- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
There were long faces among our men. Many had been in the Pacific for more than two years, fighting in tropical jungles and swamps. They had that faraway expression in their eyes that we called “Asiatic”; they were on the verge of cracking up from combat fatigue. They had seen just too much of battle and death; many hardly ever spoke. Earlier in the year some had set their minds on being rotated home after the Guam operation. They wrote poems about replacements still in the United States and, to the tune of Embraceable You , sang, “Replace me, I can’t go home without you,” reassuring themselves that, at least, they would be “home alive in forty-five. ” As Guam ended, and we realized that someone was working up another operation for us, the saying changed to “the Golden Gate in forty-eight.”
Then the attack on Formosa suddenly was called off. We had no idea what was happening, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff had switched strategy. Formosa was going to be ignored, and a new attack was going to be aimed right at the inner defenses of Japan itself. Soon afterward we learned that we were going to be in on the new campaign, but not as assault troops. Two other Marine divisions, the 4th and 5th, would make the beachhead attack on wherever it was we were headed, and we of the 3rd Division would merely go along in the rear as “floating reserve. ” If all went well, we would not even have to land. We would turn around and sail back and then, probably, most of our men would at last be replaced and rotated home for a well-earned furlough.
Our spirits lifted immediately, and the Asiatic looks of many disappeared magically. We stepped up our drilling and maneuvers, and everybody on Guam (it was now teeming with Army, Navy, and Air Force units) knew we were again preparing to go somewhere.
When we began to load ships, I suddenly was transferred from my own outfit, the 21st Marines, to the Division Headquarters Company, the explanation being that if any one unit of our division did have to get into the battle, our division commander, Major General Graves B. Erskine, would go with it. By being on the same ship with General Erskine, I, as a combat correspondent, would be able to land with whatever part of the division went into action.
Division Headquarters was assigned to a former passenger liner that had been converted to an APA (troop transport) early in the war and already had carried men to many operations. Soon after we sailed, we were collected in units in the holds and on deck and told by our officers that we were going to take Iwo Jima. The contour and rubber relief maps we were shown gave little idea of how hard it was going to be, but the plan was for our 4th and 5th Divisions to land abreast on the black, volcanic sands of the eastern beaches. Winds had molded the sand into a series of steep, slippery terraces leading up to the first of the island’s three airfields, but it was hoped that the assault waves would get up them fast and race across the airfield to the opposite side of the island, cutting the Japanese forces in two. Then one regiment would turn south and capture Mount Suribachi while the others, spread out in a single line across the whole island, would move north over the high, rocky ground of its widest part to seize the other two airfields. Later, to my consternation, I learned that the 21st Marines had been ordered to pull ahead of the rest of the reserve units of the 3rd Division and get to Iwo quickly, ready to land immediately, if necessary, in support of the 4th and 5th Divisions. It was an ironic situation for me, and I felt a sense of guilt. I had left my outfit so that I would have the flexibility to go in with the first of our units that might be ordered to land. Now I was stuck with the division command, which was not going to move ahead with the first unit—and the first unit was going to be my own.
As the rest of us continued to sail north at a slower pace, the weather gradually turned gray and colder. “It’s ,like winter,” one of our corporals complained. Of course, it was winter, but we had been in the tropics for so long that it was hard to realize that we were at last moving out of them. At night the holds below the water level were very cold, and we slept on the tiers of canvas bunks and huddled in dungarees and heavy combat jackets under our blankets and camouflaged ponchos. The ventilation pipes that ran through the holds gave us more trouble. In the tropics troops had punctured the pipes in hundreds of places so that the cool air would blow onto their steamy bunks. Now we tried to stuff every hole to prevent the air from freezing us.
On February 16, three days before D-day, we were still far south of Iwo and thinking of ourselves as the “floating reserve” that would never be needed. North of us that morning the preliminaries of the battle began. At 6:00 A.M. our powerful bombardment fleet of six battleships, five cruisers, sixteen destroyers, and a dozen aircraft carriers appeared off Suribachi. An hour later, coordinating with rocket, strafing, and bombing runs by carrier planes and B-24’s from the Marianas, the fleet began a systematic attempt to knock out all known Japanese defense installations on the island. The day was a failure. An overcast came down, and all shelling and air attacks had to end with the known destruction of only seventeen of almost seven hundred identified pillboxes and other targets.