west coast beaches in the afternoon. They found suitable beach and surf conditions on both sides of the island and no underwater obstacles.

Although the Japanese gunners had drawn first blood, they had exposed their positions firing on the landing craft, and Admiral Blandy ordered all available weapons to engage the new targets. Meanwhile, heavy anti-aircraft fire still kept the Army Air Force B-24s at a high level while the carrier-based planes flew 226 combat sorties against the Japanese gun positions. But in spite of the good weather, observers believed hardly any Japanese positions had been knocked out on 17 February.

V Corps’ Naval Gunfire Officer recommended a change of plan, wanting the ‘maximum concentration of bombardment [to] be placed on and near the preferred landing beaches’ by four battleships and one heavy cruiser. Early the following morning, Admiral Rodgers ordered his ships to ‘close [to] beach and get going.’ They sailed to within 2500 metres of the shore with instructions to use up all their spare ammunition, but once again visibility was poor. Even so the Tennessee fired 333 rounds at the batteries on Mount Suribachi while the Idaho fired another 280 into the Quarry area at the north end of the beach.

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Kuribayashi made the following report on the demolition teams: ‘We were immediately posted to our positions to make preparations for an attack, and at the same time our artillery laid down a fierce barrage. At first, both sides were firing and the continuous smoke and noise of the explosions were terrific. This lasted for 30 minutes after which the enemy without attaining its objective moved the attack to the west coast. The enemy made all of this sacrifice without attaining any results.’

The low could over Iwo Jima also cancelled all Seventh Air Force missions while escort carrier planes could only carry out 28 sorties. By nightfall the three-day bombardment was over and Schmidt could only hope that it had done enough to allow his Marines to survive once they were ashore. Admiral Blandy’s summary report to Admiral Turner was optimistic:

Though weather has not permitted complete expenditure of entire ammunition allowance and more installations can be found and destroyed with one more day of bombardment, I believe landing can be accomplished tomorrow as scheduled if necessary. I recommend special attention, before and during landing, to flanks and east coast of island, with neutralizing fire and white phosphorus projectiles immediately available if required…

Admiral Turner agreed; the assault would go ahead as planned.

A single low-flying enemy plane flew over the fleet later that evening, dropping a bomb on the Blessman (APD48). The explosion caused over 30 casualties; tragically, most of them were the underwater demolition experts who had survived the hazardous beach reconnaissance missions the previous day.

The bombardment of the Japanese coastal defences began at 06:40 on 19 February 1945, and everyone noticed that the fleet had been reinforced by the Washington’s and North Carolina’s 16-inch guns. Five minutes later nine LCI(R)s fired the first of 9500 5-inch rockets at Motoyama Plateau, north of the beach. For the next 90 minutes the ships hammered the Japanese defences while the transports moved to their debarkation stations, ready to begin unloading. The rest of the support craft began moving into position at 07:30 and targeted Mount Suribachi and the high ground north of the beaches with their rockets and mortar shells. Then between 08:05 and 08:25 (H-minus-55 to H-minus 35) the fire-support ships manoeuvred into their final positions. There was a short break in the naval bombardment while 120 carrier-based planes bombed and strafed the landing beaches. The naval guns resumed firing as soon as the planes headed back to their carriers.

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All aboard. Marines of 28th Regiment try to organise themselves as they crowd into a Higgins landing craft. (NARA-127-GW-11247)

All around the battleships and cruisers, LSTs and transports assembled in their assigned areas before opening their bow doors or lowering their ramps. APAs began lowering the tiny LCVPs into the water and they circled while waiting their turn to receive troops. While some Marines climbed into their assigned LVTs, others clambered down the cargo nets into their landing craft.

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As the naval bombardment reaches a crescendo, wave after wave of landing craft and amphibious vehicles head for the shore through the choppy waves; there was no turning back.

At 07:25 the launching warning signal was given and 20 minutes later 482 amtracs loaded with the first wave of eight battalions turned towards the shore. The navy gunners set their shells for ground bursts while the rocket craft fired another salvo at the beaches and mortar boats shelled the surrounding area.

At 08:05 the naval guns stopped firing and the ships moved closer to the shore; it was time for Admiral Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Force to do its bit. As the LVTs neared shore, the Marines watched as 72 fighter and bomber planes flew low overhead, strafing, firing rockets and dropping bombs. Another 48 fighters followed, dropping napalm, firing more rockets and more strafing. Admiral Rodgers’ battleships resumed their bombardment as soon as the planes left the area. The naval gunners had increased the range too quickly in previous landings, resulting in excessive casualties on the beach. This time the 5-inch guns would slowly increase the range of the rolling barrage, only 400 yards in front of the Marines. It would require close coordination between the ground troops and the ships offshore to keep the barrage in time with the rate of advance.

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As surf batters the crowded Higgins boats, the Marines watch the Navy bombard the shore. The thought on every one’s mind is will it be enough? (NARA-127-GW-111904)

General Smith was pleased to hear that all phases of the pre-H-Hour preparation were going to plan and his troops would begin landing at 09:00 as intended. There was no going back now and at 08:30 the first wave of 68 LVT(A)s began the 4000-metre journey from the line of departure. It would take 30 minutes to reach the shore, 30 minutes for the men to contemplate what might be waiting for them on and beyond the beaches. The naval commanders believed they had destroyed or neutralised most of the enemy guns overlooking the landing beaches and their approaches. The Marines were about to find out if their assessment was correct.

Gunboats firing rockets and 40mm shells were following the first wave and they turned right and left to their firing positions at the last moment. At 08:57 the naval guns switched to targets on the flanks while the planes returned, flying low as they strafed the beaches.

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