Although a rather small region, Iwo Jima distinguishes itself in the history of warfare as one of the most heavily fortified regions ever known. It was targeted by the Americans due to its strategic location near the Japanese mainland.
On one side was the United States Marine Corps, determined to serve their country by taking over the island, and on the other side of the battle was the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), determined to fight until the last man, to stop the American invasion and protect their homeland. What ensued on the 19th February 1945, running for over five weeks, would be arguably the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Campaign.
The island had three airfields and would be a staging area for the projected invasion of the Japanese home islands code-named: Operation Downfall.
The Japanese were in poor defensive shape after having suffered severe losses against Allied forces in prior battles of the Pacific. Thus, the success of the invasion was already certain. However, knowing that victory was a luxury they couldn’t afford, the Japanese forces in Iwo Jima, led by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi were tasked with inflicting heavy casualties on the Americans in the hopes of making the Allies begin to doubt an invasion on Japan itself.
Instead of the traditional Japanese system of direct engagement along the beach, Kuribayashi pulled his forces deeper into the Island. He employed a dense network of bunkers and pillboxes, hiding hundreds of landmines, mortars, and artillery all over the island. Every high and low place of Iwo Jima was surveyed to be completely submerged in Japanese defensive fire. Furthermore, a handful of Kamikaze pilots were kept on standby. Iwo Jima would become distinguished an incredibly tough nut to crack for the Allied forces.
Naval bombardments and air raids against Iwo Jima commenced on the 15th of June, 1944 ahead of the D-Day which was the 19th of June. Just two days into the constant bombardment, America’s USS Blessman ship lost about 41 personnel including 16 members of her Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) due to shelling from the Japanese.
Also during the pre-landing bombardments, the USS Pensacola was hit by a Japanese battery causing 17 deaths. The USS Leutze was also hit and suffered 7 deaths while aiding 12 vessels in a failed attempt to go ashore.
However, an amphibious landing was successfully carried out by the U.S Marines on the D-Day.
About 110,000 men comprising the U.S. Marine, Navy corpsmen, Soldiers, Air Force personnel, etc. were deployed for this operation alongside over 500 ships.
On reaching the beach, the absence of hostile engagement made them believe that most of the Japanese were killed during the pre-landing bombardments. Unknown to them, they were surrounded by the Japanese who knew the Island well.
After allowing the Marines to move deeper inland with their machinery, Kuribayashi’s machineguns and mortars struck from Mount Suribachi.
Four days into the battle, Mount Suribachi was captured by the Marines. They hoisted the American flag on its summit, it was the first American flag to be mounted on Japanese lands. One after the other, the airstrips were captured.
The Japanese were eventually overwhelmed by the Americans. However, they inflicted heavy casualties with about 6,800 deaths on the American side. The Japanese suffered devastating losses while ultimately losing the island. 21,000 deaths were recorded on their side, with about 216 taken prisoners.
The aftermath of the invasion drew concerns from several corners. The Battle of Iwo Jima was the only battle that had more American casualties than Japanese. It was a victory which some believed was not justified by the weight of the price.
Moreover, the island of Iwo Jima was never used as a staging area, as originally intended. However, the airfields were reconstructed for emergency landings by the Navy Seabees. About twenty-seven medals of honor were awarded to Marines who took part in the operation.
Contemporary footage from Iwo Jima can be seen in the following video clip.