Virtually no one, including most Japanese, had ever heard of Iwo Jima, before the Pacific War. It was an isolated, barren unoccupied volcanic outcropping about 600 miles south of the Japanese Home Islands. As with many Pacific islands, it location suddenly made it of great strategic importance. After the United States began the strategic bombing campaign from the Marianas, it became important to obtain a forward base for the fighters covering the bombers. Iwo was ideally placed for just such an effort. It would also be useful as a safe haven for damaged bombers unable to reach their distant bases on the Marianas. The Japanese anticipated this even before the Americans seized the Marianas and began building air strips for the new B-29s. They began to heavily garrison and forify the island. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was assigned to defend the island (June 1944). Kuribayashi by this point in the War was not under the illusion that he could defeat an American landing, even with a large, well-armed garrison. His assignment was to kill as many Americans as possible before he and his command was defeated. Iwo Jima American planners did not appreciate the size of the garrison or the extent of Kuribayashi's preparations, largely because it was mostly done underground. Admiral Marc Mitschner commanded the naval task force. Marine General Hollmand Smith commanded the Marine landing force. Pre-invasion shelling and carrier strikes did little damage to the Japanese defensives. Marines invaded the island believing the naval shelling had been effective and that it would be a few days of intensive fighting February 19). It took the Marines over a month to secure the island and they suffered an incredible 30 percent casualties, neaely 7,000 killed and 19,000 wounded. This was a greater toll than the D-Day landings. . Virtually all of the 22,000 man Japanese garrison refused to surrender and perished. About 200 Japanese soldiers were captured, many were too badly wounded to commit suiside. Crippled B-29s began landing on Iwo while the fighting was still going on.
Virtually no one, including most Japanese, had ever heard of Iwo Jima, before the Pacific War. . It was an isolated, barren unoccupied volcanic outcropping about 600 miles south of the Japanese Home Islands. As there was no fresh water on Iwo, it had virtually no economic value. Virtually no one until 1944 ever thought a major battle would be fought there, until the Americans succeeded in taking the Marianas.
As with many Pacific islands, Iwo's location suddenly made it of great strategic importance. The Americans found it by studying the map. The Japanese were ahead of the Americans and began turing Iwo into one vast subteraining fortress. The Japanese built a radar station on Iwo which helped to provide early warnings for American B-29 strikes from the Marianasa. In addition, fighter aircraft based on Iwo Jima coul attack the bomber formations. The B-29 were vulnerable as they approached the Home Islands as they were so heavily laden with bombs and fuel. The Japanese chiseled out tuunnels led everywearing creatin inumberable interlocking strong points. After the United States began the strategic bombing campaign from the Marianas, it became important to obtain a forward base for the fighters covering the bombers. Iwo was ideally placed for just such an effort. It would also be useful as a safe haven for damaged bombers unable to reach their distant bases on the Marianas. And the fighers escorting the bombers could be based on Iwo, significantly reducing flight times. The small size of Iwo was not sufficent for supporing major B-29 bases, it was for an important fighter base.
The Japanese anticipated the potential value of Iwo Jima is even before the Americans seized the Marianas began building air strips for the new B-29s. They They began to heavily garrison and fortify the island. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was assigned to defend the island (June 1944). Kuribayashi by this point in the War was not under the illusion that he could defeat an American landing, even with a large, well-armed garrison. His assignment was to kill as many Americans as possible before he and his command was wiped out. The Japanese strategy after the naval battles of the PhilippinesSea ad Leyte Gulf and the fall of the Marianas was no longer to win the War, but to avoid total defeat and occuption. Thus there strategy was to cause as many American casualtie as possible. It did not matter to the Japanese military planners that their own men woulkd suffer much larger casuaktie than they coukld inflict on the Americans. The Japanese leaders who began the Pacific War by bombing Pearl Harbor to force America to negotiate still clung to the illusion that the Americans would finally decide to negotiate an end to the war without occupying the Home Islands.
American planners did not appreciate the size of the Japanese Iwo garrison or the extent of Kuribayashi's preparations, largely because it was mostly done underground. As a result, the invasion planning significantly underestimated the ability of the Japanese to resist the invasion.
Admiral Marc Mitschner commanded the naval task force. Marine General Hollmand Smith commanded the Marine landing force. The Marines had built a ranhd new divisionthe 5th, specifically for the Iwo Jima invasion.
American pre-invasion shelling and carrier strikes were substanyial. Even so, they did little damage to the Japanese defensives.
Guadalcanal had been a terrible orderal. What the Marines did notv understand w that it would only get worse. And the climax of the Pacific War came at Iwo Jima. It proved to be the most difficult invasion targey of the War. The lrge Japanese garrison was prepared, well armed, and dug in. The Marines landibng on Iwo believedg the naval shelling had been effective and expectig that it would be a few days of intensive fighting (February 19). The pre-invasion shelling had moved a lot of sand, but had little effect on the Japanese. It woukd take the Marines over a month of heavy fighting to secure the island. The Marines landing on Iwo immediately leaened that this would no be a short or esy campaign. The entrenched Japanese gunners had carefully calculated ranges. Significant csualties were taken on the beaches despite close air cover. One then young Marine writes, "The 'trac lurched ahead with the ramp clothing, so we ran for the protection of the terraces as a stream of bullets ripped up the beach 30 feet in front of us, fired from a mortally wouunded Navy torpedo bomber with a dead pilot at the controls. The plane flew over us before slamming into a LTV, turning it into a fireball some 300 yards out in the ocean, causing airplane parts to fall on the beach. Luckily, none of them hit us as we watched terrified, in the oen, drouched on wr sand." [Tatum] Among the Marines landing on Iwo was Guadalcanal hero, John Basilone, who was among those killed. Japanese infiltrators penetrated Marine lines at night. Snipers hit any thing that moved on the island during the day.
Iwo Jima was the most heavily defended position of the Pacific War. And it proved a difficult and costly target to take. The Marines at first only managed to advance at several hundred metres per day and then might be attacked fro therear. After more than a month of bloody combat, the Marines managed to trap the remaining defenders in an area around Kitano Point, the island�s most northerly projection (March 11). The Marines declared the island secure (March 16). Japanese resistance ceased (March 26). The Marines suffered an incredible 30 percent casualties, nearly 7,000 killed and 18,000 wounded. This was almost double the casualties suffered in the Normny D-Day landings cracking a hole in Hitler's Atlanic Wall. Virtually all of the 22,000 man Japanese garrison refused to surrender and fought to the death. About 212 Japanese soldiers were captured, many were too badly wounded to commit suiside. This illustrated the lengths that the Japanese would go to defend their islands. This and the casualties suffered upcoming battle for Okinawa influenced the American decusion to use the atomic bomb. It is ironic that the Japanese soldiers who fought so tenaciously for their country, helped being on the holocause of the atmoic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hard-won Iwo was important to the United States Pacific War effort in a number of ways. It affected the invasion planning for both Okinawa and the Home Islands. And it helped create the battle assessment that any invasion of the Home Islands would be unbelieveably costly. Iwo was important as an American fighter base. This as the USAAF principal reason for desiring IWO. Some 1,191 fighter escort missions and 3,081 strike sorties were flown from Iwo. [Moskin, p. 373.] The P-51 Mustang was a long range fighter, but this level of support would not have been possible from the Marianas. This both helped protect the B-29s and enabled low level attacks once the P-51s reached Japan. Another major use was to use the island as a landing and refueling site for the B-29s involved in the strategic bombing campaign. While the battle was still in progress the B-29 Dinah Might of the USAAF 9th Bomb Group near the island knowing about the invasion reported that it was low on fuel and requested an emergency landing (March 4). The pilot managed to land on the American Allied-controlled section of the island. There despite Japanese fire it was serviced, refueled and departedfor the Marianas. Some 2,251 B-29s landings on Iwo during the War. Many of these crews would have been lost without Iwo as a safe haven. The Americans used Iwo as an air-sea rescue base. The flag-raising on Mount Serabachi and the enormous Marine losses has raised Iwo to legendary status in American military history. In recent years, several authors have question the military decesion to take Iwo, arguing that the results did not justify the extrodinarily high Marine Corps losses on the island. Of course sych assessments are possible today when historians have access to information not availble the Air Force, Naval, and Marine Corps planners making the decision to attack Iwo in 1945.
Moskin, J.Robert. The U.S. Marine Corps Story (Little, Brown and Company, 1992).
Tatum, Chuck. Red Blood Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima (2012), 358p.
Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Pacific campaign page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to the Main World War II page]