The Battle of Iwo Jima

“Uncommon valor was a common virtue”

~ Admiral Nimitz

Iwo Jima means different things to different people. Its direct translation from the Japanese language means ‘Sulfur Island’. Known for its barren black landscape devoid of living creatures and a towering Mount Suribachi that dominated the South-western tip of the island with its 556 feet in height, Iwo Jima would live forever in the hearts of American Marines.

During the ending days of World War II, Iwo Jima was more than just a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean. It was a strategic ‘middle point’ between the invading forces of the American fleet and the Japanese homeland islands. Iwo Jima is located approximately 700 miles south of Tokyo and from this distance, Japanese radar and fighters continued to plague the U.S. 20th Air Force.

To take Iwo Jima meant that the American forces would be able to provide P-51 Mustang fighter protection for American heavy bombers over the Japanese home islands. The Americans realize that the strategic value of Iwo Jima cannot be taken lightly as it can also serve as a convenient emergency landing strip for crippled or fuelless B-29 bombers on their 1,500 mile flight back to Saipan and Tinian after aerial bombardment of Japan. Taking Iwo Jima would kill two birds with one stone. It would deny the Japanese of a vital airbase and at the same time act as a base for U.S. operations close to the Japanese home islands.

To take the twelve-square mile island, the attacking Americans consisted of a landing force of 74,000 Marines. They represented a 3-to-1 odds against the Japanese defenders. On top of that, Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s fifth fleet enjoyed total domination of air and sea. Some American planners and tacticians believed that the operation to take Sulfur Island would be over in a week!

Defending Iwo Jima was 21,000 imperial Japanese soldiers that were well-equipped with the heaviest firepower and almost impregnable defences. When the Americans landed, they found the Japanese troops well dug-in within 1,500 fortified caves, hundreds of ferroconcrete pillboxes, blockhouses, trenches, and miles of interconnecting tunnels. Mount Suribachi itself contained a seven-storey interior structure with hidden machine gun nest and concealed artillery positions.

Aside from well-prepared defensive positions, the greatest asset that the Japanese army had was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Learning lessons from other amphibious assaults like on Tarawa, Kuribayashi insisted that Japanese forces would defend the island from in interior positions deeply hidden. Through camouflage, fire discipline, conservative use of resources and guerrilla warfare, Kuribayashi’s plan was to exact disproportionate losses on the Americans in the hope that they may lose heart and cancel any proposed plan for the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The battle begins with a 72-day of aerial bombardment and three days of naval shelling. At 9AM on 19th February, the 4th and 5th Marine divisions land on Iwo Jima supported by naval fire from the American fleet. The 3rd Marine division was held back as floating reserves. Eight battalions were deployed along a front of a little more that 1.6 kilometres of beach. Moments after the Marines landed, all hell broke loose. Constant hail of Japanese artillery and small-arms fire took terrible casualties on the first day itself. More than 2,400 marines had been hit by enemy fire and 600 Marines were killed on the shores of Iwo Jima. By midnight, the US Marine Corps managed to hold the beachhead.

Realizing for the first time that the battle was far from over, American long-ranged bombers flew in to provide air support from bases on Saipan. By 23 February, Mount Suribachi was captured after severe fighting. American soldiers raised a small American flag on a pipe atop the mountain at 10.30 AM giving hope to other Americans on the offensive. After 36 days of hell on earth, Iwo Jima was finally taken. Almost every Japanese defender had been killed.

On March 4, the first fuelless B-29 landed on Airfield One on its way back to the Marianas. It was the first of 2,251 Superfortresses carrying 24,761 crewmen to make use of Iwo Jima’s emergency landing fields[1]. But the price paid for taking Sulfur Island was hard to swallow. It cost the Marine Corps more than 6,821 dead and over 18,000 wounded.

The reason was that Kuribayashi fought a different kind of warfare than previous encounters with Japanese forces that took the Americans by surprise. Each night, small parties of Japanese would conduct spying operations, seeking gaps between units, and quietly exacting a toll on American outposts. During the day, they went into hiding and waited for the invaders to enter into pre-arranged killing zones. Such discipline made the battle prolonged and costly. Iwo Jima was the only major battle in the Pacific War in which the U.S. Marines suffered more casualties that they inflicted on Japanese defenders.


Please click the links below:

Flag of our Fathers

Letters from Iwo Jima

[1] Eggenberger, David, ‘An Encyclopedia of Battles, Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present’, Dover Publications, Inc, New York, 1985.

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