Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Pacific: Iwo Jima

The killing machine we know as the Battle of Iwo Jima (“sulphur island”) took place 65 years ago, February 19-March 26, 1945. This island of volcanic ash, black sand and a lone distinguishing physical feature in the form of Mount Surabachi, about one third the land mass of Manhattan, lies 650 nautical miles south of Tokyo. It was the first of the Japanese “home” islands attacked (part of the prefecture of Tokyo itself) and Japanese resistance was the most ferocious and ingenious yet faced by the Marine Corps. Almost 23,000 battle hardened Japanese, under the command of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi defended the fortress island by way of over 11 miles of interconnected underground tunnels, cement bunkers and artillery hidden behind reinforced steel doors. Kuribayashi knew, without any hope of reinforcements of men and supplies due to the dominance of the US Navy, he would not win this battle, so his orders were for every Japanese soldier to die fighting…and take 5 American Marines with them.
The tenacious ferocity and cruelty of the Japanese the Marines first faced on Guadalcanal, including the butchering of wounded and castration and dismemberment of live captives, was magnified on Iwo Jima. This did not deter the Marines. Inch by inch they fought forward, taking territory, many times only to have the Japanese surface behind them as if ascending from Hell itself. But they pushed on, badly bloodied but giving better than they received. When they reached the top of Mount Surabachi and raised the second, larger American flag, Navy ships offshore blew whistles and horns, men cheered, and Joe Rosenthal, who lived the latter part of his life just a few miles north of me, took the most famous photograph of the 20th century. But the battle was far from over, it would rage on, consuming bodies and souls, for another 30 days.
By the end of the battle, March 26th, 216 Japanese soldiers had surrendered, a few hundred hid in the caves, some for years and the rest died for the Emperor. And for the first time in the war, the Marines took greater losses than the Japanese, with an astonishing 26,038 casualties of which 6,821 were killed. It was the bloodiest, most costly battle in Marine Corp history. Of the 82 Medals of Honor awarded to the Marines in WWII, 23 were earned on Iwo Jima. Seven US Navy men also received the nation’s highest military award.
The United States occupied Iwo Jima until 1968 when it returned the island to Japan. Today, a lonely windswept memorial stands atop Mount Suribachi.

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