Iwo Jima

At the beginning of 1945 General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, decided to try and capture the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima that at the time was being defended by 20,000 veterans of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force. The Japanese, who had created a fortress on Mount Suribachi, faced an immense air and sea bombardment launched by the 5th Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance.

On 19th February, American soldiers began landing on the island. Over 250,000 men and 900 ships were involved in this amphibious operation under the command of Admiral Richmond Turner. The main objective was to capture the island's three airstrips and to to obtain a forward air base for the planned Allied attack on the Japanese home territories.

The US Marines managed to capture Mount Suribachi in three days but strong resistance from the Japanese meant that the second airstrip at Motoyama was not won until 28th February, 1945. The final stage of the fighting took place in the fortified hills and these last defensive positions were not taken until 10th March.

Small groups of Japanese soldiers carried on fighting and the three airfields were not ready to receive the vast fleets of B-29 Superfortress bombers until the end of March. Of the 23,000 Japanese soldiers defending Iwo Jima, only 216 were taken alive. The American forces also suffered during the bitter fighting on the island with 5,391 Marines killed and 17,400 wounded.

The United States Army Air Force was now able to use the island to launch bombing attacks on Japan. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city. This was followed by attacks on Nagoya, Kobe, Oska and Yokohama. An estimated 260,000 were killed and 9.2 million left homeless.

Primary Sources

(1) Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayshi was commander of Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. He sent a letter to his wife on 2nd August 1944.

I hope everyone at home is fine even though we are all in the midst of this big war. Did Tako evacuate to the countryside with her school friends? Did she go to Hiaki alone? I have been concerned about her. I feel sorry that such a little girl like her has to live away from her parents. As far as my well being is concerned, have endured the inconvenience of life since came here. Because of my constant awareness of the tides of war, no single day has ever passed without anxiety and tension. It is very likely that our enemy, who plans to invade Saipan and Oomiya Island, will attack us soon in their expedition to invade Japan

I constantly think about our final destiny here except while I am sleeping. But, I may think about it even in my sleep, for I have had dreams these days.

Although am not certain about the best place to evacuate around Tokyo, it seems most likely that Tokyo will be subject to daily air-raids within a month or so after our place here is invaded by the enemy. The best place for you to evacuate seems to be Shinshyu. The war has advanced to the point that we need to think of all these things.

I am sending you my battlefield allowance for the months of June and July. I have heard you would get them after September, though I am not certain if I will still be alive by then.

(2) Frederick S. Voss, Reporting the War (1994)

Of all the thousands of news pictures published in the American press during World War II, none was better known, more celebrated, and more frequently reproduced than his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of six battle-weary soldiers straining to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945.

Brilliantly composed, this image possessed every element that a war photograph could want - a dramatic sense of action, sculptural clarity, and heroic patriotism. When the photograph arrived in the United States, it required but one glance on the part of editors to tell them that here was a picture worth featuring prominently.

Behind Rosenthal's picture is a story fraught with a number of ironies. To begin with, when Rosenthal looked back on his eleven days of recording the battle for Iwo Jima, it was not that image for which he had the greatest professional fondness. Rather it was one taken in the first hours of the invasion. Landing on the island's beaches hard on the heels of the first wave of marines, Rosenthal had found himself, like the armed men around him, dodging a stiff barrage of enemy fire. Seeking picture opportunities while remaining mindful of the need to find cover, he was darting from shell crater to shell crater when he spotted the bodies of two dead marines. In that moment, he conceived the idea for a photograph intended to evoke the essence of what he was witnessing. Thus, bringing the bodies of the two fallen men into his camera's focus, he waited for an advancing marine to come within view, and when one did, he took a picture that, in his estimation at least, embodied the "honest ingredients" of what the Iwo Jima story in its early phases was all about - the dead paving the way so that the living might follow.

Despite the forethought that went into that beach picture, the resulting image did not seemed contrived, which is probably one of the chief reasons why Rosenthal took special pride in it. On the other hand, his picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi four days later - which, in its compositional perfection, did seem contrived and led to conjectures by some that it had to have been carefully posed.

(3) Merril Sandoval, interviewed by Tom Otley of the Sunday Times about landing on Iwo Jima in February 1945 (25th August 2002)

Looking back, I don't think I was even scared. When you are young you don't think much about what's going to happen. "Kill or be killed', that's what the training had instilled in us. I was just thinking it was like a film.

The landing was terrible. The surf was really rough and the beach was steep, so when the landing craft didn't hit straight on they turned over. In the end we had to dump all our gear, including the radios, and swim ashore or we would have drowned.

(4) Roy Hawthorne, Navajo Code Talker, interviewed by the Arizona Republic newspaper about the invasion of Iwo Jima (9th June 2002)

One incident in particular I remember distinctly. We encountered a force that was superior in manpower and firepower, and so we were pinned down for a couple of days at least. That was the time the antenna on my radio was shot off.

We were trained in a number of areas of communication, and one of those was field wire, so we'd always have some field wire with us and the tools to work with it, like pliers and cutters and stuff like that. So I was fortunate enough to put that back together. At least for a temporary fix to get a message out. So we got a message out for an air strike. And they showed up in just a little while and saved the day. That was on Okinawa.