Iwo Jima means “Sulfur Island”, and the small volcanic island became the closest thing to hell for the thousands of soldiers who fought and died there. The struggle for the territory would prove one of America’s bloodiest battles in World War II in the Pacific.
6,821 Americans were killed with nearly 20,000 wounded against over 18,000 Japanese soldiers killed or missing in the nearly two month long battle. Only 216 Japanese soldiers surrendered.
The Battle for Iwo Jima is etched into the minds of Americans due to an iconic photo of six American marines raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi – in fact, the second raising of a banner on the hill during the battle.
The photo shows six marines Michael Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Harold Schultz, Harold Keller, and Ira Hayes. Only the last three men would survive.
The three survivors went on to become American icons used to boost morale, though sometimes reluctantly in tours across the United States. Today perhaps of those three Ira Hayes is the best known.
“How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?” Hayes once said.
Hayes was a Native American from the Pima Indian tribe and grew up on a reservation in Arizona.
The national attention and his wartime experience led Hayes to whiskey drinking and other self-destructive behaviours.
His ordeal was immortalized in the Johnny Cash standard “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” which relates that when often arrested for drinking police would belittle his accomplishments on Iwo Jima by asking him to raise a flag on a nearby flagpole in exchange for light treatment.
Hayes was found dead after a night of heavy drinking in a ditch at the age of 32.
Other celebrities are often incorrectly tied to the history of the battle. An urban legend which became popular on the internet in the early 1990s had Hollywood Actor Lee Marvin recalling that he had served during the Battle of Iwo Jima alongside Bob Keeshan who had the title role in the television series “Captain Kangaroo.” Both Marvin and Keeshan were veterans of the Second World War (with Lee Marvin seeing combat with the U.S. Marines during the Battle of Saipan) but, neither man fought at Iwo Jima.
However, the most famous soldier at the battle was fighting for Imperial Japan. Takeichi Nishi, the illegitimate son of a Japanese baron, had shocked the world of sport at the 1932 Summer Olympics when he won a gold medal atop Uranus, his well-trained jumping horse in Los Angeles.
By 1945, he had risen to colonel in the Japanese army in charge of a tank unit on Iwo Jima. Japan’s light tanks were mostly useless against superior U.S. Sherman tanks. Inspecting the hilly island before the battle, Nishi, a former cavalry officer, realized his tanks would have little room to maneuver. So other ingenious methods of deployment were found. On February 28, a company of Japanese tanks commanded by Nishi launched a brief counter-attack out of the caves in which they were hidden. By March all of his tanks (11 Type 97 Medium Tanks, 12 Type 95 Light Tanks) had been destroyed.
His unit was reduced to fighting as infantry from the network of tunnels underneath the island. U.S. intelligence was aware of Nishi’s presence and used loudspeakers to broadcast nightly calls for “Baron Nishi” to surrender. Nishi never quit, but, the circumstances of his death remain unclear. One of Nishi’s biographer relates that Nishi applied scarce Japanese medical supplies on a captured American soldier.
Capturing Iwo Jima from a strategic perspective made sense only in that it would allow American long-range bombers to reach mainland Japan more readily, a fact that was made even more evident when a damaged B-29 made an emergency landing on the island on March 4, 1945. However, the cost for securing this landing strip was high. The island was too small for use as staging area for the army or navy.
Japanese commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi refused to waste his soldiers’ lives. Thus, there were few banzai-style, all-out charges that had been seen elsewhere in the Pacific campaign. There were counter-attacks, but, these were primarily coordinated. Kuribayashi instead turned the island into a large fortress with a massive underground bunker complex.
Kuribayashi traditional waka poem — a literary practice that went back to his samurai ancestors:
“Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yes, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.”
His forces soon resorted to guerrilla tactics and Kuribayashi is believed to have died leading one of these assaults on March 26, 1945. This desperate Japanese attack marked the formal end of the campaign. However, Japanese holdouts continued to wage a guerrilla and sabotage campaign against U.S. forces long after the battle had ended.
In 1949, two remarkably well-fed Japanese soldiers were found wandering the ring road around the island. The first American soldiers that found them ignored them — a Republic of China vessel was offshore at the time, and many assumed they were Chinese soldiers. They were, in fact, two Japanese machine gunners who lived for roughly four years after the end of World War II in two a joining caves a stone’s throw from a U.S. military camp. The visible entrances were protected by clumps of barb wire that the Japanese soldiers had pulled in close. They survived by nocturnal raids on American supply dumps. Among their possessions were flashlight batteries and tins of ham that had been meant for Christmas celebrations on the island in 1948.
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