One of the most iconic photos of World War II, taken by Joe Rosenthal, is that of the raising of the American flag at the top of Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island of Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima was part of the Bonin Islands which were controlled by the Japanese. The island was about 660 miles south southeast from Japan and about the same distance north northwest from US occupied Mariana Islands. It was only 4.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide at the widest, but it’s importance far outweighed its size.
US commanders considered Iwo Jima to be a strategic stepping stone to their plans for the bombing of mainland Japan. They wanted to use it as a landing strip for damaged bombers so they didn’t have to ditch at sea before returning to Mariana Islands. They also wanted to use the landing strips for jet fighters used to escort and protect the American bombers.
Taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese was a daunting task. There were over 20,000 Japanese troops on the island. They had dug tunnels, bunkers and underground gunnery installations all over the island. Japanese troops could use these underground facilities not only to hide in but to move from place of attack to place attack without exposing themselves to enemy view or gun fire.
In preparation of the ground invasion, US forces bombarded the Japanese on Iwo Jima. Over nearly two and half months, US planes flew 2,700 missions and dropped close to 6,000 tons of bombs. Additionally, US naval forces also fired thousands of shells into the mountain fortresses.
On February 19, 1945, the naval pounding of the Japanese ended at 8:57 am. Five minutes later, the first 30,000 Marines from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions over landed on the shores of Iwo Jima. The seven Japanese battalions on the island opened fire on the Marines as they tried to race across the open beaches. James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, along with a number of journalists, watched from the deck of one of the Navy ships off shore.
By nightfall, over 550 Marines had been killed and another 1,800 wounded, but that was not going to stop the American assault. Eventually over 70,000 US Marines landed on Iwo Jima to engage the 20,000 or so Japanese. The battle was not an easy one and ended up lasting until March 16, 1945 when the Marines declared victory and raised their flag on the top of Mt. Suribachi but a number of Japanese continued to fight, refusing to surrender.
On March 26, 1945, approximately 200-300 Japanese soldiers mounted what turned out to be a suicide attack on the American forces, but their efforts fell short and they were quickly defeated.
By April 4, 1945, American forces had successfully established their air base on the island from which they could launch attacks against the Japanese mainland.
At battles’ end, there were 1,083 Japanese captured and nearly 21,000 killed. America lost 6,800 Marines with another 19,000 plus wounded. The 26,000 total casualties suffered by the Marines was the most of any Marine battle.
There has always been some controversy about what happened to the original American flag raised at Mt. Suribachi. Many Americans probably don’t realize that the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the raising of the flag was actually taken at the raising of a second flag, not the original. According to World War II Database:
“Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, observing from a naval vessel, excitedly claimed that the ‘raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.’ Equally ecstatic, General Holland Smith agreed with Forrestal that the flag was to be the Navy secretary’s souvenir. Colonel Chandler Johnson could not believe Forrestal’s unreasonable demand from the hard-fighting Marines who rightfully deserved that flag instead, and decided to secure that flag as quickly as possible. He ordered another patrol to go up to the mountain to retrieve that flag before Forrestal could get his hands on it. ‘And make it a bigger one’, Johnson said.”
“And so, the second flag went up, and as it turned out, the flag was recovered from a sinking ship at Pearl Harbor. Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, and Rene Gagnon were proud to have been sent, but they did not think much of it. It was, after all, just a replacement flag. But they did not know that some distance after them was photographer Joe Rosenthal, who was at the place at the right time to take the famous ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’ photograph. The photograph was the driving force for a record-breaking bond drive in the United States some time later, and it would also bring Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.”
There is no doubt that the Battle of Iwo Jima was not only a very costly one, but a very significant victory for America and helped to end the war in the Pacific.
Information for this post was assimilated from: This Day in History Feb 19 – Marines Invade Iwo Jima; Battle of Iwo Jima; World War II Database; Iwo Jima: A Remembrance and National WWII Museum Iwo Jima Fact Sheet.