- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
During the night, one of us would try to sleep for a couple of hours, while the other stared out of the foxhole into the darkness, keeping watch. Land crabs slithered over the sand, sounding like Japanese crawling toward us. Japanese signal flares and our own flares hung overhead, throwing eerie, moving shadows. The Japanese fired mortars, and our artillery answered, and we could hear the whir of the missiles passing over our heads. Every so often a shell landed near us. As I fell into fitful dreams, it sounded like someone slamming doors.
Before dawn we were awakened and told we were moving up to relieve the 9th Marines. The day before—after two earlier days of heavy fighting—the 9th had captured high ground north of the second airfield, but they were worn out. With the 3rd Battalion of the 21st, we were going to pass through the lines of the 9th and continue the attack early in the morning.
Soon afterward, as it became light, the 3rd Battalion passed us in a line, going toward the northern end of the second airfield. Riflemen trudged quietly, their weapons on their shoulders with bayonets already fixed. Among them were BAR men, carrying big Browning automatic rifles, and flame-thrower squads hunched beneath their heavy cylindrical cannisters. Machine gunners carried the sections of their guns, and men with boxes of ammunition walked beside them. After them came the mortar men. Almost everyone was hung with grenades.
Soon we were on our way, climbing past rows of knocked-out pillboxes, crossing the southern end of the second airfield, and going into position to the left of the 3rd Battalion. The terrain had changed dramatically. We had left behind the volcanic sand dunes and now faced a wild stretch of rocky badlands, cut into a maze of ridges, ravines, and chasms, much of it chewed up by our bombing and naval gunfire. It typified the landscape of almost the entire northern part of Iwo.
The 9th Marines retired, and our attack got off behind a rolling barrage—the first of the campaign. For almost fifty minutes artillery and naval shells smashed into the ridges and gulleys ahead of us, then on signal lifted and crashed down on Japanese positions one hundred yards farther out. At the same time, our men rose from their holes and began to run forward, pausing to seek protection behind rocks and then sprinting ahead again. The thunderous gunfire had stunned the Japanese, and we advanced two hundred yards before they recovered. When their mortars and machine guns began firing, our attack stopped. Units sought cover and methodically broke into fire teams, moving one by one to eliminate the individual Japanese positions, which were now all around us.
The coordinated team attacks—the method by which the island was being won—required precision timing and extreme bravery. Heedless of danger, men with smoke bombs and phosphorous grenades clambered among the rocks to within throwing distance of a Japanese hole. As soon as the smoke and curtain of phosphorous obscured the enemy’s vision, flame throwers and automatic riflemen and bazooka men rushed across the open into covering position. The smoke drifted away, and as the riflemen watched every hole for movement, a flame thrower, completely exposed, shot his burning liquid at the target hole, then turned and ran for cover. The riflemen finished the job with grenades, bazookas, automatic fire, and bayonets.
Sometimes it didn’t work, and when flanking fire from other enemy positions killed or pinned down the teams, tanks were called up to fire point-blank. Flame-throwing tanks were also used. Again and again cave mouths and holes were simply sealed with demolition charges. Often positions had to be eliminated two, three, and four times. On this day of the rolling barrage, we gained considerable ground and knocked out scores of strong points in the ridges. But that night the enemy came back through their tunnels, and the next morning when the attack got going again, the ridges and caverns behind us were once more filled with Japanese who had to be eliminated by reserve units.
As our advance continued toward the northern edge of the island, no area in that rocky part of Iwo ever seemed secure. Ridge after ridge had to be cleaned out time and again by fire teams and tanks. Casualties were almost as heavy in the rear as at the front. One night a unit of the 9th Marines dug in on a knob supposedly freed of the enemy. The entire hill was blown up during the night by Japanese who were still inside; it was a suicide gesture that killed many Marines. On another day, we spent hours with flame throwers, tanks, and demolition men wiping out machine gunners and snipers hidden in a long, craggy ridge that had been “secured” twice before. When we thought we had again sealed the last hole, several of us, including Reid Chamberlain, started back toward the companies at the front. Three shots rang out from the ridge, and we ran for cover behind some boulders. When we looked back, Chamberlain was on the ground. We tried to edge back to him, but the whole ridge suddenly came alive again with Japanese rifle and machine-gun fire. Other Marines joined us, and one of them managed to reach Chamberlain’s body. The former hero of Mindanao was dead, shot behind the ear.