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Many military historians today regard the attack on the island fortress of Iwo Jima as the supreme test of the amphibious assault in the annals of war. Three reinforced divisions of Marines and their supporting forces, some 110,000 men in all, not counting the massive numbers of men manning the ships and planes surrounding the island, assaulted the Japanese on February 19, 1945. From its formal inception in October 1944, the operation to wrest Iwo Jima from its defenders was considered by American planners to be potentially the most difficult mission in the 170-year history of the Marine Corps.
The campaign itself, fought between February 19 and March 26, 1945, proved the planners entirely correct. The battle, in the end, took thirty-six days of unceasingly ferocious combat. Most of the killing was at close range by infantrymen and demolitions men wielding rifles, flamethrowers, and explosive charges designed to blow up gun emplacements and the underground tunnels and caves that comprised the Japanese defensive system. One-third of the nineteen thousand Marines who were killed in World War II died on Iwo Jima. Operation Detachment, the official name of the operation, was the sole campaign in the Pacific in which total American casualties exceeded those of the Japanese.
The fortifications on the island were the most elaborate encountered by Allied infantrymen in the Pacific. Because Iwo Jima was so small and the combatants so numerous, the battlefield was intensely cramped. During the first two weeks of the fight, there was no safe place, no “rear area” that could not be reached by Japanese guns. The Japanese fighting positions ranged from one-man spider holes to pillboxes, dug-in tanks, blockhouses, trenches, and interconnected cave openings. They were scattered throughout the island, but camouflage rendered the vast majority undetectable.
The commander of the Japanese forces was a superb professional soldier. A lieutenant general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi was a fifth-generation samurai and a gifted defensive strategist. He had long admired the United States and believed the decision to initiate war against the Americans a grave mistake. Nonetheless, for eight months before the invasion, Kuribayashi drove his garrison at a furious pace. They prepared a lethal system of interlocking defenses across the entire island. More than nine hundred major gun emplacements and several thousand individual fighting positions were supplied by a network of underground barracks and storehouses, connected by eleven miles of tunnels.
The Japanese garrison on Iwo waged one of the greatest campaigns of static defense in the history of war, exacting—and paying—an enormous price in blood. Avoiding the large-scale, costly banzai attacks that had featured prominently in earlier battles, the Japanese instead chose to adhere, as a V Amphibious Corps (V Corps or VAC, the senior military command echelon on the island) report put it, to a “well coordinated plan by a commander who has prepared his defensive positions and utilized the terrain to the best tactical advantage in order to conserve his force, inflict heavy casualties on the enemy, and delay the capture of this strategic island.. . . Each Jap defender was given the mission of killing 10 Americans before dying himself.”1
“The gravity of the coming battle filled me with apprehension,” wrote Lt. Gen. Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who, in leading the Marines in their drive across the Pacific, had become a symbol of the Corps’ fighting spirit. 21 Smith had predicted at least fifteen thousand casualties among the landing force. Before the landing, the V Amphibious Corps believed the enemy bastion on Iwo to number about fourteen thousand men. In fact, there were close to twenty-two thousand defenders.
The Americans suffered twenty-eight thousand casualties, while fewer than two thousand Japanese survived the battle. “I was not afraid of the outcome. I knew we would win,” wrote Smith. “We always had. But contemplation of the cost in lives caused me many sleepless nights. My only source of comfort was in reading the tribulations of leaders described in the Bible. Never before had I realized the spiritual uplift and solace a man on the eve of a great trial receives from the pages of that book.” 3
“Great trial” indeed. On Iwo Jima, there would be no flanking attacks or amphibious assaults behind enemy lines designed to crack the thick belt of defensive positions from the rear. There could be no end run around the enemy. The island was too thickly fortified to undertake such maneuvers, which have traditionally limited both casualties and the duration of large battles. For the assault troops, Iwo Jima was from beginning to end a matter of frontal assault against an enemy who resisted attacks almost to the last man.
Beginning on December 8, 1944, and continuing for the next seventy-four consecutive days, the island was bombarded by B-24 Liberators of the 7th Army Air Force. The island received by far the heaviest preinvasion bombardment of the Pacific War, yet an official intelligence report issued two weeks before the battle confirmed that the daily bombings only served to slow down the furious pace with which Kuribayashi and his men were digging in and building new positions.
Photographic evidence of the bombings between December 3 and January 24, an American intelligence report made clear, had “not prevented the enemy from improving his defensive position, and as of 24 January 1945, his installations of all categories of [fortifications] had notably increased in number. The island is now far more heavily defended by gun positions and field fortifications than it was on 15 October 1944, when initial heavy bombing strikes were initiated.” 4
It was Adm. Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, who proposed the strategic directive to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) that led to the island’s seizure. On October 2, 1944, he issued a directive indicating that the Navy lacked the resources to sustain the provisionally scheduled invasions of Formosa and China. The JCS had envisaged constructing air bases on both to conduct a massive strategic bombing campaign against Japan proper.
King argued that the Navy did, however, have sufficient resources to take intermediate air bases on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and that their seizure would greatly enhance the strategic bombing of the Japanese home islands from bases already established in the Marianas. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who led the Army Air Forces, ardently supported the directive. Iwo Jima, in particular, could be used as a base for long-range P-51 fighter escorts for the massive B-29 Superfortress raids designed to destroy Japan’s capacity to make war. The island was equidistant from Tokyo and the B-29 air bases on Guam, Tinian, and Saipan. It already had two airfields suitable for use by fighters.
The capture of Iwo would eliminate the two-hour warning of impending attack from the island’s radio station. With fighter escort protection and without the fuel-wasting dogleg around the island, the B-29s could fly in low over their critical targets in Japan.
On October 3, the JCS accepted King’s proposal. There was a secondary reason for taking the island: Japanese bombers flying from Iwo had already succeeded in destroying more than a dozen B-29s on American airfields in the Marianas. If the Japanese opted to replenish their air armada on Iwo Jima, most of which had been destroyed by American air raids, they could continue to punish American air bases and their most precious assets—the Superfortresses themselves. The JCS also saw Iwo Jima as a staging area for the invasion of the home islands and an air base from which American planes could cut off shipping in the Sea of Japan.
Once the strategic bombing campaign began in November 1944, the wisdom of the decision to take the island was confirmed in a compelling, unanticipated way. Far too many B-29s returning from the raids on Japan were ditching into the sea, often with the loss of all hands on board. With Iwo Jima in American hands, the damaged Superfortresses could land on the island for repairs and then fly back to the Marianas. Possession of Iwo’s airfields gave Army Air Forces general Curtis LeMay, who commanded 21st Bomber Command in the Marianas, and his B-29 crews an enormous boost in morale. More than twenty-two hundred B-29s landed on Iwo Jima by war’s end. Not all of these crews would have been lost at sea. Some landings were for training purposes only. But it seems reasonable to assume that several thousand American lives were saved because of tiny Iwo Jima’s airstrips. Moreover, the long-range P-51 fighters that were placed on the island made an important, if largely unheralded, contribution to the destruction of enemy airpower in Japan proper.
Recently a historian and active-duty Marine captain, Robert S. Burrell, has published several controversial articles and a book arguing that “the irony is that the battle’s impact on the history of the Corps far surpasses any strategic relevance capturing the island may have served.” 5 Implicitly, Burrell suggests that the cost in blood of taking the island was too high, given its strategic contribution to the defeat of Japan, and that the decision to take Iwo Jima was essentially a strategic miscalculation.
Captain Burrell’s work, we believe, sheds far more heat than light. It relies too heavily on hindsight and on a tenuous foundation of cherry-picked information and analysis unavailable in the fall of 1944. The capture of Iwo did, in the end, greatly enhance the strategic bombing of the home islands. That bombing campaign was clearly decisive in Japan’s defeat, for it threatened to destroy Japanese civilization, and thus paved the way for the decision by Japan’s leaders to surrender unconditionally to the United States.
In assessing the strategic impact of taking the island, Burrell ignores the moral element of strategy deemed so vitally important by Carl von Clausewitz, the legendary Prussian philosopher of war. By “moral,” Clausewitz posited immeasurable, nonmaterial factors such as morale, willpower, and a nation’s unity of purpose in carrying on despite extreme adversity. Here, we believe the effect of Iwo Jima on both nations was profound.
The loss of the island, the first piece of Japanese soil invaded and the first target in the inner defensive ring protecting the home islands, stunned the Japanese people, for they viewed it as the gateway to Japan itself. Its loss led the Imperial Japanese Army to conclude that though they might fight on, there was no way they could successfully repulse additional amphibious assaults by the Americans. Further, the stoicism and courage of the Marines, symbolized in the iconic Joe Rosenthal photograph of the second flag raising on Mount Suribachi, gave the war-weary American public a much-needed boost when morale was clearly low, providing a palpable sense of optimism that the defeat of the Japanese was inevitable.
Historians are in general agreement that the high casualties sustained on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were a critical factor in President Harry Truman’s decision to try to end the war by means other than an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Military historian John Keegan puts the projected casualty figure for the invasion of the island of Kyushu alone—an invasion in which Combat Team 28 was slated to participate—at 268,000 men killed and wounded, a staggering number when one acknowledges that American battle deaths in all theaters in World War II totaled 292,000.
IN THE AMERICAN imagination, Iwo Jima joins Lexington and Concord and the Battles of New Orleans, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, and Normandy as one of a handful of military engagements that transcend the war of which they were a part and that speak powerfully to our sense of national identity. When photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the stirring image of five Marines and a Navy medical corpsman raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the place of Regimental Combat Team 28 in the annals of American history was assured. The Lions of Iwo Jima is the first full history of that Combat Team’s costly struggle on “Hell’s Volcano.”
The story of the flag raisings—there were in fact two such events—has generated an enormous body of writing and, recently, a major feature film. It beckons to us today, reminding us of the sacrifices men and women have had to make in perilous times. But very little is known about the unit’s fate after the flag went up.
The Lions of Iwo Jima seeks to recapture the experiences of the 4,500 Marines of Combat Team 28, placing particular focus not just on the opening struggle to seize Mount Suribachi, but on the monthlong assault after the famous flag raising. During the fight against the main belt of enemy defenses, amid the lethal tunnel and bunker complexes of Hill 362A and Nishi Ridge, CT 28 sustained a devastating number of casualties among its junior officers and seasoned noncoms. Once those objectives were secured, the Team, its assault units increasingly manned by replacements with limited infantry training, struggled forward against hundreds of well-prepared defenses, yard by yard, north toward Kitano Point. With the help of the remnants of CT 26 and CT 27, CT 28 cleared out the last bastion of organized resistance on the island, hidden in a deep gash in the volcanic earth christened “Bloody Gorge.”
The gorge measured only seven hundred yards in length and between two hundred and five hundred yards in width, yet it took the exhausted Marines nine days of brutal combat in the worst terrain on the island to clear out the labyrinth of subterranean defenses there. The last phase of the battle lent credence to General Smith’s assertion that Iwo Jima was “troglodyte war on a primitive level with modern refinements that burned men to ashes, blasted through concrete masses, split the earth with seismic effect . . . entomb[ing] thousands alive.” 6
Hill 362A, Nishi Ridge, and Bloody Gorge, each a “battle within the Battle,” are remembered only by a few hundred survivors and a handful of military historians. This book aims to remedy that situation.
The question might well be asked: Why another book on Iwo Jima when so many have been written already? Because the complete story of CT 28 has never been told, and its history, we believe, presents a fresh perspective of the battle in which it played such a crucial role.
Earlier histories of the battle offer only bits and pieces of Combat Team 28’s campaign, and without exception, they focus on the Team’s first phase of the fight, with its two flag raisings. This is not surprising, given the Rosenthal photo’s enormous symbolic value, as well as the tactical importance of the first. Suribachi was a fortress unto itself, with multiple levels of tunnels and numerous large-caliber gun emplacements. It completely dominated the landing beaches, with a garrison of more than 1,600 Japanese soldiers capable of raining down all manner of fire upon the Marine invasion force. Suribachi had to be taken fast.
By the time CT 28 had broken through the main defenses on the left flank of the island-wide attack and reached Bloody Gorge, the Team teetered on the verge of collapse. Yet it somehow pressed on until the last enemy defensive positions were reduced. According to “the book,” CT 28, with its combat efficiency rated at 40 percent, should have ceased to function as a unit by that point. It was during the fighting in the north that the Team lost most of its key small-unit leaders, including three of the men in the photo of the second flag raising. By campaign’s end, more than 70 percent of the Marines who had landed in the unit’s three infantry assault battalions were dead or wounded. In thirty-one days of hard fighting on the line, CT 28 advanced 5,600 yards, closed 2,880 caves, killed an estimated 5,210 enemy soldiers, and took 16 prisoners. Total casualties sustained for the 28th Marine Regiment alone, the core infantry unit around which the Team was built, were 89 officers and 2,287 enlisted men killed or wounded. It had gone into the battle with 3,250 Marines.
A single volume, exploring in detail the experiences of one of the eight combat teams to bear the brunt of the fighting, would deepen our understanding of one of the most excruciating ordeals experienced by Americans in arms in the twentieth century. By telling the story of a superbly trained unit of Marines, we hope to illuminate the nature of the Pacific War and the Marine Corps’ vital role in that conflict.
Why was CT 28 such an extraordinary outfit? In a sense, the entire book offers readers an extended answer to this question. A short response to the question might be as follows: the men of the regiment lived together “under canvas” in Southern California and Hawaii, away from “mainside” barracks for their yearlong training period. The Team was led by one of the greatest combat commanders in Marine Corps history, Col. Harry Liversedge. Its training regimen in Hawaii was specially designed for assaulting the most densely fortified island in the Pacific War, and that training reflected a large body of hard-won knowledge acquired by Marines who had fought against the Japanese for more than two full years.
Unlike the combat teams of the 3rd and 4th Marine Divisions, who also fought with impressive resolve in Operation Detachment, CT 28, as a unit, had never seen combat. Yet fully 40 percent of the men in the 28th Regiment were combat veterans. Many of these men hailed from the Corps’ elite Raider and Paratroop regiments— units that attracted men who were highly motivated and competitive, even by Marine standards, with strong athletic backgrounds.
The Lions of Iwo Jima is a narrative of ground combat, but three of its nine chapters—one on the enemy’s mind-set and two on how the adversaries prepared for this epic struggle—provide historical context. It is also a war memoir. Fred Haynes was a twenty-four-year-old Marine officer in the unit’s headquarters element. He survived the entire campaign and was in touch daily with the assault unit commanders and many of the troops who fought under them.
As an operations officer, Fred was among the handful of Marines who planned and coordinated the assault on Suribachi, as well as the daily attacks during the subsequent month of punishing combat. An excerpt from the citation for Fred’s Bronze Star nicely summarizes his roles in the battle. It was written by Colonel Liversedge himself.
After rendering outstanding service during the planning phase of this vital operation, Captain Haynes effectively discharged the task of coordinating the regiment’s ship-to-shore movement, contributing in large measure to the success of the landing by his excellent work as Tactical Control Officer. Frequently visiting the front lines throughout the entire campaign, he braved heavy enemy fire to obtain valuable tactical information on the disposition of troops and the terrain over which the regiment would attack.
Fred has long been a leading member of the tight-knit community of Iwo Jima survivors and their families. For more than sixty years, he has collected clippings, letters, and unpublished manuscripts from his comrades in CT 28, as well as documents, maps, and official records concerning the battle. These previously untapped sources, in addition to more than one hundred recent interviews with surviving members of the team, ensure that The Lions of Iwo Jima offers readers fresh insight into the battle.
Our goal in writing the book has been to reconstruct the world of CT 28 as it prepared for and fought its only battle and to give the reader a vivid sense of the range of experiences and emotions these men endured. Some men, Japanese and Americans alike, were shattered by the life-and-death struggle that raged on day after day. Many more emerged from the battle as stronger, more humane people, their sense of commitment and compassion deepened by the suffering and loss they encountered.
All history is interpretive. The “facts” do not speak for themselves. In the case of a battle as furious and destructive as Iwo Jima, many of the “facts” recorded even in the official Marine Corps documents and histories conflict with one another, and most of the key participants we have written about are long dead. Recollections of individual Marines about the same day or event often differ quite widely. Indeed, recollections of individuals about the battle tend to morph over time.
Confronted with these realities, we have relied on the professional judgment of a Marine officer who fought in three wars and a military historian who has spent the last twenty years writing about war, and more particularly, the role of the Marine Corps in conflicts since World War II. The movements of battalions and companies, the changes in leadership, the nature of the tactics and the defenses described in the book have, with few exceptions, been corroborated by several reliable sources. Stories of individual experiences in some cases could not be corroborated in the same manner. Yet, taken together, the recollections and reflections of individual participants speak to a truth about the battle, and about the experience of war, that cannot be found in the official histories and reports. Among the thousands of stories and anecdotes we encountered in the research stages of this project, we have steered clear of those for which the evidence was questionable.
A word now about the manner in which we tell this story: Fred’s personal recollections and analysis as a participant—the memoir element of the book—are written in the first person and are set off from the main narrative in italics. Quotations taken from interviews or unpublished manuscripts have been edited for grammar and spelling and errors of chronology. A few changes in the order of sentences have been made to eliminate confusion. However, we have not changed the tone or meaning of excerpts from the many unpublished sources that appear for the first time in this book.
AS FOR THE men of Combat Team 28, it only remains to say that no earthly language, no rational analysis can explain how these men fought under such horrific conditions, day in, day out, for more than a month. They seemed sustained by a mysteriousand transcendent force. These Marines were driven by a powerful desire not to let their buddies down, to get the job done.
This is their story.
Excerpted from The Lions of Iwo Jima by Major General Fred Haynes (USMC-ret) and James A. Warren
Copyright © 2008 by Major General Fred Haynes (USMC-ret) and James A. Warren
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.