- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
EDITOR’S NOTE: In October, 1944, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, after having engineered two years of island-hopping fighting in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Guam, decided to take on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands just 660 miles south of Tokyo. Shaped like a pork chop, the island was just five miles long and two and a half miles wide at its broadest point; at its narrow southern tip lay a dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi; north of Suribachi lay three Japanese airfields, two complete and one under construction—and that was the problem. Iwo lay halfway between Tokyo and American air bases on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. American bombers making the 1,500-mile run to Tokyo were being seriously harassed by Japanese fighters from Iwo; and crippled bombers returning from Tokyo needed a place to put down.
On February 19, 1945, after more than two months of steady air and naval bombardment, Iwo Jima was invaded by the first wave of the three Marine divisions assigned to the task. Originally it had been assumed that it would not be more difficult to take than islands that had preceded it. The assumption was wrong. The Japanese, under Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had constructed an astoundingly complex and well-fortified network of artillery positions and pillboxes all over the island, many of them connected by underground tunnels and all of them protected by tons of concrete and volcanic ash—and very few of these defenses had been seriously damaged by weeks of bombardment.
The result was some of the most vicious and costly fighting of the war. Iwo Jima was not secured until after twenty-six days of almost constant carnage. There were 6,318 Americans killed and 19,189 wounded in the action; more than 20,000 Japanese died. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., a former editor of this magazine, was there; what follows is his personal account of those twenty-six days of horror.
My affair with Iwo began late in 1944. I was then a staff sergeant with the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, on Guam. What seemed like a lifetime before, I had enlisted in the Marines, received my boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and because of a pre-war career as a newspaperman with the New York Herald Tribune and as a radio news director for the Mutual network, had been sent from Parris Island to Marine headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, for training as a combat correspondent.
My orientation in the mechanics of copy flow from front-line outfits to command ships and rear-echelon distribution points lasted a couple of months, and when I went overseas to join the fighting in the Solomon Islands, I carried not only all the combat gear of a Marine enlisted man but an awesome array of journalistic paraphernalia. In my transport pack, among skivvies, socks, shirts, and rations, were a flat portable Hermes typewriter (later shattered on Guam by a Japanese mortar fragment that otherwise would have split my back), typewriter paper, carbons, notebooks, and pencils. In addition, I was one of several combat correspondents who was to try to record eyewitness descriptions of battle for use on the networks and radio stations back home. So I also lugged with me a heavy tape recorder, a twelve-volt storage battery and converter for power, and a sea bag full of tapes, repair equipment, wires, microphones, spare needles, and condoms with which to sheath the mikes against saltwater and South Pacific humidity.
Somehow I got all this gear across the Pacific to New Caledonia and then to the Solomon Islands. When I finally caught up with the 3rd Division, my burdens were eased: I was assigned a jeep to carry around the load of recording equipment whenever we moved or went into action and was also given the help of a Seabee, Electrician’s Mate Second Class John Wheaton, who operated the equipment while I talked into a hand microphone. Together we made hundreds of recordings—first on Guadalcanal, then in the Marshall Islands, and finally in the Marianas—that were played over American radio stations and networks.
Toward the end of 1944 we were on Guam—now securely in American hands—and wondering where we were going next. To many Marines in the Pacific, it seemed that we were always just getting on a ship or getting off one. Hung with combat gear, blanket roll, pack, and entrenching tools, we were masters of the cargo nets, clambering up or down the sides of transports, hands on the vertical ropes, feet on the horizontal ones, and every so often in heavy swells, hanging upside down and searching for the next foothold. One day we got the word: We were going to Formosa. Relief maps made of rubber were laid out, and it looked horrible. We were going to land on the east side of that big island in a huge wilderness of forests, mountains, head-hunters, and poisonous snakes. We would be “expendables” used to establish a beachhead for a huge force of Army divisions that would come in over our corpses and fight their way across the island to the west side, where the cities were.