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Carnage on Iwo Jima remains seared into veterans’ memories 75 years after hellacious battle

Mar 27 2020
Matthew M. Burke | Stars and Stripes

Roy Earle chuckles as he recalls his “memorable” 21st birthday laying communication lines on Iwo Jima 75 years ago. It isn’t long before the laugh turns to melancholy as the darkness of the hellacious battle fought there catches up with the 96-year-old Maine resident.

Then a private first class with the 4th Marine Division’s 1st Joint Assault Signal Company, Earle landed at Yellow Beach 1 on Iwo Jima in the fourth wave on Feb. 19, 1945. The short and agile field telephone and switchboard operator scooted up walls of black volcanic sand and ash under fire to find a large shell hole where he set up his switchboard that would link the beach with Marines on the front line.

The next day, he was ordered back down to the beach to find 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, which hadn’t established communications.

“We couldn’t get in touch with our right flank,” he said earlier this month in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes, his voice growing quiet. “I walked over and, oh my God, what a mess.”

Just as the Marines had run off their landing craft, a shell landed at their feet, killing most of them.

“A kid I served mess duty with before we left … there he was,” Earle said. “Oh God, that I remember for a long time. What a thing. Oh God, it was awful.”

Earle found the dead men’s switchboard and carried the 75-pound device back to the shell hole. He sent word for their surviving rifle companies to get in touch so he could get them hooked up.

“By the third day we were really getting slaughtered up there,” he said. “We lost 55% of our division on Iwo.”

The island was finally declared secure March 26, 1945. The Reunion of Honor, an annual memorial service scheduled for Saturday that brings together American and Japanese veterans of the battle, was called off because of coronavirus concerns. However, remembering the sacrifices and stories of those who fought and died on Iwo Jima is still important to many.

“Iwo Jima is a testament to what America was willing to endure to defend freedom and our way of life,” said Marine Corps History Division director Edward Nevgloski. “The 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima is about celebrating the selfless and courageous acts of thousands of American boys sent overseas … who would ask for nothing in return. When I think of Iwo Jima, I always ask, where do we get such men?”

The Battle of Iwo Jima began with an amphibious assault by Marines on Feb. 19, 1945, following months of aerial and naval bombardment. The Japanese had dug deep into the volcanic rock of the island, connected by a labyrinth of tunnels.

Seventy-thousand Marines took part in the 36-day battle, with more than 6,800 killed and 19,000 wounded. On the Japanese side, about 18,000 were killed. Only 216 Japanese were captured alive.

The battle marked a turning point in World War II; it was the first time the U.S. had fought the Japanese on native Japanese soil. It was also the first time that American casualties outnumbered those of the enemy.

The flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, captured by The Associated Press’ Joe Rosenthal in his iconic photograph, helped rally support for the war effort back home and became an indelible symbol of American sacrifice and courage. At the same time, it became clear that the Japanese were prepared to fight to the last man.

Same enemy, new tactics

Iwo Jima, which means “Sulfur Island,” presented a strategic problem for the allies as they neared mainland Japan at the tail end of their island-hopping campaign in 1944, said Iwo Jima Association of America historian Charles Neimeyer.

Military planners believed the key to Japan’s defeat would be sustained B-29 Superfortress bomber raids on the Japanese homeland. “Unfortunately for the bombers, it was a 14-hour roundtrip flight for them,” Neimeyer said. “And course, halfway there, they were being attacked by Japanese fighters.”

Located halfway between recently taken American airfields in the Marianas and Japan were the Volcano and Bonin islands, which included Iwo Jima.

Radar on Iwo Jima tipped off the home islands of an imminent attack, Neimeyer said.

If taken, Iwo Jima would not only improve the lethality of American bombing raids but could also host fighter escorts, serve as an emergency airfield for damaged aircraft coming back from the raids and help facilitate air and sea blockades, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

Orders came down in October 1944 to occupy Iwo Jima, according to a National Park Service history. Naval surface ships began their bombardment the following month. On Dec. 8, 74 straight days of aerial bombing commenced.

American assault troops would find the same determined enemy when they hit the beaches of Iwo Jima a few months later, with one key difference from previous battles.

In mid-1944, Iwo Jima got a new Japanese garrison commander, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

He immediately ordered a shakeup in Japanese tactics, Neimeyer said. In addition to ordering 11 miles of tunnels dug around the island, he also ordered his men to hold their fortified fighting positions until their deaths, to take 10 Marines with each one of them before they were allowed to die and to stop to the wasteful practice of banzai suicide charges.

Kuribayashi suffered with his men and served as an inspiration.

He “loved his family very much and sent many letters to them until the U.S. landed on Iwo Jima,” his grandson, Japanese House of Representatives member Yoshitaka Shindo, told Stars and Stripes last year.

Kuribayashi started one letter home saying he was concerned since he would not be coming home alive that his wife and kids would catch a cold due to a hole in the kitchen wall. He had been unable to fix it prior to his departure.

“I understand that sacrificing his life for the country was to protect his loved ones and to fulfill his responsibility,” Shindo said. “He never gave up no matter how difficult the situation was, and his attitude became my model in life.”

Kuribayashi’s body was never recovered from Iwo Jima.

Shindo helped facilitate the first joint Reunion of Honor ceremony on the island with American veterans of the battle in 1985.

“Protecting their loved ones back home was the last and only wish on the minds of the fallen at Iwo Jima, and that extends to the U.S. soldiers that died on the island as well,” he said. “By telling the stories about how hard and difficult the battle was … and how bravely they all fought, it will remind us to stay in peace. Keeping the peace is the only way we can compensate the fallen souls.”

‘Bad business’

The V Amphibious Corps landing force departed the Marianas for Iwo Jima on Feb. 15 and 16 according to the park service history. At the same time, the Navy launched air strikes against the Japanese island of Honshu to distract the Japanese from Iwo Jima. The 4th and 5th Marine Divisions landed Feb. 19 on Iwo Jima’s black sand beaches. The landing areas on the southeastern coast had been designated Green, Red, Yellow and Blue beaches.

Initially the Marines met little resistance as they piled up on the beaches, the Navy history said.

About 40 minutes into the landing, Kuribayashi opened up with everything he had, Neimeyer said. The Marines soon discovered they had walked into a shooting gallery. The Japanese had the beaches dialed in with artillery and interlocking fields of machine gun fire from fortified concrete blockhouses and other concealed positions.

“It was like shooting ducks in a barrel,” Neimeyer said. “The majority of the Marine Corps KIAs and casualties are going to take place at a high rate on this first two days of battle than any other time after that.”

Towering hills of coarse, black volcanic sand hampered the men’s exit from the kill zone, Earle recalled.

“You don’t run on Iwo,” he said. “That sand and ash and stuff was murder there, so I ‘hurried’ as they say.”

Once ashore, the volcanic rock that covers the island caused deep cuts and lacerations on the Marines when they sought cover from enemy fire.

“The Japanese were covered and concealed in hundreds of cave openings,” Nevgloski said. “The Japanese had been preparing defenses on Iwo for more than 20 years and had their weapons zeroed and fields of fire mapped out precisely. The Marines would have to fight a 360-degree battle as the Japanese often popped up from cover once the Marines passed by.”

The 4th Marine Division pushed forward and took the enemy strong point known as “the Quarry” on the first day, despite heavy opposition, the Navy history said. Marines from the 5th Marine Division’s 28th Marines isolated Mount Suribachi.

Jack Colby, now 95 and living in Alexandria, Va., hit the beach with the 4th Marine Division. A man of few words, he struggled to describe the horrors he witnessed as a young private first class.

“It was a mess, a pure mess, that’s about the size of it; guys getting knocked down right and left,” he told Stars and Stripes earlier this month. “The [Japanese] had a pretty good position where they were looking down on a lot of our troops. But anyway, that’s the way it goes.”

Asked what he remembered most about the battle, Colby answered with one word: “Casualties.”

“I spent a lot of time moving around behind the line, with a line of casualties,” he said. “You’d see casualties. It was bad business. But that’s what war is.”

Colby was at Airfield No. 1 when the two flag-raisings occurred atop Suribachi. A battle was still raging, so he paid them little mind.

Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the battle, told Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima in 2015 that the flags energized the men whose morale was dragging.

“If we had never put Old Glory on Mount Suribachi, it would have been just another campaign,” he said, looking up at Suribachi. “But the fact that we put it up on enemy territory, the flag is what energized everything that took place. Our morale was dragging, we had lost so many guys.”

The men still had 31 days of the toughest fighting ahead of them as they moved to take the northern end of the island. The 3rd Marine Division joined the fighting on the fifth day to help take the center sector of the island, a Navy history said. Kuribayashi had prepared successive lines of Japanese positions across the heart of the island to greet them.

Step toward victory

As they moved north, the Marines fought through places with names like “Meat Grinder;” Hill 382; the “Turkey Knob,” which had a reinforced concrete communications center; and the “Amphitheater,” a southeastern extension of Hill 382, the Navy history said.

The 3rd Marine Division encountered the most heavily fortified position on the island in its move to take Airfield No. 2.

All those positions “had interlocking fields of fire, that hills covered other hills and cliffs covered other cliffs, so that if you moved up to take one out, the other would open up on you,” Neimeyer said.

Marine infantry was forced to get up close and personal to engage their concealed enemy, blasting them out of caves with satchel charges and burning them out with flamethrowers. Marines fought all day, lost men and gained only a couple of hundred yards.

The 5th Marine Division moved up the west coast of the island, Neimeyer said. The 3rd moved up the center and the 4th moved up the east coast.

The 4th survived a “mini banzai” attack from the final 700 Japanese navy holdouts and linked up with the other divisions on March 10, six days after the first B-29 made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima, the Navy history said.

The island was first declared secure on March 16, though fighting continued. The U.S. Army’s 147th Infantry regiment took control of the island on April 4.

Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded for actions during the battle, more than any other battle in U.S. history, a Navy history said.

Neimeyer said the victory at Iwo Jima was significant because the public viewed it as the first step toward final victory.

“They had gone on this long march across all these island chains and they had lost all these folks,” Neimeyer said. “They fought hard on each one of these island campaigns and now it looks like we’re closing in on the final chapter of the war and there’s an end to it, so it was a very positive thing, although they knew that the possibility of even greater casualties were going to come if they had to invade. It was also a wake-up call for how violent the invasion the home islands was likely to become.”

The war would be over five months later with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Iwo Jima is near the top, if not at the top, of Marine Corps battles,” Nevgloski said. “The ferociousness of the Japanese defenders, the brutal terrain on which the Marines and Japanese fought, the casualties, and what was a stake makes Iwo a landmark battle.”

For the men who fought it, the battle looms over them 75 years on, as Suribachi did over the beach on D-Day.

“It’s a shame we had to lose so many of those poor guys,” said Bob Persichitti, a Navy radioman second class who watched the battle from just offshore aboard the command ship USS Eldorado.

He recalled some of the grievous injuries he saw on Marines brought aboard his ship.

“I don’t know why we have to have wars,” he said with a deep sigh.

Earle said: “We were glad we could do it, but we hated what it cost us. I’m glad I’m still here, but I just can’t believe I went through all of that.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Aya Ichihashi contributed to this report.