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Iwo Jima 75th anniversary | 'Bloodiest battle' of World War II claimed nearly 7,000 U.S. lives on small, ash-covered island off Japan

Feb 15 2020
Dave Sutor | The Tribune-Democrat

Barely eight square miles in size, Iwo Jima was a desolate volcanic island – a seemingly inconsequential speck in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean – that, beginning 75 years ago on Feb. 19, 1945, served as the unlikely ground for one of the most vicious and pivotal battles of World War II.

Almost 30,000 men died or went missing.

They were killed with guns, grenades, bombs, tanks and flamethrowers that, after the battle, left behind a landscape covered with black sand, craters, downed trees, charred corpses and discarded military equipment.

But, atop that scarred island, an American flag flew. The United States had, for the first time, captured territory that was part of Japan.

“It was kind of the lynchpin of all the battles in the Pacific,” Iwo Jima Association of America Director Shayne Jarosz said during an interview in his Quantico, Virginia, office. “It was the very first Japanese homeland island that we had assaulted in 1945. Prior to that, the United States was basically taking back territory that had been taken away from others.”

Approximately 110,000 Americans – from the Marine Corps and Navy – served in the fight.

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Approximately 110,000 Americans – from the Marine Corps and Navy – served in the fight.

Jarosz said no definitive count exists of how many are still alive.

Twenty-seven Americans received the Medal of Honor for their heroics on Iwo Jima, more than for any battle in the country’s history.

In a famous quote from March 1945, Navy Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz said: “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Survivors are now in their 90s, including Marine veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams – one of only two living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II. Williams, a resident of Ona, West Virginia, earned his medal for heroic actions on Iwo Jima.

“I lost the very best friend that I ever had in my life on Iwo Jima, Vernon Waters, who was my assistant flamethrower operator,” Williams, 96, said. “I lost him on March 6, 1945.”

Waters was among the approximately 6,800 Americans who died during the battle.

Their sacrifices are commemorated with a display inside the National Museum of the Marine Corps, located in Triangle, Virginia.

“This wall memorializes the Marines and sailors that were killed on the island of Iwo Jima,” said museum docent Larry Britton, speaking in front of the rounded wall that, when viewed from a certain angle, reveals an image of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.

Iwo Jima was home to two Japanese military airfields. A third was being built.

An early warning radar system was in place to give advance notice of Army Air Force B-29 attacks heading from islands in the south, including Guam, toward the mainland. The United States forces – under the command of Nimitz and Marine Corps Gen. Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith – wanted to occupy the island in order to eliminate the layer of Japanese defense and secure the airfields for their own use.

Operation Detachment began with a bombardment that was largely ineffective.

“It had no impact on that island,” said retired three-star Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, a former congressman and 2020 presidential candidate.

Before the attack, Japanese forces created an entrenched maze of fortified bunkers, caves and pillboxes, as opposed to putting the main defenses on the beaches.

“I don’t think anybody envisioned that there would be the digging in that the Japanese did, that they actually would just burrow themselves,” Sestak said. “The ones before that, they met us on the beach. This was – I think – the first time that they did not. They just burrowed in and made life, as you can tell from the great losses, hell for our Marines.”

A Marine amphibious assault started at 8:59 a.m. Feb. 19, plodding at first as the men struggled to move through the soft ash when weighed down with their equipment. The attack originally focused on the narrow southern part of the island that was divided into landing zones identified by different colors on a map.

Fighting lasted for five weeks – pitting the Marines V Amphibious Corps, Seventh Air Force and Navy’s 5th Fleet against Japan’s 109th IJA Division and Imperial Navy – until the United States declared the capture and occupation phase complete at 8 a.m. on March 26.

The conflict was devastating to the Japanese. Among the 20,000 to 22,000 combatants on the island, all but about 200 were killed, hiding or missing. Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the Japanese forces at Iwo Jima, clearly understood the gravity of the situation for his nation.

Iwo Jima proved to be of limited strategic value to the American military, as either an Army staging base or Navy fleet base, although rebuilt landing strips provided a spot for planes to land in emergencies. But the battle foreshadowed what United States forces might have encountered during an invasion of mainland Japan – which was avoided by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On Feb. 23, atop Mount Suribachi at the southern tip of Iwo Jima, six Marines – Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, Cpl. Harold Keller and Pfc. Harold Schultz – raised an American flag.

But, unbeknownst at the time, they had participated in one of the most iconic moments in American military history. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the event in a photo showing six members of the American military, moving as one, almost indistinguishable from each other. It widely circulated across the United States, appearing in newspapers, theaters, post offices and storefronts.

Strank, Block and Sousley were among those killed on Iwo Jima.