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The battle for Iwo Jima can be described in many ways.
Most simply, 70,000 Marines routed 22,000 Japanese in a 36 day battle. It bore little resemblance to today's' modern warfare. It was a fight of gladiators. Gladiators in the catacombs of the Coliseum fighting among trap doors and hidden tunnels. Above ground gladiators using liquid gasoline to burn the underground gladiators out of their lethal hiding places.
The Marines had overwhelming force and controlled the sea and air. The Japanese had the most ingenious and deadly fortress in military history.
The Marines had Esprit de Corps and felt they could not lose. The Japanese fought for their god-Emperor and felt they had to die fighting.
The Marines were projecting American offensive power thousands of miles from home shores with a momentum that would carry on to create the Century of the Pacific. The Japanese were fighting a tenacious defensive battle protecting the front door to their ancient land.
The geography, topography and geology of the island guaranteed a deadly and bizarre battle. The large numbers of men and small size of the island ensured the fighting would be up close and vicious.
Almost one hundred thousand men would fight on a tiny island just eight square miles. Four miles by two miles. If you're driving 60 miles an hour in your car, it takes you four minutes to drive four miles. It took the Marines 36 days to slog that four miles. Iwo Jima would be the most densely populated battlefield of the war with one hundred thousand combatants embraced in a death dance over an area smaller than one third the size of Manhattan island.
From the air the island looked like a bald slice of black moonscape shaped like a porkchop. All its foliage had been blown off by bombs. The only "life" visible on the island were puffs of "rotten egg" stinking sulphur fumes coming from vents that seemed connected to hell. Correspondents in airplanes could see tens of thousands of Marines on one side of the island fighting against a completely barren side of stone.
On foot it was a morass of soft volcanic sand or a jumble of jagged rock. The Marines sought protection in shell holes blasted by the bombardment. Foxholes were impossible to dig, either the sand collapsed in on you or your shovel failed to dent the hard obsidian floor.
Bullets and mortars would come from nowhere to kill. The Marines would come across a cave or blockhouse and shoot and burn all its defenders to death. They would peer into the cavern and assure themselves no one was left there to hurt them. They'd move on only to be shocked when that "dead" position came alive again behind them. The Marines thought
they were fighting men in isolated caves and had no idea of the extensive tunnels below.
A surgeon would establish an operating theater in a safe place. With sandbags and tarp he'd build a little hospital and treat his patients away from the battle. Then at night when he lay down exhausted to sleep he'd hear foreign voices below him. Only when his frantic fingers clawed through the sand and hit the wooden roof of an underground cavern would he realize he had been living atop the enemy all along.
The days were full of fear and nights offered terror. The Marines were sleeping on ground that the Japanese had practiced how to crawl over in the darkness, they knew every inch. Imagine sleeping in a haunted man-
sion where the owner is a serial murderer who knows the rooms and stairways and trapdoors by touch and you are new. Then you can imagine the tortured sleep of the Marines.
Experienced naval doctors had never seen such carnage. Japanese tanks and high caliber anti-aircraft guns hidden behind walls of rock and concrete ensured that the Marines would not just be cut down, but cut
in half or blown to bits.
A seventy five year old veteran of Iwo Jima would still reflexively open his bedroom window in 1999 after dreaming of the battle once again. Fifty four years after the battle the stench of death still filled his nostrils.
The bodies lay everywhere. Young boys who had never been to a funeral became accustomed to rolling another dead buddy aside. Kids full of life
worked on burial duty unloading bodies from trucks stacked with death.
Mothers back home would tear open the ominous telegrams with trembling fingers. The survivors would remember sailing away and seeing the rows and rows of white crosses and stars of Davids. Almost seven thousand. Today there are still over six thousand Japanese dead still entombed under the island, dead where they fell in their tunnels and caves. Recently two hundred sixty were excavated, some mummified by the sulphur gases, their glasses sitting straight atop preserved noses, hair still on their heads.
Military geniuses predicted a three day battle, an "easy time." Some of the nicest boys America would ever produce slogged on for thirty six days in what would be the worst battle in the history of the US Marine Corps.
Generals conferred over maps while tanks, airplanes, naval bombs and artilery pounded the island. But it was the individual Marine on the ground with a gun that won the battle. Marines without gladiator's armor who would advance into withering fire. Marines who would not give up simply because they were Marines. A mint in Washington would cast more medals for these Iwo Jima heroes than for any group of fighters in America's history.
America would embrace these heroes, but they were enthralled by an image of heroism, by a photo. Millions of words would be written in the US about 1/400th of a second no one on Iwo Jima thought worthy of remark at the time. Thousands would seek autographs from three survivors who felt "we hadn't done much." Battles would be fought over that image, some dying early because of their inclusion, some living bitterly because of their exclusion.
But that would all come later. After two battles were fought on Iwo Jima, one for Mt. Suribachi and the southern part of the island the other for the northern part. And after one hundred thousand individual battles, personal battles of valor and fear, of determination and dirt. --Author Unknown*
* Printed here by permission & courtesy of Iwo Jima.com
The Heroes Of Iwo Jima
Three days after that (the flag raising), the war was over for Easy Company.
Easy's original total force on Iwo Jima was 310 young men, including replacements. On March 26, Captain Severance led his 50 survivors on a tour of the newly dedicated 5th Division cemetery. And then they traveled by a small boat to the transport, the Winged Arrow, for the trip back home. They had to climb a cargo net to get aboard. Many were so weak that they had to be pulled over the rail by sailors.
When I asked Severance, many years later, exactly how it finally ended, he thought for a moment and then replied: "We had all the real estate."
Severance was the only one of six Easy Company ofhcers to walk off the island. Of his 3rd Platoon, the one that first scaled Suribachi, only Harold Keller, Jim Michaels, Phil Ward, and Grady Dyce came through the battle untouched. Easy Company had suffered eighty-four percent casualties.
Of the eighteen triumphant boys in ]oe Rosenthal's "gung-ho" (1st) flag raising photograph, fourteen were casualties.
The hard statistics show the sacrifice made by Colonel Johnson's 2nd Battalion: 1,400 boys landed on D-Day; 288 replacements were provided as the battle went on, a total of 1,688. Of these, 1,511 had been killed or wounded. Only 177 walked off the island. And of the final 177, 91 had been wounded at least once and returned to battle.
It had taken twenty-two crowded transports to bring the 5th Division to the island. The survivors fit comfortably onto eight departing ships. The American boys had killed about 21,000 Japanese, but suffered more than 26,000 casualties doing so. This would be the only battle in the Pacific where the invaders suffered higher casualties than the defenders. The Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month on Iwo ]ima, one third of their total deaths occurred. They left behind the Pacific's largest cemeteries: nearly 6,800 graves in all; mounds with their crosses and stars. Thousands of families would not have the solace of a body to bid farewell: just the abstract information that the Marine had "died in the performance of his duty" and was buried in a plot, aligned in a row with numbers on his grave. Mike lay in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694; Harlon in Plot 4, Row 6, Grave 912; Franklin in Plot 8, Row 7, Grave 2189.
When I think of Mike, Harlon, and Franklin there, I think of the message someone had chiseled outside the cemetery:
When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
--From the book by James Bradley, "Flags Of Our Fathers", pp 246-7
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|by Erl (Erling) Syverstad, II||© 1996 - 2003, All Rights Reserved.|
Marines of Iwo Jima