Monday, June 05, 2006
February and March of 1945
Viewing Iwo Jima today might make one wonder what the fuss was all about. The island isn't pretty, its volcanic origin causes it to reek of sulfur, and there is hardly any vegetation. In addition, dangerous live ordnance still can be found in various places across the island. There is no potable water, so at present no one lives there, except for personnel at a Japanese Naval Base. In fact, one needs special permission from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to visit the island.
US forces were losing fighters (F4-Us and P-51s) and bombers (B-24s and B-29s) due to their not having an emergency landing strip after a bombing run against the Japanese mainland, and those losses were devastating, both for experienced personnel and the equipment. Iwo Jima – called Chichi Jima (“ Sulfur Island ”) by the Japanese – was in a good location to provide that service. The problem was that a force of Japanese soldiers manned it. Unbeknownst to American war planners, it was a rather large force (some 22,000), and they had dug a vast network of tunnels all over the island. With the armament in their possession, they presented a formidable obstacle. In addition, Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had been ordered by Japan 's Prime Minister Hideki Tojo to defend Iwo Jima to the last man.
It was because of the network of tunnels that intelligence underestimated to a large extent the number of men defending Iwo Jima . Nevertheless, a force of some 70,000 Marines landed on several of the beaches under withering fire. One of the most memorable difficulties was in trying to dig foxholes for cover: You couldn't dig a foxhole in dry sand that kept collapsing on you, and the shovels were no good against the obsidian rock on the other beachheads. Thus for want of cover, an inordinate number of men were lost just in the initial assault.
Progress was slow and costly, and it wasn't until they discovered the network of tunnels that they understood some strange incidents. After they cleared caves with grenades and flame-throwers, they'd move on, only to be attacked from the rear – from a hole they thought was clear. One night, a physician, dead on his feet in a “clear” zone after working all day to patch up wounded Marines heard foreign voices as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke and began digging through the sand, and encountered support beams of the tunnels below. It was then that the Americans realized what was happening, and adapted their strategy to account for the tunnels.
The Japanese knew every square inch of the island and were skilled at moving at night to silently kill sleeping Marines. US command had estimated three days to take Iwo Jima , but due to the miscalculated strength of the opposition, the entire operation took a full thirty-six days for an island that measured four miles by two miles. The battle could be measured into two distinct struggles: The North end, and the South end where Mt Suribachi stood. Both struggles were extremely difficult, and together they became the costliest encounter in the entire history of the US Marines.
The Marines killed some 21,000 Japanese troops in thirty-six days of fighting, but this one battle cost around 26,000 US casualties, a full one-third of all the casualties in the Pacific Theater in all of forty-three months of fighting. Still, the mission was accomplished: Now the US had a serviceable airstrip in close proximity to the Japanese mainland, as well as an emergency landing strip for battle-damaged aircraft. In fact, the first bomber to set down in an emergency, the B-29 Dinah Might , did so before the battle was over, as soon as the Marines cleared an airstrip and while being fired on by the Japanese. It had been low on fuel, and was refueled and serviced and immediately took off again, headed for home to report for its next mission.
As soon as Iwo Jima fell to the US Marines, the bombing campaign began to see the benefit of its capture. Strategically, the operating range and payloads were increased greatly, and tonnage dropped on Imperial Japan increased significantly. However, the greatest reward for the sacrifices made was its use as an emergency landing strip. Over 2,000 B-29s made emergency landings on Iwo Jima, saving the lives of almost 25,000 crew personnel who otherwise would have crashed in the sea with little if any hope of rescue.