Douglas Jacobson: The Iwo Jima Killing Machine Who Took Out 75 Enemy Soldiers And 16 Fortified Positions in the Battle of Hill 382

Marines land on the beach at Iwo Jima.
Marines land on the beach at Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima was a unique bloodbath in the American Pacific campaign. It was the only time in the entire conflict that Japanese casualties numbered less than the United States dead and wounded.

The battle for the strip of land raged for five weeks. Those who fought for control of the rock engaged in some of the most bloody and fierce fighting that took place in the whole of the Pacific theater during WWII.

Iwo Jima sits halfway between the Mariana Islands and Tokyo. It contained two airfields that were strategically important. From them, short-range planes could take off to escort the thunderous B-29 bombers that were trying to pummel Japan to surrender. The strips could also be used to allow the pilots to land in an emergency after a raid.

Defending the volcanic outcrop were 20,000 Japanese fighters hidden in caves and blockhouses.

Douglas T. Jacobson;
Douglas T. Jacobson;

Jacobson was born in Rochester, New York in 1925 and went to elementary and high school locally. After graduation, he joined the family business and worked for his father before becoming a lifeguard and swimming instructor. At the tender age of 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve.

At the completion of his training, Jacobson was transferred to North Carolina and promoted to private first class in July 1943. He took part in combat action in Tinian, Marianas Islands, Marshall Islands and Iwo Jima as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division.

By the time he got to Iwo Jima, Jacobson had already been earmarked as an excellent warrior. He had been commended during the fighting on Saipan for his performance with a Browning automatic rifle.

Assaulting Iwo Jima alongside Jacobson were 75,000 Marines who attempted to defeat their enemy for weeks. The Japanese had built themselves an extensive network of bunkers and artillery positions as well as over 10 miles of underground tunnels.

Apart from the massive numerical advantage, the American forces also had naval and aerial supremacy over the Japanese.

Members of the 1st Battalion 23rd Marines on Yellow Beach 1.  Mount Suribachi is in the background;
Members of the 1st Battalion 23rd Marines on Yellow Beach 1.  Mount Suribachi is in the background;

Commanding the garrison force was Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who knew he could not avoid defeat. The Japanese, therefore, focused on causing massive casualties on the attacking Marines. In order to achieve it, Kuribayashi arranged his defenses further inland and used a connected tunnel system to help troop movements go undetected.

Despite the careful planning, each American soldier was given only 60% of the ammunition required for an engagement by one division and four months worth of food.

When the Marines landed, the Japanese held their fire until their numbers piled up on the beach. Then they unleashed hell upon the Americans. Machine guns, mortars and heavy artillery thundered into the volcanic ash, which was useless for digging defensive foxholes.

The battle is famous for the picture of five marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. In reality, it raged on for 31 more days, and Jacobson made his name in action three days after the flag had been raised.

Jacobson was fighting for his life on Hill 382, the meat grinder when his platoon’s advance was stalled. After snatching a bazooka from a dead marine, normally wielded by two men, and a satchel of explosive he used it to destroy an anti-aircraft gun and its crew. He then calmly followed that up by eliminating two machine-gun positions. After that, he took out a blockhouse and succeeded in wiping out the occupants before proceeding to kill five men in a pillbox and blowing it up.

Not content, Jacobson then advanced and wielded his weapon with fearsome accuracy to destroy seven rifle emplacements that made up the perimeter of defenses in his assigned sector.

US Marines pose on top of an enemy pillbox with a captured Japanese flag;
US Marines pose on top of an enemy pillbox with a captured Japanese flag;

Jacobson then joined another assault company and destroyed a further pillbox that was holding up their advance. He pounded fire down onto a tank and then amazingly smashed the tank’s gun turret before taking out another blockhouse in a single-handed assault.

This superhuman feat of soldering carried on when Jacobson destroyed a tank and continued attacking blockhouses. At the end of the day, the Marine had succeeded in killing 75 enemy soldiers and taking out 16 enemy fortifications. Despite his heroic efforts, it took them four more days to capture Hill 382.

When asked what had inspired such incredible feats, the New York Times reported Jacobson simply replied: “I don’t know how I did it, I had one thing in mind – getting off that hill”. In October 1945, he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.

After the war he became disillusioned with civilian life and the hero re-enlisted in the Marines, serving in China and Vietnam. Jacobson eventually rose to the rank of Major and died in Florida in 2000. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and two grandchildren.

Russell Hughes

Russell Hughes is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE