- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
But as the day wore on, grimness returned. The advances had been stopped, and in some places our units seemed to have been pushed back. The announcement of our casualties shocked us. They ranged from 25 to 35 per cent among the assault battalions. Several thousand men, we were told, already had been taken off the island. Late in the afternoon word circulated that the battered units of the 4th and 5th Divisions needed reinforcements, and the 21st Marines had been ordered ashore. We understood that a crisis was developing, that the Japanese had stopped our entire northward push and were inflicting intolerable casualties on us. Few of us talked. We worried, wondering who among our friends had been killed or wounded.
Meanwhile we continued to cruise about, still out of sight of the island, waiting for orders. Finally they came. Division command was going in.
We sailed through the night and at dawn, five days after the battle had begun, were off Iwo. It was an ugly, gray island, looking, as one man said, like a half-submerged mummy case. A small American flag flew from the top of Suribachi, which had just been taken by the 28th Marines. We knew nothing yet of the story of the flag raising, but the sight of the flag was exciting, for it meant that our rear, at least, was now secure. The northern half of the island, much higher than the saddle area of the landing beaches, was shrouded in yellow and brown smoke, pocked every so often by bright red flashes.
Ships of every size and description swarmed about us. Close to shore the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers were still firing at targets north of the beach section. Green-painted LST’s, LSM’s, LCI’s, and other amphibious landing vessels moved back and forth among big blue transports and Liberty ships, taking ammunition, supplies, and men to the beaches and backing out again with full loads of litter-borne wounded whom they carried to a white hospital ship. Around that vessel was a small fleet of brown ducks—long amphibious trucks—also full of wounded, who were being lifted by winch and lines to the hospital ship. Altogether more than eight hundred ships were engaged in the job of taking the island.
Our own holds were filled with mortar and artillery shells, which were badly needed ashore, and for a day we were kept aboard, filling cargo nets with the cloverleafs and crates of the precious ammunition. In the evening we had an air raid by kamikaze flyers. As soon as the planes were sighted, our ships put up smoke to screen us from the air. The unloading had to stop; we were suddenly in a thick fog, scarcely able to see one another. While we waited on deck close to the railings (on the debatable theory that if our ammunition got hit and blew up, we would be catapulted into the water, clear of the ship), we could hear the planes above us and then ack-ack and explosions. At one point something hissed close by. There was a crash, and metal pieces struck the side of our ship. Down below, we could see a red flame on the water. None of us knew whether it was a bomb fragment, part of a plane, or some of our own ack-ack, but one of our men suddenly was holding his leg. His trousers were shredded, and his knee was covered with blood. “Does this rate a Purple Heart?” he asked. He was the only person injured on our ship, although fragments splashed around us for another half hour.
The next morning we went over the side and into an LCM that was bobbing in the swells at the bottom of the cargo net. The Navy coxswain was unshaven and bleary-eyed; he had been taking men ashore since D-day.
“What are you?” he asked. “The garrison?”
We didn’t answer.
On our way in, a mortar shell exploded in the water about twenty feet from us.
“I thought the battle was over,” a sergeant said.
“It is,” the coxswain retorted. “That’s just some fanatic that won’t give up.”
With other craft from division headquarters, we passed from one line of control boats to another. As we neared the beach, we became part of a scene of vast confusion. We could see a great jumble on the sand—wrecked and burned-out boats, tanks, ducks, and other vehicles; mounds of equipment of all kinds, some split open and strewn about; piles of ammunition crates and communication wire; casualty evacuation stations; upended amtracs and jeeps; long lines of drums of water and gasoline; dugouts and foxholes, many partly covered with camouflaged ponchos and shelter halves; ration boxes; and artillery firing positions. At first there seemed to be no order, but placards and signs indicated the identities of the sections of the beach and the locations of aid stations, message and communication centers, and unit and beachmaster command posts and headquarters.
The steep slope leading up to the airfield was covered with the men and equipment of support outfits—Seabees, Army duck drivers, Navy boatmen, and others, their units so intermingled that it seemed impossible to sort them out. In their midst were some of our big guns, dug deeply in the sand with only their muzzles clearly visible. Every so often a Japanese mortar shell exploded, and people dove for the sand. A moment later litter bearers scrambled to where the black smoke still billowed.
The air was filled with the familiar sour smell of death and blood. Pale white bodies bobbed in the water, along with torn life jackets, and we could see other forms lying motionless on the beach near the water’s edge. Just as we were about to land, we brushed past a body without a head.