- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
EDITOR’S NOTE: In October, 1944, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, after having engineered two years of island-hopping fighting in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Guam, decided to take on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands just 660 miles south of Tokyo. Shaped like a pork chop, the island was just five miles long and two and a half miles wide at its broadest point; at its narrow southern tip lay a dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi; north of Suribachi lay three Japanese airfields, two complete and one under construction—and that was the problem. Iwo lay halfway between Tokyo and American air bases on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. American bombers making the 1,500-mile run to Tokyo were being seriously harassed by Japanese fighters from Iwo; and crippled bombers returning from Tokyo needed a place to put down.
On February 19, 1945, after more than two months of steady air and naval bombardment, Iwo Jima was invaded by the first wave of the three Marine divisions assigned to the task. Originally it had been assumed that it would not be more difficult to take than islands that had preceded it. The assumption was wrong. The Japanese, under Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had constructed an astoundingly complex and well-fortified network of artillery positions and pillboxes all over the island, many of them connected by underground tunnels and all of them protected by tons of concrete and volcanic ash—and very few of these defenses had been seriously damaged by weeks of bombardment.
The result was some of the most vicious and costly fighting of the war. Iwo Jima was not secured until after twenty-six days of almost constant carnage. There were 6,318 Americans killed and 19,189 wounded in the action; more than 20,000 Japanese died. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., a former editor of this magazine, was there; what follows is his personal account of those twenty-six days of horror.
My affair with Iwo began late in 1944. I was then a staff sergeant with the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, on Guam. What seemed like a lifetime before, I had enlisted in the Marines, received my boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and because of a pre-war career as a newspaperman with the New York Herald Tribune and as a radio news director for the Mutual network, had been sent from Parris Island to Marine headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, for training as a combat correspondent.
My orientation in the mechanics of copy flow from front-line outfits to command ships and rear-echelon distribution points lasted a couple of months, and when I went overseas to join the fighting in the Solomon Islands, I carried not only all the combat gear of a Marine enlisted man but an awesome array of journalistic paraphernalia. In my transport pack, among skivvies, socks, shirts, and rations, were a flat portable Hermes typewriter (later shattered on Guam by a Japanese mortar fragment that otherwise would have split my back), typewriter paper, carbons, notebooks, and pencils. In addition, I was one of several combat correspondents who was to try to record eyewitness descriptions of battle for use on the networks and radio stations back home. So I also lugged with me a heavy tape recorder, a twelve-volt storage battery and converter for power, and a sea bag full of tapes, repair equipment, wires, microphones, spare needles, and condoms with which to sheath the mikes against saltwater and South Pacific humidity.
Somehow I got all this gear across the Pacific to New Caledonia and then to the Solomon Islands. When I finally caught up with the 3rd Division, my burdens were eased: I was assigned a jeep to carry around the load of recording equipment whenever we moved or went into action and was also given the help of a Seabee, Electrician’s Mate Second Class John Wheaton, who operated the equipment while I talked into a hand microphone. Together we made hundreds of recordings—first on Guadalcanal, then in the Marshall Islands, and finally in the Marianas—that were played over American radio stations and networks.
Toward the end of 1944 we were on Guam—now securely in American hands—and wondering where we were going next. To many Marines in the Pacific, it seemed that we were always just getting on a ship or getting off one. Hung with combat gear, blanket roll, pack, and entrenching tools, we were masters of the cargo nets, clambering up or down the sides of transports, hands on the vertical ropes, feet on the horizontal ones, and every so often in heavy swells, hanging upside down and searching for the next foothold. One day we got the word: We were going to Formosa. Relief maps made of rubber were laid out, and it looked horrible. We were going to land on the east side of that big island in a huge wilderness of forests, mountains, head-hunters, and poisonous snakes. We would be “expendables” used to establish a beachhead for a huge force of Army divisions that would come in over our corpses and fight their way across the island to the west side, where the cities were.
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.
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.”
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.
My immediate aim was to find and rejoin the 21st—or what was left of it. After we landed, I climbed the slope past the foxholes of a unit of black Army duck drivers who had been on the island since D-day and moved northward along the edge of the first airfield, which Seabees were already blading and rolling. Battered Japanese planes had been bulldozed to the side of the field, and among them were signs that read, “Danger. Booby traps.” Near the northern side of the field I saw another sign pointing ahead with an arrow: “The Front.” Behind me, mortar shells started falling on the field, but the Seabees kept working.
A high bluff marked the northern end of the field, and there I found the command post of the 21st, with masses of men sitting and lying on the sand. I knew everyone, but they all looked unfamiliar—bearded, dirty, with matted hair, black, puffy lips, and eyes that were watery and distant. One man came over and took my hands but he stared through me and kept nodding. “We did it,” he said. “We broke through. ” He was a member of one of the rifle companies, and I wondered what he was doing back at the regimental command post. Then I noticed bandages on his wrist and under a slashed pants leg. “They want to evacuate me,” he said. “I got hit twice.”
Jerry Gruggen, a jeep ambulance driver, came over. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was shaking with anger. “Come on, damn it, ” he said to the rifleman. “You want to go down to the beach or don’t you?”
“I don’t,” the rifleman said.
Gruggen grabbed his arm and pulled him. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Come on.” He hustled him over to the ambulance, which already held two stretcher cases. As he shoved him in, Gruggen noticed me. “They took us out of the lines,” he said. “It was about time. A little bit more, and there wouldn’t have been any of us left.”
I still didn’t know what had happened, but I didn’t want to ask anyone. At the top of the bluff, I found my own company dug in among a row of pillboxes. Everyone was dazed and grim, but they greeted me warmly, as if I were a messenger from the outside world. Some of them were living inside the pillboxes, and in one of them I found several close friends, including Dick Dashiell, a combat correspondent who had stayed with the 21st. He told me that Bill Middlebrooks, the correspondent who had taken my place with the unit, was dead. So were dozens of other men I had known. He listed the names like a roll call.
The pillbox was lined with bunks and had served as a Japanese sick bay. It had concrete and rock walls and roofing fourteen feet thick and was entirely covered by volcanic sand. To enter it, one squeezed through a small opening below the surface of the ground and pushed through a narrow tunnel. There was a lantern inside, and as we sat on the bunks, I caught up with what had happened. For two days after the 21st had gone into the lines, the 1st and 2nd Battalions had tried to seize the area between the first and second airfields. They had run into a deep belt of pillboxes, bunkers, and bombproofs like the one in which we were sitting and had been stopped both days with heavy casualties. Little ground had been won, tanks had been unable to open a path, and the men had been pinned down in the rocks and sand. Both battalions had lost almost 50 per cent of their men.
On the third day, the 3rd Battalion, which had been held in reserve, went into the lines with orders to get through the enemy defenses at all costs. Our entire cross-island line was being held up and taking heavy casualties. Behind supporting bombardment, I and K Companies led the new attack, creeping forward with fixed bayonets. As it had on the two previous days, Japanese machine-gun, mortar, and rifle fire picked up. Some men fell, but the rest kept going. Mortar shells dropped among them, the commanding officers of both companies were killed, and lieutenants and sergeants took over, rushing the squads and platoons forward, faster and faster.
It became a frenzied charge. Throwing grenades and refusing to let the intense Japanese fire pin them down, the men hurtled up and over the first line of pillboxes. Some of the Japanese came out, and the men killed them with their bayonets and went on, surging past mounds of bunkers and blockhouses and toward a slope leading to the second airfield.
In their rear, mortars hurled 60’s and 81’s ahead of the attacking men. Our tanks, long held up, began to move forward, blasting at the pillboxes. The Japanese replied with fire from their heavy guns hidden in positions north of the second airfield. Still, I and K Companies swept ahead, past more lines of pillboxes and through mine fields. In a burst they reached the second airfield and raced across an open runway to a high, rock-strewn ridge on the opposite side. K Company, now urged on by First Lieutenant Raoul Archambault, who had won medals for gallantry at Bougainville and Guam, was the first across and up the ridge. It was honeycombed with pillboxes connected by fire trenches, and the surprised Japanese swarmed out to fight, hand to hand. The struggle with bayonets, rifles, and grenades was bloody and brief. When it ended, the survivors of the two companies stood on top of the ridge eight hundred yards from where they had started. They had paid a shattering price in dead and wounded, but through the hole they had punched, tanks, flame throwers, demolition teams, mortars, and machine gunners now streamed, attacking the by passed strong points and knocking them out, one by one.
By the time I had rejoined the 21st, the regiment had been relieved by the 9th Marines, who were now up ahead, battling beyond the second airfield. The different units of the 21st, their strength seriously depleted, were in “the rear,” resting and trying to regroup, but I was soon to learn that there was no rear. I stayed that night in the pillbox with Dashiell and other friends, feeling strangely secure and out of the battle. Every so often we heard the dull whoomp of shells bursting nearby, but the thick walls and sand cover of the pillbox gave reassurance—as it had to its Japanese builders.
The next morning I set out to get some stories. Somewhere far behind me, near the beach, was division headquarters, where I would bring the articles for distribution to the civilian press. My radio-recording equipment also would be there, brought ashore in a jeep that I hoped I would soon be able to use in getting around to different outfits.
I headed for Able and Baker Companies of the 1st Battalion, whose stories I had not yet heard. On the way, I skirted revetments along the northern end of one of the strips of the first airfield, and at one of them came on the 1st Battalion’s aid station. Mortar shells had just landed on top of the revetment, their fragments wounding a number of men. Just as I arrived, a commotion started on top of another part of the revetment. Two Marines were standing up there, etched against the sky. The Navy corpsmen and doctors were yelling at them to get the hell down, they were drawing fire. The men didn’t move. Then several others appeared. One doctor angrily clawed his way up the wall to try to pull them down. He was too late. A huge blast, followed by another, sent up fountains of sand and smoke. When they settled, the doctor was at the bottom of the slope, and wounded men were hanging over the revetment.
Corpsmen grabbed first-aid pouches and struggled up the steep slope. At the top, one yelled, “There’s a whole bunch of guys been hit up here. Bring up stretchers!” We dragged litters to the top. Helmets, shovels, and torn, charred equipment cluttered the area. Twelve men lay on the ground, bleeding into the sand. Three were already dead.
The corpsmen worked on the wounded, tying on combat dressings and giving plasma. Then the wounded, writhing with pain, were lowered into the revetment. “What were you doing up there?” asked a doctor. “We told you to get down.”
“We were an artillery observation team,” said one of the wounded men. “How can you see the Japs on this damn island if you don’t stick your head up?”
As I was about to leave, a rumbling noise approached the revetment along the runway.
“Oh, no!” someone called.
A half-track with a 75-mm. gun was coming along the strip, trying to stay close to the shelter of the revetments. It was sure to draw fire. The next instant, however, there was an explosion beneath the half-track. The vehicle rose slowly and turned over, losing its tread. As we ducked, debris rained through the air. A doctor and two corpsmen raced to the smoking half-track and pulled five burned bodies from the wreckage. Only two of the crew were still alive. Again the corpsmen went to work with bandages and plasma.
“They must have hit something big,” said the doctor. “Probably a torpedo warhead.”
I finally left the aid station and headed for the rifle companies, crossing an open plain of large black sand dunes and torn banyan trees. This was part of the area taken by the 3rd Battalion during its charge, and the dunes covered rows of silent Japanese pillboxes. Dead Marines still lay in awkward positions where they had fallen during the charge, their faces purple and puffed, and their weapons full of sand. On a pile of rocks was the partly naked bottom half of a man. Halfway across the ghastly field, I heard the sharp sound of a Nambu machine gun. I had no idea where it was coming from, but I loped the rest of the way, zigzagging and keeping low.
The companies were dug into foxholes among the dunes and bushes across the field. Able Company had only one officer left—a captain. “We’re in reserve,” he said, “but we’re still losing men. Be careful. There are machine guns and snipers all around here. ”
I stayed there the rest of the day, hearing of the 1st and 2nd Battalions’ heavy losses in their attempts to break through to the second airfield. That night I joined an old friend, Sergeant Reid Chamberlain, in digging and sharing a two-man foxhole. Chamberlain was a Marine Corps hero. He had been with the 4th Marines on Bataan and Corregidor early in the war and had escaped in a small boat to Mindanao, where he had helped organize and lead Filipino guerrilla units on that Japanese-occupied island. He had received a U.S. Army commission and finally had been taken off Mindanao in a submarine. Back in the United States he had received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, and he could have stayed at home, making War Bond speeches for the rest of the war. Instead he had reenlisted, asking for overseas duty again, and had been sent to our division on Guam as a sergeant.
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.
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. ”