Iwo Jima - Doorstep to Hell

By Scott Parrino 05 Oct 2003 0

The Big Step toward Tokyo

At the beginning of 1945, the major thrust of the United States military was in the Philippine Islands. Joint Marine and Army forces had for the most part conquered the island of Leyte and were moving on to the larger Luzon. The fighting, hard and bitter, was nevertheless moving United States forces toward the ultimate goal of conquering the Empire of Japan.

It now seemed that the curtain was being drawn on the war in Europe. With Hitler's failed Ardennes offensive in December 1944, Germany had little to stop the Allied onslaught on that continent. The Russian Bear, angry and powerful, was at the eastern border. British, Canadian and American troops were camped out all along the Rhine River, preparing for the final sword thrust into the heart of the Third Reich. Already resources were being re-targeted for the Pacific.

The American Pacific Fleet at the beginning of 1945 was the most powerful naval armada ever put to sea. Dozens of capital ships, including carriers, battleships, and cruisers roamed the vast ocean with little fear of counterattack. The submarine force had almost completely isolated the islands of Japan. Now deprived of the resources needed for war, Japan felt the heavy noose of American power slowly throttling her life away.

Desperation gripped the military and civilian populace. Horrible myths of the atrocities that would be committed against the Japanese people were propagated daily to them. In addition, the cultural background of the Japanese forced them to vow their loyalty to the emperor to the death. Thus, huge militia armies, many armed with only poles with bayonets tied to them, or demolition charges for suicide attacks, were being prepared for the final struggle for their homeland. In the military forces, the same suicidal spirit was being infused in the young men.

With little training, the honor of Japan was emphasized to the point that nearly the entire populace was setting their mind for the ultimate sacrifice. The Rising Sun was beginning to settle into the western horizon. The darkness of disaster, despair, and death was creeping in on them.

A Hard Rock in the Path to Japan

Once the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had made the strategic decision to retake the Philippine Islands rather than bypass them, any projections for assaulting Formosa or the Chinese mainland were abandoned. It seemed more practical to make a concerted drive for the Japanese home islands. In October, Admiral Nimitz was instructed to take control of the Bonin-Volcano group of islands to the northwest of the Marianas. This would provide a safeguard against any further intervention by Japanese forces against MacArthur's advance on Luzon.

His choice of islands was Iwo Jima. A small piece of volcanic outgrowth dominated by Mount Suribachi (a dormant volcano), it has been described thus: "The island was just four miles long?an ugly, smelly glob of cold lava squatting in a surly ocean." Suribachi is Japanese for "cone-shaped bowl." Iwo means "sulfur," and the rotten egg-like smell that permeated the island was clear proof of its volcanic origin.

Why pick such an unpleasant piece of black-sanded rock for an invasion? One of the reasons for this choice was that enemy air forces stationed there were a real hindrance to B-29 attacks against Japan. The 1,500 miles from the Marianas to Japan was long and filled with danger. Iwo was at the halfway mark. With two operational airfields and a third under construction, Japanese fighters could swarm into the air and blast at the big birds as they passed. By this time, Japanese pilots had become so desperate that if they could not shoot down a Superfortress, they would suicidally knock it out of the sky. Of course, any damaged aircraft or stragglers would be easy targets as they struggled to get back to their base.

As the American bombers passed, enemy radar on Iwo would detect them and give two hours advance warning to the Japanese Home Islands. Even further, Zeros from the island would attack the giant bombers both going to the target and also on the return trip. Japanese medium bombers, based on Iwo Jima made numerous raids on the Marianas, attacking the airfields of the Superforts. Their attacks destroyed more B-29s on the ground than General Curtis E. LeMay?s crews lost during their strike missions.

The second reason for taking Iwo Jima was closely related to the first. There were three airfields on the island. By controlling these, American forces would have facilities for escort fighters for the bombers. In addition, any aircraft damaged over Japan would not be forced to make the 1,500-mile return flight to Saipan or Tinian. Wounded American birds would have a refuge within reach.

One more vital factor was involved in the capture of Iwo Jima. By controlling the Bonin Islands, the United States would now have a forward staging and supply area for the next major assault on the Ryukyu Islands, principally Okinawa. After that, Japan's home shores were targeted for invasion. ?Seldom before had an objective been so obviously necessary, and perhaps never before had so much counted on such a no-account place.? (Leckie).

The Waiting Enemy

Defending this unattractive piece of real estate were 21,000 troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The general was an old cavalryman who had not made the transition to mechanized forces. To American intelligence he was an unknown entity. They could not get a feel for the type of commander that he was. They would know soon enough. Marines fighting for Iwo would later spit and say, ?He?s the best damned general there is on this stinking island!?

Kuribayashi was an intensely loyal Japanese soldier. He had been one of the few commanders to have a private audience with the exalted emperor, Hirohito. It was he who had reorganized so effectively the Imperial Guards Division. In June 1944, he was given command of the defenses of the Bonanza. It was an impressive honor, since the islands lay within the very Prefecture of Tokyo.

The general was pure military in demeanor, with little emotion. A small moon-faced pudgy man, he was all energy and ruthlessness. He was cold, curt and stern. He was also a strong disciplinarian and a firm believer in the Bushido Code of warriorhood. When one of his subordinates suggested that the island was not worth defending and simply should be blown out of the water, Kuribayashi had him transferred 160 miles to the north to Chichi Jima.

Those under his command did not like him. He provided no physical entertainment in the form of girls from the ?Comfort Troops.? He was against drinking and imposed strict rules prohibiting the distribution of sake and other strong beverages. His work ethic was intense. Arriving in June 1944 to prepare Iwo for defense, Kuribayashi knew that time was running out and he had to do all he could to prepare for the coming savage American onslaught.

He had labored hard to prepare the island against invasion. So confident was he that when Tokyo regrettably informed him that no reinforcements would be forthcoming, he replied that he had no need of them. The defenses they had spent months in preparing were formidable.

Kuribayashi's strategy was not that of "do or die" beach stands or reckless Banzai charges. Instead, he would methodically chew up the enemy as he attempted to move across the island. It would be a stubborn sustained defense designed to inflict maximum casualties and psychologically wear down any invaders. Inside pillboxes and bunkers, he had posted his "Courageous Battle Vows," in which the defenders promised to kill "10 of the enemy before falling in battle."

His strongest resistance would not come on the beaches, but from the 556-foot Suribachi peak and the plateau between airfields two and three. Between the two points, the landing American forces would be caught in one of the most withering crossfires in history. The ground was ideal for it. High cliffs close to shore protected the north. There was only one way for an amphibious force to get on Iwo, and the Japanese defenses were prepared to deal with it.

Where Peleliu had 500 caves, Iwo had 1,500. Just as at Tarawa, the tiny island was studded with strong fortifications. Blockhouses and pillboxes were constructed with walls five feet thick and ceilings 10 feet high. They were strongly sandbagged and reinforced with 50 feet of sand, piggybacked with machine gun turrets. They were blended into the terrain so as to be almost indistinguishable from the surrounding rocks.

His men had prepared more than 600 large gun emplacements and hundreds of smaller pillboxes. These had been complemented with a complex system of cave defenses and deep shelters. To construct them, the diggers would have to wear gas masks to weather the intensely stifling sulfur fumes underground. Some were so hot that men could heat their meals from the protruding rocks within the underground complex.

Beneath the earth were 13,000 yards of tunnels connected to many of the 5,000 cave entrances and pillboxes. Under Suribachi there was a four-story galley, hospital, and ammunition dump. The general's own command post, located at the northern end of the island, was 75 feet underground with multiple entrances, exits, stairwells and interconnecting passages. What many Marines mistook for fence posts dotted across the island were actually air vents for the complex tunnel system. It is estimated that there are still hundreds of Japanese buried beneath Iwo Jima even today.

t was already clear that the Japanese would fight to the death. Few prisoners would be taken. That meant that the American forces were going to have to kill over 20,000 enemy that would fight to the last breath. It was an ominous assignment.

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