- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
The next day was little better; only one more day of shelling remained before the landing, and the island’s fortifications scarcely had been touched. It was decided that on the final day everything would have to be concentrated on the Japanese beach defenses, so that the Marines could at least get ashore. That objective was met. In a final thunderous shelling that pounded the eastern rim of the island on February 18, many Japanese installations, housing heavy guns overlooking the landing beaches, were rocked and smashed, from Suribachi in the south to the high ground in the north. Still, as night fell, it was known that hundreds of other strongholds somehow would have to be eliminated after the Marines got ashore.
Even though we were still south of Iwo and out of sight of the island, we followed the progress of the landings the next morning, February 19, as if we were about to go ashore ourselves. On our transport were many signal company men with radios used to link together the different elements of the division. We gathered around the receivers, listening to the crackling transmissions coming from ships of the fleet, from air observers in small planes over the island, and from units of the 4th and 5th Divisions, which were preparing to make the beachhead.
The pattern of an amphibious landing had long since become familiar to us: usually the naval shelling and aerial bombing, strafing, and dropping of napalm would intimidate the Japanese beach defenders, and our first waves, carried ashore in the wells of armored LVT’s (amphibious tractors), would hit the beach with relative ease and light casualties. Then our shelling and bombing would have to lift, the enemy would come alive and rush back to their guns, and our later waves would catch hell. At the same time, those who got onto the beach would start taking casualties from the front and flanks. But by then we would be moving steadily against the enemy, no matter how strong the resistance might be.
The voices coming through from Iwo conveyed that familiar pattern.
“Very light swells,” a message crackled out. “Boating excellent.”
At 0852: “Few enemy mortar sheik landing in water. Our boats moving in. ”
Eight minutes later came the exciting word: “First wave ashore.”
For an hour the news seemed incredibly good. As the storm and smoke of our naval gunfire lifted off the beaches, the Japanese began fighting back, but not with the intensity we expected. We heard of wave after wave coming ashore, of men clambering up the sliding-sand terraces and reaching a part of the first airfield. Japanese mortars and machine guns began to claim lives, but the Marines kept moving ahead, knocking out pillboxes with demolition charges or silencing their defenders with grenades and flame throwers.
By mid-morning all the assault battalions had landed, and the beaches were crowded with men and equipment. LSM’s, ramming against the shore, were pouring Sherman tanks and vehicles onto the sand. Up ahead, infantry companies of the 4th and 5th Divisions pushed inland, trying to achieve their objective of getting across the narrow neck of the island to cut the Japanese forces in two. Casualties were increasing, but the situation still seemed surprisingly good. Then suddenly the concealed heavy weapons of the Japanese opened up. From hidden fortifications around Suribachi in the south, from the bunkers and ridges on the high northern part of the island, and from pillboxes protecting the first airfield, barrages of huge rockets and artillery and heavy mortar shells began crashing on the beaches and among the men trapped above them on the tableland.
We could tell something terrible was going on. Normally, in the past, the Japanese had fought furiously to defend their beaches. But as we later learned, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commanding the Japanese forces on Iwo, had decided to let our main attacking force crowd ashore, offering only minimal resistance while the Marines spread across the low saddle of the island. Once he felt he had the bulk of our troops exposed on that open f latland and on the beaches, caught between his concealed heavy weapons on Suribachi and the northern plateau, he would let us have it, hoping to stop all reinforcements and annihilate the men ashore or drive them off the island.
For a time it seemed that he might succeed. From the radio reports we knew we were taking huge casualties, and whole companies and platoons were losing their leaders. Somehow, in all the wild fighting during the rest of the day, units of the 28th Marines of the 5th Division got across the island and effectively isolated Mount Suribachi. Throughout the second day we continued to listen to our radios. In the morning progress seemed good. Most of the first airfield was in our hands, and the 28th Marines were moving closer to the base of Suribachi. On the right flank other regiments were straightening a line across the island and beginning to fight northward toward the second airfield.
“They won’t need us,” one of our men said. “This thing will be over in five days.”