The Battle, Reasons, and Strategy
Iwo Jima is a dark, small, ugly, sandy, and treeless island. The island smells like rotten eggs. Most of it is black volcanic rock. No one would want to live there, but this island became an important part of World history.
The Reasons the United States Wanted Iwo Jima
The United States wanted Iwo Jima because of its location. It was only 660 miles south of Tokyo. Iwo Jima had two airfields, which damaged B-29s returning from bombing Japan, could make emergency landing, on Iwo Jima in case they got damaged. The United States wanted the island as a base for plane fighters. The fighter planes could guide the B-29s, which would attack Japan.
When Japan discovered that the U.S. was going to attack Iwo Jima, the Japanese got ready for the attack. The Japanese commanders knew that the United States wanted to invade Iwo Jima because of its location. Twenty-two thousand Japanese troops defended Iwo Jima. Master General Kuribayashi was the commander of the Japanese troops. He made the island into a huge fortress with walls and defenses. Deep underground caves were built and turned into shelter for the Japanese troops. Once inside, air attacks made by the American planes or bombs launched by the giant guns of the American battleships could not hurt them. Cannons, machine guns, and antitank guns were placed into the caves. Many large cannons were hidden on Mount Suribachi, a volcano in the middle of Iwo Jima. From the volcano’s flat top, observers could see every part of the island. With all the defenses, there would no safe place to invade. Kuribayashi, however, did not think he could win the battle, but he did not want to surrender. He told his troops that they had to fight hard. He wanted each soldier to kill at least ten Americans before they were killed.
The third, fourth, and fifth divisions of the U.S. Marine Group were going to fight the Japanese. Twenty thousand marines armed with rifles, machine guns, and cannons would be sent in to kill and capture as many of the Japanese as possible. Since the marines knew that Iwo Jima had strong defenses, they decided to weaken the defenses before actually fighting for the island.
Before the Invasion
On December 7, 1944, U.S. Marine planes began bombing. They attacked the island almost everyday. Some days, American warships would fire on the islands for hours at a time. These bombing raids took place from December 1944 until February 1945. Almost 2 months of bombing did little damage to the Japanese defense. Safe in the underground caves, the Japanese soldiers waited through the hours of explosions that shook the island. Afterward, any damage that was done to the gun positions or airfields was quickly repaired.
On February 14, 1945, a huge American invasion force sailed for Iwo Jima from Saipan, an island near Iwo Jima, from the island Guam, and from other islands America controlled near Iwo Jima. As the sun rose on February 16, the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima saw that American warships had surrounded the island. The big guns of six battleships and several smaller ships fired on the Japanese. Airplanes from the invasion fleet’s aircraft carriers swooped down over the island, dropping high explosive bombs and flaming napalm, chemicals that can burn a large area. U.S. Navy underwater demolition teams planted explosives to destroy underwater barriers which the Japanese placed along the beaches where marines would land. The marine invasion was set for February 19. The marines had stretched huge nets along the sides of the ships. They formed giant rope ladders. Marines used these to climb into small boats that held 36 men each. Other men were crammed into boats called amtracks, small, flat bottom vehicles that moved on water and land used to carry troops from the ships to the shore. They could carry twenty men or a small cannon and machine guns.
The American warships began the attack. They tried to destroy any Japanese troops that might be waiting on the beaches. Blasts of orange flame, rolling balls of smoke, and eardrum-shattering explosions erupted from the giant guns of the battleships. Bombs poured down on the island. It seemed to the watching soldiers that no one could survive the explosions and attacks.
Once again, deep in the underground caves, the Japanese soldiers simply waited for the earthshaking attacks to end. When it did, they dashed through tunnels and went up ladders near the hidden gun positions that faced the beach. There, they waited for the invasion.
On February 19, hundreds of amtracks began moving through the water toward the island. The first to get onto the beach had cannons and machine guns to protect the unarmed troop carriers behind them. Then the first 1,200 marines poured onto the beach in a long line that stretched over two miles. The Japanese started firing at the Americans. Marines fell as Japanese bullets struck them. Many more ships were coming through the water. They were bringing supplies like ammunition, trucks, tanks, and more troops to the island. By the end of the first hour, there were thousands of marines on the beach. From the gun positions, the Japanese continued firing. Bullets from dozens of machine guns hit the crowding Americans that were on the beach. Bombardments, shells, and guns exploded among the Americans. From Mount Suribachi, cannons fired down onto the beach. Many marines were injured or killed. With bombs bursting among the landing aircraft, many marines were lying dead on the beach and in the water. There were burning boats and vehicles, too.
The marines that survived the explosion moved forward. A few amtracks and tanks moved with them. They fired at anything that looked like a gun position. When groups of marines got close enough to the gun positions, they shot streams of fire from flame-throwers to kill all the Japanese that were inside. Grenades were tossed in and exploded among the Japanese soldiers. Americans continued moving forward. By nightfall, the fifth division moved all the way across the thinnest part of the island to the opposite shore. They had split off Mount Suribachi from the rest of the Japanese troops, but many marines had been killed. All night long, the Japanese continued to fire on the beach and more marines and soldiers were killed and wounded.
Early morning, February 20, the marines began to move forward. The 28th Regiment of the fifth division turned south to capture Mount Suribachi. Again, the marines had to fight their way slowly through the gun positions. By the end of the day, they captured ground but lost many men.
The rest of the regiments moved north to capture the two Japanese airfields where Kuribayshi’s strongest defenses were. The marines ran into an area with 800 machine guns, cannons, gun positions, and hidden snipers. The marines captured ground a little at a time. By the end of the day, they captured 500 yards and one airfield.
On the third day of the invasion, the Americans went forward to Mount Suribachi and the second airfield. The marines lost men as they destroyed enemy defenses along the way. While they fought, thousands more marines landed on Iwo Jima. More cannons, tanks, and ammunition landed as well. Now America had sixty thousand more troops on Iwo Jima. The Japanese still refused to surrender. When evening was near, the Japanese struck the U.S. ships off shore, using planes from a distant island. The Japanese saw it as an honor to die in their attempt to sink the enemy ships. The antiaircraft fire shot down most of the planes, but some of the planes reached their targets. One of the planes crashed into one of the U.S. ships. There was a tremendous explosion, and the ship sank, killing all 218 sailors on board.
During the fourth day of the invasion, the Americans moved north toward the last airfield. The marines captured it twice, but the Japanese pushed them back. Other regiments were pushing toward Mount Suribachi and had reached the volcano’s base. They were starting to move up its slopes. A heavy rainstorm helped America by keeping the Japanese from seeing well. When the marines got to the top of Mount Suribachi, they raised an American flag attached to a long drainpipe to declare that Mount Suribachi had been captured. The ones that were watching from below and from the ships that was near the beaches cheered and yelled.
The battle was still not over. They had to capture the rest of the island. On the seventh day, the second airfield was captured. America had the entire southern half of the island. The marines fought for seven more days to get through Kuribayshi’s hardest defenses losing many more American lives.
The third division reached Iwo Jima’s northern coast on March 9. The last of Kuribayshi’s defenses were attacked over the next several days. The last of the island was captured. On March 16, the battle was over. America finally won the battle.
McGowen, Tom. The Battle for Iwo Jima. New York: Children’s Press, 1999.
Parrish, Thomas. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War 2. New York: Cord Communications Corporation, 1978.
Stein, R. The Story of the Battle for Iwo Jima. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1977.