Paul W. Barada
Just a little over 68 years ago, on Feb. 19, 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima began and lasted for the next 36 days, until March 26, 1945. It is difficult for those living today to imagine the ferocity of the battle that took place on a remote island just 5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, for a total area of only 8 square miles. Compare that to the size of Rush County, which is just over 408 square miles. Now, try to imagine that tiny island being held by 22,060 Japanese soldiers and invaded by 70,000 Marines and Navy Corpsmen. There were more Japanese on Iwo Jima’s 8 square miles of volcanic ash than there are people living on Rush County’s over 400 square miles of land.
Sixty-eight years ago, we would have been living right in the middle of the period of time during which the battle was being fought. During those 36 days, 6,821 Marines were killed, and another 19, 217 were wounded. Among the 22,000-plus Japanese, 21,844 were killed and only 216 taken prisoner! Such horrific casualties make one wonder why we even bothered invading Iwo Jima, nothing more a fly-speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. The goal of the American invasion was to use it as a staging area for attacks on Japan itself. The tiny island had three airfields that would enable the Army Air Force to launch long range bombers directly against the island nation of Japan.
The island itself was covered with volcanic ash, worse terrain by far than anything the Americans had encountered. In addition, Iwo Jima had over 11 miles of underground tunnels connecting every part of the island. The southern end of the island was surmounted by Mount Suribachi, which was some 528 feet high and, like the remainder of the island, was honeycombed with tunnels, pill boxes, bunkers, and hidden artillery positions.
Despite the terrible fighting that took place on Iwo Jima, there was never any real doubt, by either side, about the outcome of the battle. The Americans had overwhelming superiority in both numbers and weapons. Not only that, the Japanese knew they could not be reinforced or retreat from the island. As historians have written, “There were no plausible circumstances in which the Americans could have lost the battle.” The Japanese officer in command, General Kuribayashi, and his officers knew they could not win. Their only hope was to inflict so many casualties that the Americans would think twice about invading the home islands of Japan. But, the Japanese knew their defense of the island was hopeless.
The most iconic moment of the month-long battle came on Feb. 23, just five days after the Marines landed. Five Marines and one Navy corpsman were photographed raising as American flag at the top of Mount Suribachi. The photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal, shows the men in the process of raising the flag. The image itself is believed to be the most reproduced photograph of all time. Of the six men who are in the picture, only three survived the battle. Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block and Michael Strank were all killed before the battle ended. The three survivors were John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes. The photograph was used to sculpt the Marine Corps War Memorial located near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. The likenesses of all six men were used by sculptor Felix de Weldon when he created the monumental statue.
After the battle was won, it was estimated that fewer than 300 Japanese were left alive anywhere on Iwo Jima. As it turned out, the actual number was closer to 3,000. Most committed ritual suicide. A few hid in the caves during the day and only came out at night to look for water and food. Eventually, some did surrender to the Marines, but two managed to stay hidden for six years without being caught and eventually surrendered in 1951!
In 2006, two outstanding motion pictures were released, both directed by actor Clint Eastwood. “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” filmed from opposite perspectives, capture the intensity and cruelty of the month-long battle. “Flags of our Father,” based on a book by the same name written by James Bradley, son of flag-raiser and Navy corpsman, John Bradley, looks at the battle from the American perspective. “Letters from Iwo Jima” is filmed from the Japanese perspective. Interestingly enough, many of the actors, both American and Japanese, knew very little about the Battle of Iwo Jima when they agreed to take part in the movies.
One final note: The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for heroism that can be given to a member of the United States armed forces. During the 36 days of the Battle of Iwo Jima a total of 27 sailors and Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor; and, of that total, 13 were awarded posthumously. Twenty-two were awarded to Marines and five to sailors in the United States Navy. Those 22 medals awarded to Marines represents 28 percent of all the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during all of the Second World War.
If you don’t know much about the Battle of Iwo Jima, I would urge you to see one or both of the recent movies about it: “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” Both are outstanding, in my opinion.
That’s -30- for this week.