- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
I spent the night in the pillbox again, back at regimental headquarters. Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer, whom I had known on Guam, joined us. He was an unlikely looking figure in combat, short and nearsighted, with an oversized pot helmet that came down over his glasses. But everybody knew him as a brave little man who always showed up where the action was. He had heard from the States that he had taken the greatest picture of the war, but he had sent back hundreds of shots, and for a long time he had had no idea which picture was being talked about. That day, an airplane from Guam had dropped our first sacks of mail, and I got a letter from my mother. It expressed relief that I was not on Iwo Jima. But also enclosed was the front page of the New York Sun , with the now-famous flag-raising picture covering the entire page.
“That’s the shot!” Joe told us all proudly.
After I got back to the States, I was shocked to hear some people calling the picture “staged” and a fake. Actually, two patrols of the 28th Marines had gotten to the top of Suribachi before the famous flag-raising. The second one had a small flag and raised it on a piece of pipe, while Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck magazine, took pictures of it. A couple of hours later, the commanding officer of the 28th decided to keep that flag as a regimental souvenir. He got another, larger one from an LST and sent up a third patrol to change the flags. Accompanied by Sergeant William Genaust, a combat photographer with a color movie camera, Rosenthal followed this patrol up the mountain, and both men filmed the raising of the second flag. Rosenthal caught the scene at just the right instant, and his picture eclipsed the one that Lowery had taken two hours earlier.
The last weeks of fighting were a blur. Most of the northern part of the island was a wilderness of tall, jagged ridges, tumbled rocks, and deep gorges, all heavily fortified. Every yard of it had to be taken in combat as fierce as what we already had been through. Casualties continued to mount, and the ranks of survivors thinned in all three divisions. Replacements were pouring ashore and being killed or evacuated with wounds almost before they knew what outfit they were fighting with.
In the rear the first airfield became operational, and evacuation planes with Navy nurses landed, hastily picked up rows of stretcher cases, and took off again for the hospitals in the Marianas. One day a crippled B-29, on its way back from Japan, made a safe landing. Those around the airfield cheered. It was what the fighting was all about. Two days later our fighter planes began to arrive—P-51 Mustangs and P-61 Black Widows.
From time to time I picked up a jeep at division headquarters and went as far forward with it as I dared, making recordings to send back to the American networks. I followed the battalions of the 21st, and on occasion drew mortar and rifle fire. Once, in an area that steamed from sulphur deposits, I had to run from the jeep and was pinned down on the painfully hot sand for half an hour. Another time, something exploded near me, and Jerry Gruggen, the jeep ambulance driver, took me back to an aid station. They said I had a concussion, gave me two APC pills (standard for everything that didn’t bleed), let me rest an hour, and then told me to get back to my outfit.
On March 9 a twenty-eight-man patrol of the 1st Battalion’s Able Company reached the northern coast, splitting the Japanese. Only three of the original members of the company were left; the rest were replacements.
The Japanese made their last stand in deep, cave-filled gorges around Kuribayashi’s underground headquarters near the northwest coast. After terrible fighting, the 5th Division finally overran the area, which they named Bloody Gorge, but no one ever found Kuribayashi’s body.
The island was declared officially secured on March 16, after twenty-six days of fighting. By that time the second airfield was in use, and B-29’s, in trouble, were coming down regularly. The island was still not secure. Ten days later several hundred Japanese emerged from underground and overran an Army field hospital and the camps of an Air Force unit, Seabees, and the 5th Division’s Pioneers. For months afterward men would be killing each other on the island.
“This,” said the commander of the Seabees, Captain Robert C. Johnson, “is the most expensive piece of real estate the United States has ever purchased. We paid 550 lives and 2,500 wounded for every square mile. ”