Phantom Soldier: The Enemy's Answer to U.S. Firepower


This book won't please those who have come to believe that wars are won and casualties limited through technology, or that the victor's version of one is always correct. But, all U.S. security personnel should read it. Possibly the West's best treatise on Oriental warfare, it sheds new light on what Asian infantry can do: (1) alternate between guerrilla, mobile, and positional warfare; (2) use "ordinary forces" to engage and "extraordinary forces [infiltrators]" to defeat; and then (3) retreat to save lives. What...

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This book won't please those who have come to believe that wars are won and casualties limited through technology, or that the victor's version of one is always correct. But, all U.S. security personnel should read it. Possibly the West's best treatise on Oriental warfare, it sheds new light on what Asian infantry can do: (1) alternate between guerrilla, mobile, and positional warfare; (2) use "ordinary forces" to engage and "extraordinary forces [infiltrators]" to defeat; and then (3) retreat to save lives. What occurred in history doesn't change, but one's perception of it does -- as he comes to better understand his former foe. Here's what really happened at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, and Hue City. Those who believe this book's coverart to be fantasy have only to google the term "dac cong." Through how the NVA held their own without resupply, tanks, artillery, or air power, U.S. grunts could better survive the more lethal enemy weaponry of the 21st Century.

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Editorial Reviews

Military Illustrated
Transported back ... to WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the reader will ... match wits with the best infantrymen in the world.
Command Magazine
By revealing how Eastern soldiers ... hold their own without resupply, tanks, or air support, 'Phantom Soldier' shows what U.S. infantrymen must do to survive the more lethal weaponry of the 21st Century.
Leatherneck Magazine
The author ... has filled ... [the] gap ... in small-unit leader's training.
Army Magazine
This affordable book needs to be read by all combat arms soldiers, all special operators, and all generals.
Camp Pendleton Scout
Book teaches ... individual and small-unit survival skills.
Fort Meyers Pentagram
[A] must for all those who have to meet the reality of ... 21st century [battle].
Special Warfare Magazine
[The book's] content is prophetic for the battle ... in Afghanistan.... [It] can help every infantryman ... deal ... with asymmetric conflict.
Military Review Magazine
An interesting summary of how Asian forces ... fight battles.
Camp Lejeune Globe
A compelling look at enemy. Book written for small-unit leader.
Infantry Magazine
The Eastern warrior--as characterized in the thought-provoking 'Phantom Soldier'--and his tactics, are worthy of study and possible emulation.
Armor Magazine
This book ... talks about what goes on at the nitty-gritty level of infantry combat.
Newport News Daily Press
Well-researched and authoritative, the book describes the differences between Eastern and Western military traditions.
Fayetteville Observer (NC)
John Poole ... has studied how Asian armies ... fought in previous wars, and says Western armies need to pay attention.
U.S. Naval War College Asymmetric Warfare Library announcement
Traditional warfare ... has given way to unconventional, asymmetric warfare. [Among the available books on the subject is 'Phantom Soldier'].
Defense and the National Interest
What it means to confront an enemy that really understands Sun Tzu. It could also be read as a [tactics] manual for 4GW.
Want a primer on how Usama Bin Laden ... thinks, his tactics, how to beat him at his own game? Read this book.
Reviewers' Consortium Online
Well done book ... for those who have to carry out military tactics.... [A] must read for all levels of our military structure.
Unique in presenting the other side's tactics and strategies. 'Phantom Soldier' explains ... different ways of warfare.
Oberlin Alumni Magazine
Well researched and authoritative, this book describes the differences between Eastern and Western ... methods of warfare.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780963869555
  • Publisher: Posterity Press (NC)
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Edition description: 99 illustrations
  • Pages: 335
  • Sales rank: 1,444,887
  • Product dimensions: 8.34 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Through an inverted military career, H. John Poole has discovered a few things that more promotable people miss. After spending his first two years as a combat commander, he did his last seven as an enlisted tactics instructor. That allowed him to see why U.S. troops have always had so much trouble outmaneuvering their immediate adversaries. Their tactical techniques (like football plays) are quite simply outmoded. These U.S. small-unit maneuvers are so unlikely to surprise anyone as to be "premachinegun" in format. This oversight on the part of their commanders and how to compensate for it forms the framework of Poole's work.

Since retirement from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993, Poole has has traveled extensively in both Communist and Islamist worlds. He has also written 10 other tactics/intelligence supplements and conducted multiday training sessions for 40 U.S. battalions, 9 schools, and 7 special operations units. As most U.S. intelligence personnel know too little about the Eastern thought process and evolution of squad tactics, these supplements provide currently deployed GIs with a rare glimpse into their enemies' intentions. Since 2000, Poole has done research in Russia, Mainland China (twice), North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India (three times), Pakistan (three times), Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, and Venezuela. Over the course of his lifetime, he has further traveled throughout Asia, Europe, and most of the Western Hemisphere. He has lived (or been stationed) in Mexico, Panama, Vietnam, and Japan. Between early tours in the Marine Corps (from 1969 to 1971), Poole worked as a criminal investigator for the Illinois Bureau of Investigation (IBI). After attending the State Police Academy, he worked out of the IBI's Chicago office.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix
Foreword xiii
Preface xv
Acknowledgments xix
Part 1 The Eastern Way of War  
Chapter 1 Unheralded Success 3
Chapter 2 Strategic Advantage 15
Chapter 3 The False Face and Art of Delay 27
Chapter 4 The Hidden Agenda 33
Part 2 The Differences in Tactical Technique  
Chapter 5 Ghost Patrols and Chance Contact 49
Chapter 6 The Obscure, Rocky-Ground Defense 57
Chapter 7 The Human-Wave Assault Deception 83
Chapter 8 The Inconspicuous, Low-Land Defense 105
Chapter 9 The Absent Ambush 125
Chapter 10 The Transparent Approach March 139
Chapter 11 The Surprise Urban Assault 149
Chapter 12 The Covert Urban Defense 163
Chapter 13 The Vanishing Besieged Unit 185
Part 3 The Next Disappearing Act  
Chapter 14 How Much Has War Changed? 201
Chapter 15 The One-on-One Encounter 221
Chapter 16 America's Only Option 233
Appendix A Strategies for Deception 241
Notes 293
Bibliography 327
About the Author 333
Name Index 335
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First Chapter

The Eastern Defender

By 1918, the largest nations in Eastern Europe were practicing something similar to the Oriental style of war. The German version came to be known as maneuver or "common-sense" warfare. What this "merging of philosophies" has meant to U.S. forces is inescapable. Throughout most of the 20th century, they have had to deal with defensive tactics quite different from their own — tactics specifically designed to thwart their edge in firepower.

Stopping a more heavily armed attacker takes planning and flexibility. One must carefully choose when and where to fight, surprise his opponent, and then quickly withdraw. Maneuver or "common-sense" warfare offers several ways in which to do this: (1) ambushes in series, (2) strongpoints to channel tanks into preplanned killing zones, (3) reverse-slope defense, (4) soft or elastic defense in depth, and (5) not physic ally occupying the ground to be defended. All are intended to lay the groundwork for an eventual counterattack.

But the maneuver warfighter works just as hard to demoralize his opponent as to physically defeat him. He capitalizes on the old adage that "truth is the first casualty of war" by initially disguising his maneuver and then encouraging his opponent to ignore it. On defense, he accomplishes the latter by inflicting serious casualties and then mysteriously disappearing. With little to show for his sacrifice, the prideful attacker becomes tempted to inflate the body count. By repeatedly opening the door to what isn't true, he becomes less interested in the uniqueness of prebattle circumstances. His tactical decisions begin to follow a pattern. He may even start to believe that he has won every engagement. At that point, the maneuver warfare defender has helped himself immeasurably. The opponent who never gets defeated has little reason to improve between battles.

The maneuver war defender also encourages his adversary to act first on what he has been allowed to see. Then, with speed, stealth, and deception, he launches his own attempt to influence the outcome of the war. This attempt may not be readily apparent to the adversary. Often, it can only be surmised later by students of the alternative way of fighting. Luckily, most of America's 20th-century adversaries have exhibited a similar modus operandi.

The best example of what a maneuver war defender can accomplish occurred on a tiny volcanic island 650 miles south of Tokyo in February and March of 1945. The mere mention of "Iwo Jima" brings tears to the eyes of those who were there. Let no one doubt that those brave young Americans did a fine job overcoming what historians have come to regard as a defensive masterpiece.

Escaping the Pre-Invasion Bombardment

Hotly debated before every U.S. landing has been the extent to which coastal areas (and local populace) should be subjected to preparatory fire. The shells and bombs have made lots of noise over the years but have had less effect on the enemy.

Iwo's defenses were nearly perfect — (1) elsewhere than expected, (2) invisible to the naked eye, and (3) impervious to bombardment. In fact, they were almost entirely below ground. As the Japanese contested the beaches with long-range fire, much of the pre-invasion shelling landed on unoccupied ground. Even the direct hits did little good.

But the shrewdness of General Kuribayashi, and the way he had built and placed his fortifications, made shelling and bombing largely useless. The positions were masterpieces of concealment and construction: walls of many were more than three feet of steel-reinforced concrete and impossible to spot from the natural terrain upheavals that camouflaged them. Some measured ten by twenty feet,had five-foot ceilings, and were made up of three separate rooms with twelve-inch concrete walls, the areas connected by narrow crawlways.

Apertures for cannon were virtually invisible, jutting from rubble of [the] volcanic boulders. Atop many of the installations were pillboxes . . . all but impregnable fortresses that could take a direct hit from naval shellfire or a bomb . . . without suffering much damage. Even when Marine demolitions men could fling a satchel charge into a gun vent, the blast would have little or no effect on the other two rooms.1

Springing the Trap from Standoff Distance

Every aspect of a maneuver warfare defense — whether large or small — is a trap. Because this alternative way of fighting has the power to shift the momentum, it is often used as an offensive tool.

When the thousands of Marines initially landed on Iwo Jima, there was little shooting. They took cover behind the terrace of black sand beyond the beach. Then long-range fire from the flanks (Suribachi and the Quarry) took a terrible toll.

The Near-Ambush Deception

A close-quarter defense can shift the momentum in battle much as a goal-line stand can in football. Past adversaries have taken full advantage of a standard U.S. procedure — frontally assaulting any ambush within 50 yards. So easy is it to create the impression of close ambush that any number of ways have been devised to lure additional victims. Having baited the trap, the maneuver warfare defender carefully hides. To escape U.S. supporting arms, he holds his fire until his quarry is almost upon him.

This alternative way of fighting worked well in the jumbled terrain of Iwo Jima's northern highlands where 25-yard fields of fire were not uncommon. Routinely, Marines took fire simultaneously from front, flanks, and rear. Several explanations are possible — e.g., firesacks or bypassed positions. But the effect on the Marines was always the same — as if they had just been ambushed from several different directions at once.

Ninety minutes after landing [on D-Day], the battalions of Lieutenant Colonel John A. Butler and Major John W. Antonelli had clawed up the slope to the eastern edge [of Airstrip Number One]. Resistance was light until 10:45 [A.M.] when, as Antonelli put it, "crap hit the fan in copious quantities." Moments before, they were catching only small arms fire. Now, when Kuribayashi pulled the plug, they were in the middle of the ambush and taking a deadly fusillade of machinegun bursts and mortar fire from concealed bypassed positions in the hummocks.2

The Unseen Presence

Some of America's adversaries have fortified so extensively below ground as to give terra firma more than one level. They have, in effect, turned rural terrain into urban terrain and, by so doing, acquired a decided edge over their more powerful opponent.

Most of the Japanese bodies on Iwo Jima were never recovered. To even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be there, one must come to grips with several paradoxes. First and foremost was the absence of a visible opponent. Though practically devoid of vegetation, Iwo's volcanic terrain appeared uninhabited during the fiercest fighting. Seeing one's buddies shot and then having no one to shoot back at was hard on morale.

We hardly ever saw an enemy. The Japanese had every inch of ground covered by fire.3 — Navaho Marine veteran "Japanese Codetalkers" on History Channel

Seldom on Iwo, from D-day until the battle was over [36 days later], did you see the enemy — just the sights and sounds of deadly fire from his weapons.4 - Marine Infantryman on Iwo Jima

How did the Japanese manage to blend in so well with the barren landscape during prolonged, close-range combat? Basically, they did everything imaginable — from using flashless and smokeless powder to firing from the shadows behind narrow bunker apertures (an urban-warfare technique). The front of each machinegun fort or "strongpoint" was swept by the fire of others behind it. By focusing on the immediate objective, Marines had difficulty locating the source of additional fire. To make matters worse, the occupants of these well-dispersed strongpoints and subsidiary "outposts" took turns shooting—keeping the Leathernecks guessing as to where the bullets were coming from. But key to the defender's unprecedented disappearing act was the extent to which he camouflaged each position. When visible, machinegun apertures consisted of narrow slits, barely a foot wide and at ground level.5 Before spewing death, an open aperture may have looked like a natural crevice below a rock outcropping. Unfortunately for the Marines, many of these apertures had camouflaged, removable covers:

One of the wounded Marines we received aboard when the hospital ships were overtaxed, declared the Japanese had camouflaged trapdoors all over the face of the cliff and that they would open a door, pour out a murderous volley, and close the door again, leaving the attackers staring at an apparently blank area of mountainside.6


On Iwo, the Marines encountered defenses quite different from their own. Instead of continuous, barbed-wire-protected trenchlines or strings of fighting holes, they found what the Germans had used late in WWI — a matrix of semi-independent machinegun forts, all of which were mutually supporting, and any one of which could be abandoned at the discretion of its NCO in charge.7 Contrary to what they had been told, bushido only occasionally interrupted this pattern of tactical withdrawal. Documentary film footage in the movie Sands of Iwo Jima clearly shows a small group of Japanese moving diagonally backwards from the main bunker on Tarawa.8

However, there were some important differences between German and Japanese method. The WWI German machinegunners had 50-foot-deep "dugouts" in which to weather the shelling and trenches through which to fall back. The WWII Japanese machinegunners had nearby caves or pillboxes in which to escape bombardment and tunnels through which to pull back. Common throughout the earlier island campaigns of WWII had been a blockhouse connected by tunnel or trench to a series of automatic-weapon emplacements. The variation that occurred on Iwo Jima was a semicircle of automatic-weapon positions at each end of the tunnel through a ridgeline. Rear-strongpoint occupants could then conduct a reverse-slope defense or remain hidden to shoot Marines in the back as they assaulted the next objective. Under either scenario, the Nipponese had easy access to bombardment protection and an avenue of egress. In other words, the reverse slopes were as strongly fortified as the forward slopes.9 As these strongpoints (on either slope) were carefully concealed and routinely mortared from behind (to brush off intruders),10 attacking Marines had difficulty establishing their precise location. In a linear defense, mortar rounds would be called on machinegun dead space. They gave the impression of unoccupied ground.

The Japanese called being on defense "retreat combat."11 On Iwo Jima, they executed a "soft" defense in depth. To give it an offensive aspect, they used underground passageways to emerge from ground already overrun.12 Many of the tunnel exits were so well camouflaged that they could not be found. In some areas, they were covered with live vegetation. In more barren areas, they were hidden among the rocks. Across the island, amazingly realistic dummy positions funneled the Marines into prepared kill zones.13

Many parts of Iwo Jima were literally covered with pillboxes.14 Besides a direct hit from a U.S. shell, these pillboxes were at risk from two things. One was debris blocking the embrasure. This hazzard was countered by digging a ditch into which the debris could fall. The second was a grenade rolled through the embrasure. This problem was solved by digging a well into which the grenade could be kicked. While the grenade would still explode, its effects would be minimal.

Asians place a high priority on all types of deception. Defense diagrams from earlier island campaigns show what appear to be randomly placed pillboxes. On closer inspection, one can see widely dispersed, partial circles of gun emplacements.15 In maneuver warfare terminology, these semi-independent perimeters would be called strongpoints and the undefended areas between them, firesacks. The successive lines of defense that the Marines thought they had to assault head-on in broad daylight were very probably a terrain-consistent matrix of tiny perimeters, dummy positions, and areas covered by fire. The rows of firepits that ran diagonally backwards in the ravines between automatic-weapons emplacements may have been occasionally occupied supplementary positions.16 Where tunnels didn't exist, these strings of holes may have also functioned as avenues of egress. Kuribayashi mentioned "the establishment of 'waiting' trenches for use in close combat and raiding in his operations order of 1 December 1944.17 Some of the rows of firepits may have formed inverted "V" shapes at the top of gullies. Old fighting holes on Okinawa reveal this to be the enemy s preferred method of dealing with unwanted visitors in precipitous terrain.18 That way, the quarry has nowhere to hide after encountering fire from both sides.

The principal building block in Kuribayashi's tapestry of interlocking fire was either a well-camouflaged pillbox (possibly prefabricated) or a hollowed-out hummock of earth. Each had a machinegun and was close to a tunnel complex. In some locations, egress, resupply, or reinforcement could be accomplished entirely below ground. In other places, it had to occur through a ground-level trap door within yards of the tunnel entrance. To more easily gun down Marines from the back, the residents of some of these hardened positions may have intentionally allowed themselves to be bypassed. Others may have initially abandoned and then reoccupied their posts (the subsequent landings on Tarawa took fire from a previously captured pier,19 and shipwreck20). Spider traps with metal covers may have housed forward security elements or snipers covering the ground between the strongpoints. Occupants of holes about to be overrun could have pulled shut the cover, hidden until dark, and then crawled back to their parent unit.

The stronghold was ringed by camouflaged machinegun pits, concealed spider traps with steel covers to protect lurking snipers. Each position covered the other with lanes of crossfire.21

The Underground City

One wonders how extensive these tunnel systems might have been on Iwo Jima. Because the Americans immediately sealed almost every entrance they found, there is no way of knowing for sure. Only the tunnels in the major Japanese bastions were inspected, and then only cursorily.

Suribachi: Some 70 concrete blockhouses at its base and 50 more on its lower sides connected by tunnels to hundreds of cave entrances and pillboxes.22

Defense Line Number One The Quarry: Coast defense guns emplaced on its rim.23 Charlie Dog Ridge: On same terrace as the Amphitheater.

Defense Line Number Two Minami Village Turkey Knob: One cave, out of hundreds designed to be defended in depth, had a tunnel 800 feet long with 14 separate exits;24 the hill's top had a large concrete installation.25 The Amphitheater: Three terraces of block houses connected by 700 yards of tunnels;26 on the same terrace as Charlie Dog Ridge. Hill 382: Top of hill was hollowed out for several concrete artillery and antitank gun housings — each of which was protected by as many as ten machinegun emplacements — and the rest of the hill was laced with tunnels;27 an elaborate tunnel system honeycombed the hill nearly 1000 yards of caves for ammunition supply and for troops to reinforce threatened positions or to escape when one was overrun;28 underground passageways led into defenses and when one occupant of a pillbox got killed, another one came up to take his place.29 Hill Peter Hill Oboe Hill 362A: Honeycombed with underground passages;30 connected by tunnel with Nishi Ridge.31 Nishi Ridge: Some 100 camouflaged cave entrances interconnected by tunnels, one 1000 feet long;32 connected by tunnel to Hill 362A.

Defense Line Number Three Hill 362C Hill 331 Hill 357 Hill 362B: Dense network of interconnecting caves and pillboxes.33 Kita Village: Complex maze of pillboxes and interconnected caves.34

Final-Fallback Position Possibilities The Gorge and Kuribayashi's Cave: Combat engineers used 8,500 tons of explosives to detonate huge igloo-shaped concrete installation built into a knoll and circled by mutually supporting caves.35 Kitano Point: Entire northern tip of island was honeycombed with caves and passageways.36

Amazingly Accurate Counterfire

To boggle the Western mind, an Easterner will often make a covertly planted explosive look like a well-placed artillery shell. To spot examples of this ploy, one can only watch for the laws of probability to be violated. Anyone who has ever played "ring toss" at a county fair knows how hard it is to hit a pinpoint target.

This type of sabotage is difficult to substantiate on Iwo Jima because of the high volume of incoming fire and the extent to which the island had been preregistered by the Japanese. Still some of the nighttime and early morning "direct hits" by randomly placed shells look extremely suspicious. Could not a skilled sapper have snuck through U.S. lines, put a satchel charge and timer on something of strategic value, and then snuck back out before it was scheduled to detonate? Could not his act of sabotage have then been covered up by a few artillery or mortar shells at a prearranged time? By 1945, the Japanese had already demonstrated an uncanny ability to infiltrate American lines. How many were trying to commit suicide is pure conjecture. Detailed reports of the fighting on Iwo Jima tell of nightly infiltration attempts by three- to four-man teams.37 While some of these attempts were being repulsed, at least four command posts (5th Corps Artillery,38 2/25,39 1/23,40 2/2341) and three ammunition/supply dumps (5th Marine Division,42 25th Marines,43 3/2544) were destroyed by direct hits from enemy artillery.

For the night defense on D-plus 4 [February 23] . . . the rest of the [28th Marine] regiment manned positions around the base of Suribachi. During the hours of darkness, 122 Japanese were killed trying to infiltrate the lines. Most of these had demolitions secured to their bodies and were probably trying to reach command posts and artillery positions before destroying themselves. A few rounds of high-velocity artillery fell in the area.45 — Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic, History Branch, HQMC

Soon after 2:00 A.M. [1 March], things began to change. At first, what seemed to be random enemy artillery shells started falling in a helter-skelter pattern along the western edge of Motoyama Number One [Airfield]. The area was jammed with supply and ammunition dumps, crowded with artillery positions . . . communication centers, various rear-area command posts. . . .

Mass bedlam erupted when a shell hit the main ammunition dump, touching off a chain reaction that sent explosives hundreds of feet skyward. . . .

Shortly after 4:00 A.M., when it seemed that most of the fire was under control, near catastrophe struck when still another explosion sent a cascade of 105 millimeter artillery shells skyward. One landed a few yards from the communications center, which handled fire missions for Fifth Corps howitzers. There were no casualties, but the blast knocked out telephone lines and put out of action most of the 105s on the island until new wires were strung to the front.46

Elsewhere along the line were minor scrimmages, frequent and heated exchanges of close-in rifle and grenade fire that kept weary Marines awake and alert. Then, at 5:02 A.M. [on 6 March], a large Japanese rocket made a direct hit on the command post of the 23rd Regiment s Second Battalion.47

At 2300 [11:00 P.M. on 8 March] the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines . . . reported large-scale infiltration attempts along the regimental boundary in the area of the salient. . . .

. . . A few even infiltrated through the front lines to the 2/23 command post where they harassed the operations section with hand grenades thrown from ranges of 10 to 15 yards. . . .

These enemy troops were well-armed and equipped, and many carried demolition charges. The attack was preceded by an all-out artillery preparation.48 — Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic , History Branch, HQMC

The night [of 11 March] was fairly quiet along most of the front, but activity behind the lines of 3/27 became so heavy that company command posts moved up to tie in with their front line platoons for security against grenade-throwing Japanese soldiers who came out of bypassed holes.49 — Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic, History Branch, HQMC

Antitank Mines in Just the Right Places

Since WWI, most of America s foes have had troops specially trained in killing or disabling tanks from close range.

On Iwo Jima, spider hole occupants undoubtedly practiced a well-documented Japanese technique — pulling an antitank mine on a string under the tracks of a tank.50

Japanese sappers darted from bypassed spider traps with sputtering demolition charges hurled against tanks.51

A Japanese squad rushed one tank with hand grenades that exploded in roars of green smoke. The Sherman was undamaged, but in moving to safety it plunged into a ravine and threw a tread.52

Surviving the Subsequent Preparatory Fire

To withstand a bigger shell, a defender has only to dig his hole deeper. Why U.S. war planners have chosen to ignore this fact is the million-dollar question. Most military historians agree that supporting arms can pave the way for infantry only in the desert. In normal terrain, bombs and shells will have little effect on a well-dug-in adversary. The Japanese proved that once again on Iwo Jima.

The destruction and neutralization effect of supporting weapons was exploited to the fullest extent possible. However, many enemy positions withstood even large-caliber shells from ships guns. Furthermore, the extensive networks of caves and underground passages made it possible for the Japanese to wait out a barrage secure in subterranean chambers and then come up to the surface to resist from the 200-yard zone immediately to the front of Marines, where heavy supporting weapons could not fire for fear of endangering friendly troops. For those reasons the battle was reduced to a series of close-in encounters between tank-supported Marines with flamethrowers and demolitions, and the deeply entrenched, stubbornly resisting enemy.53 — Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic, History Branch, HQMC

The process [final push after the day of rest] began at 7:00 A.M. of March 6, D-Day plus fifteen, in thundering barrages of artillery, naval gunfire, and wave after wave of carrier planes dropping clusters of napalm bombs as their machineguns and rockets ripped into enemy lines in low-level passes across the island. In tons of steel and explosives, the firepower approached that unleashed on D-Day in the final hour before Marines hit the beaches.

Virtually every Marine howitzer on Iwo — 132 75- and 155-millimeter guns from eleven artillery battalions — was in action. They first fired for thirty-one minutes on the western half of the island, and then rocked the eastern sector for the next thirty-six minutes. In sixty-seven minutes, 22,500 shells slammed down along the front, often as close as a hundred yards in front of the Marines waiting to jump off.

From less than half a mile offshore, a battleship and three cruisers unloaded 450 rounds of eight- and fourteen-inch high explosives. Three destroyers and two landing craft moved close in along the western shoreline to plaster the cliffs and caves with mortars and rockets. . . .

. . . [When the Marine units struck,] Japanese reaction was immediate and deadly across the island. Incredibly, the pulverizing pre-attack bombardment and air strikes seemed not to have affected the enemy at all.54

The Deadly Embrace

Former adversaries have demonstrated another way to escape U.S. supporting arms — staying within 200 yards of their attacker. They have done so by either letting him get extremely close before defending themselves or moving closer to him while he calls for artillery or air support.

What has been termed "the close embrace" occurred on Iwo Jima as well. On the night of 3 March 1944, "an aggressive enemy crowded the 26th Marines throughout the hours of darkness,"55 when most of the preparatory fire for the next day's attack was probably in progress.

Most of Iwo's defenders did not fanatically die in place. There is far more evidence of maneuver-war-motivated perseverance than bushido-related resignation. Kuribayashi's marriage of close embrace with tactical withdrawal was so ingenious as to possibly constitute a significant advance in the tactics of defensive warfare.

The enemy remains below ground in his maze of communicating tunnels throughout our preliminary arty fires. When the fire ceases, he pushes OPs [observation posts] out of entrances not demolished by our fires. Then choosing a suitable exit he moves as many men and weapons to the surface as he can, depending on the cover and concealment of that area, often as close as 75 yards from our front. As our troops advance toward this point, he delivers all the fire at his disposal, rifle, machinegun, and mortar. When he has inflicted sufficient casualties to pin down our advance, he . . . withdraws through his underground tunnels most of his forces, possibly leaving a few machinegunners and mortars. Meanwhile our Bn CO [commanding officer] has coordinated his direct support weapons and delivers a concentration of rockets, mortars, and artillery. Our tanks then push in, supported by infantry. When the hot spot is overrun, we find a handful of dead Japs and few if any enemy weapons. While this is happening, the enemy has repeated the process and another sector of our advance is engaged in a vicious firefight, and the cycle continues. Supporting indications to these deductions are:

(1) When the hot spot is overrun we find far too few dead enemy to have delivered the fire encountered in overrunning the position; (2) We find few if any enemy weapons in the positions overrun but plenty of empty shell cases; (3) We find tunnel entrances, some caved in, all appearing deep and well prepared, some with electric light wires; (4) During the cycle, close air and OP observation detects no enemy surface movement.56 — 4th Mar.Div. Intelligence Report of 6 March 1945

Covered Avenues of Reinforcement and Egress

Iwo Jima's labyrinth of passageways was almost certainly more extensive than discovered at the time, many of its entrances were never found. It is known that Hill 362A and Nishi Ridge were connected by tunnel.57 Who's to say that a tunnel did not link the strongholds in each of the two northernmost defense lines, or that a north-south conduit did not connect those defense lines with their counterpart south of Airfield Number One? Could not the Japanese have sufficiently disguised below-ground entrances and blown up threatened connector tunnels to keep the existence of a central thoroughfare secret? It is known that they blew up captured sections of Nishi Ridge and other bastions.58 Wouldn't they have needed such a conduit to share limited resources and forage behind U.S. lines? After all, the Japanese only had so much water and ammunition.

The Nipponese were also skilled at above-ground infiltration. While Suribachi was intermittently illuminated every night, many of its survivors may have snuck through Marine lines to join the fight in the north. A document found in Suribachi's crater proved that some had tried.59 This might explain why the volcano's slope had been conquered by three Marine scouts after its base had been unapproachable for days,60 and why bypassed defenders were strangely inactive after the flag raising.61

But Iwo was not just a well-fortified island; it was an island on which the Japanese could change location without ever returning to the surface of the earth. The implications are staggering: (1) the island may have been defended by far fewer troops than is commonly acknowledged, and (2) this may be an important refinement to the Germans' flexible defense.

Marine spotters in Maytag Messerschmitts watched the attack come to life in brilliant, chilly sunlight. Theirs was a familiar spectacle on Iwo, but totally foreign to anything else in military history. Below them was a battlefield where one army fought above ground and the other fought almost totally beneath it; where thousands of troops moved in the same area at the same time, Marines maneuvering on the surface in the attack, the Japanese moving in tunnels from one underground strongpoint to another whenever the tide of combat called for more firepower or reinforcements.

Everything beyond the line was completely barren and devoid of any sign of enemy troops — a rugged, uninhabited landscape as mysterious as a solar planet.62

Some of the machinegun and sniper attacks from the rear may have come from reoccupied positions. In heavy combat, leaders will often ignore single shots from behind thinking them random or from disgruntled subordinates. To partially contain this threat, large forces had to follow the lead regiments into combat.63 Even then, the lead units received heavy fire from bypassed positions.64

Every hillside, every ravine, had its camouflaged cave or pillbox; some were so carefully hidden that men stepped on them before they were aware of them, his copy said. One cave in the Fourth Division area, northeast of the first airfield, had a tunnel eight hundred yards long with fourteen entrances. Each entrance was covered by a series of pillboxes containing machineguns. If the inmates of one pillbox were killed, the Japs could easily send out replacements from another entrance. Japs would pop out of holes in the ground far behind our own lines. 65 — Robert Sherrod, Time-Life correspondent

The island, merely eight-square miles, was riddled with a sophisticated s ystem of enemy tunnels. Moving from one objective to another, Marines were easy targets for the Japanese who were able [to] duck into this "basement of catacombs" and maneuver behind the American troops, shooting them in the backs.66 — Camp Lejeune Globe, 8 October 1999

Not only had eleven battalion commanders been killed or wounded since D-Day, but the loss of junior officers and senior noncoms at the company, platoon, and squad levels had been devastating. . . .

More than two thousand replacements — mostly second lieutenants new to combat and men fresh from the States — had been thrown into the struggle.67

In a subterranean cross-section of the island from a Japanese television documentary, most of the island is spanned by a string of interconnected underground rooms. The thoroughfare extends from just east of Airfield Number One to the northeastern shore. The scene in the next frame resembles a glassed-in ant hill. It shows what the average bastion looked like below ground. There are some interesting details: (1) surface hummocks hollowed out as gun emplacements, (2) an interconnecting tunnel network with other cave entrances, and (3) several levels of subterranean rooms. Some of the lower spaces appear to have false floors obscuring large ammunition and supply chambers below.68 This might explain why it was so easy to cross the low groun d south of Airfield Number One and difficult to move north from there. It is known that Kuribayashi had planned to connect his emplacements with 38,000 meters of underground passageways.69 By the start of 1945, 26,000 meters of tunnel had been completed.70 This was more than enough to link the key bastions. The combined length of the three defense lines was only 14,000 meters. The distance beteen Airfield Number One and the island's northern tip was only 5000 meters.

Kuribayashi demanded the assistance of the finest mining engineers and fortifications specialists in the Empire. Here again the island favored the defender. Iwo's volcanic sand mixed readily with cement to produce superior concrete for installations; the soft rock lent itself to rapid digging. Half the garrison lay aside their weapons to labor with pick and spade. When American heavy bombers from the Seventh Air Force commenced a daily pounding of the island in early December 1944, Kuribayashi simply moved everything weapons, command posts, barracks, and stations underground. These engineering accomplishments were remarkable. Masked gun positions provided interlocking fields of fire, miles of tunnels linked key defensive positions, every cave featured multiple outlets and ventilation tubes. One installation inside Mount Suribachi ran seven stories deep. The Americans would rarely see a live Japanese on Iwo Jima until the bitter end.71 — Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima, History and Museums Division, HQMC

How much of the connector tunnel had been completed by D-Day may never be known. There is evidence that Major General Senda somehow moved from his brigade headquarters just east of Hill 382 to the 4th Marine Division's final pocket — some 1200 meters to the southeast.72 This would indicate the eastern bastions of the second defense line might have been connected by tunnel as well. It is also known that every piece of key terrain on the island had its own elaborate tunnel system,73 and that the Japanese could dig at a rate of 1/3 meter per hour.74 During the 35-day battle, a single team could have tunneled 300 meters. There is no telling what hundreds of teams working toward each other from different locations might have accomplished.

The Unexpected Counterattack

The proponent of maneuver warfare will often try to recapture lost ground, but his counterattack may not be immediate. After all, to be too predictable or noisy is to fail.

The counterattacks on Iwo Jima were not of the banzai variety that the Marines had come to expect from the Japanese. Many of them were by fire alone from distant locations. Against the heavily concentrated Marines, they were deadly. Others were well-planned and quietly executed raids. The last of these raids gives further credence to the hypothesis that a secret tunnel spanned four fifths of the island. On 26 March, two weeks after Kuribayashi s force had been supposedly destroyed at the north end of the island,75 something amazing happened. Three hundred Japanese attacked Air field Number One.76 POWs (prisoners of war) later claimed that Kuribayashi had personally led the assault.77

The Bottom Line

When an attacker measures his success by body count instead of strategic contribution (as has been the U.S. tradition), his self-esteem largely depends on how many dead enemy he can find. Not many Japanese corpses or POWs were retrieved on Iwo Jima. It is generally thought that most of the defenders were trapped below ground when their cave entrances were sealed. Still somewhat disturbing is the Japanese diagram showing multiple tiers of subterranean rooms at the northeastern end of the island (look again at Figure 6.8). Could General Kuribayashi have planned one final deception? Did those who had manned the southern defense lines pull back to "Kuribayashi's Cave" or somewhere else? Could hundreds have hidden long enough to be incrementally withdrawn by submarine? Kangoku was only one of several sets of rocks that lay less than a mile off shore.

According to American records, the number of estimated defenders on Iwo Jima rose by half over the course of the battle.78 Some of those killed or captured must have come from units not previously known to be on the island. Still one wonders just how many Japanese had really been there. Two months earlier at the Battle of the Bulge, the retreating enemy had been pummeled with supporting arms until the casualty ratio shifted in favor of the Allies.79 Luckily, for the Marines who paid such a terrible price for each square yard of real estate on Iwo Jima, the island as a whole had tremendous strategic value. It would greatly facilitate the bombing of Japan and retrieval of damaged aircraft. Some 25,000 U.S. airmen may owe their lives to their determined brethren in arms.

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