Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Assault Preparations
The Drive North
The Bitter End
Iwo Jima's Costs, Gains, and Legacies
The Japanese Commander
The Assault Commanders at Iwo Jima
Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
Special Subjects
Rosenthal's Photograph of Iwo Jima Flag-Raising
The Japanese 320mm Spigot Mortar
Marine Corps Air Support During Iwo Jima
The Marine's Zippo Tanks
Iwo's Fire Brigades: The Rocket Detachments
Amphibious Logistical Support at Iwo Jima
Assault Divisions' Command Structures

CLOSING IN: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander
U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)

The Bitter End

The American drive north continued after the 5 March standdown, but the going never got any easier. The nature of enemy fire changed—fewer big guns and rockets, less observed fire from the highlands—but now the terrain grew uglier, deteriorating into narrow, twisted gorges wreathed in sulfur mists, lethal killing zones. Marine casualties continued to mount, but gunshot wounds began to outnumber high-explosive shrapnel hits. The persistent myth among some Marine units that Japanese troops were all near sighted and hence poor marksmen ended for good at Iwo Jima. In the close-quarters fighting among the badlands of northern Iwo Jima, Japanese riflemen dropped hundreds of advancing Marines with well-aimed shots to the head or chest. "Poor marksmen?" snorted Captain Caldwell of Company F, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, "The Japs we faced all fired 'Expert.'"

Supporting arms coordination grew more effective during the battle. Colonel "Buzz" Letcher established what some have identified as the first corps-level Supporting Arms Coordination Center (SACC), in which senior representatives of artillery, naval gunfire, and air support pooled their talents and resources. While Letcher lacked the manpower and communications equipment to serve as corps artillery officer and simultaneously run a full-time SACC, his efforts represented a major advancement in this difficult art. So did Colonel Vernon Megee's Landing Force Air Support Control Unit, which worked in relative harmony with the fledgling SACC. Instances of friendly fire still occurred, perhaps inevitably on that crowded island, but positive control at the highest level did much to reduce the frequency of such accidents. In terms of response time, multiple-source coordination probably worked better at the division level and below. Most infantry battalions, for example, had nothing but praise for the Air Liaison Parties, Shore Fire Control Parties, and artillery forward observer teams which deployed with each maneuver unit.

Mopping up the caves with grenades and Browning automatic rifles, Marines flush out remaining Japanese hidden in Iwo Jima's numerous and interconnecting caves. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 142472

The Marines' Zippo Tanks

To the Marines on the ground, the Sherman M4A3 medium tank equipped with the Navy Mark I flame thrower seemed to be the most valuable weapon employed in the battle of Iwo Jima.

The Marines had come a long way in the tactical use of fire in the 15 months since Tarawa, when only a handful of backpack flame throwers were available to combat the island's hundreds of fortifications. While the landing force still relied on portable flame throwers, most Marines could see the value of marrying the technology with armored vehicles for use against the toughest targets. In the Marianas, the Marines modified M3A1 light tanks with the Canadian Ronson flame system to good effect; the problems came from the vulnerability of the small vehicles. At Peleliu, the 1st Marine Division mounted the improvised Mark 1 system on a thin-skinned LVT-4 again; vehicle vulnerability limited the system's effectiveness. The obvious solution seemed to be to mount the flame thrower in a medium tank.

The first modification to Sherman tanks involved the installation of the small E4-5 mechanized flame thrower in place of the bow machine gun. This was only a marginal improvement; the system's short range, modest fuel supply, and awkward aiming process hardly offset the loss of the machine gun. Even so, each of the three tank battalions employed E4-5 equipped Shermans during Iwo Jima.

tank with flamethrower
A Marine flame tank, also known as a "Ronson," scorches a Japanese strongpoint. The eight M4A3 Shermans equipped with the Navy Mark 1 flame-thrower proved to be the most valuable weapons systems on Iwo Jima. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 140758

The best solution to marrying effective flame protection with mechanized mobility resulted from an unlikely inter-service task force of Seabees, Army Chemical Warfare Service technicians, and Fleet Marine Force tankers in Hawaii before the invasion. According to Lieutenant Colonel William R. Collins, commanding the 5th Tank Battalion, this inspired group of field-expedient tinkerers modified the Mark 1 flame thrower to operate from within the Sherman's turret, replacing the 75mm main gun with a look-alike launch tube. The modified system could thus be trained and pointed like any conventional turret gun. Using napalm-thickened fuel, the "Zippo Tanks" could spew flame up to 150 yards for a duration of 55-80 seconds, both quantum tactical improvements.

Unfortunately, the ad hoc modification team had only sufficient time and components to modify eight M4A3 tanks with a Mark 1 flame system; four each went to the 4th and 5th Tank Battalions. The 3d Tank Battalion, then staging in Guam, received neither the M4A3 Shermans nor the field modifications in time for Iwo Jima, although a number of their "A2" tanks retained the E4-5 system mounted in the bow.

The eight modified Sherman flame tanks proved ideal against Iwo Jima's rugged caves and concrete fortifications. The Japanese feared this weapon greatly; time and again suicide squads of "human bullets" would assail the flame tanks directly, only to be shot down by covering forces or scorched by the main weapon. Enemy fire and the rough terrain took their toll on the eight flame tanks, but maintenance crews worked around the clock to keep them functional.

In the words of Captain Frank C. Caldwell, a company commander in the 26th Marines: "In my view it was the flame tank more than any other supporting arm that won this battle." Tactical demands for the flame tanks never diminished. Late in the battle, as the 5th Marine Division cornered the last Japanese defenders in "The Gorge," the 5th Tank Battalion expended napalm-thickened fuel at the rate of 10,000 gallons per day. The division's final action report stated that the flame tank was "the one weapon that caused the Japs to leave their caves and rock crevices and run."

While the Marines remained angry at the paucity of the overall preliminary naval bombardment of Iwo Jima, all hands valued the continuous and responsive support received from D-day onward. Many of the gunfire ships stood in close—frequently less than a mile offshore—to deliver along the flanks and front lines, and many took hits from masked Japanese coast defense batteries. There were literally no safe zones in or around the island. Two aspects of naval gunfire at Iwo Jima rate special mention. One was the extent to which the ships provided illumination rounds over the battlefield, especially during the early days before landing force artillery could assume the bulk of these missions. The second unique aspect was the degree of assistance provided by the smallest gunships, frequently modified landing craft armed with 4.2-inch mortars, rockets, or 20mm guns. These "small boys" proved invaluable, especially along the northwest coast where they frequently worked in lock-step with the 5th Marine Division as it approached The Gorge.

sketch of Marine
"The Target," by Col Charles H. Waterhouse. Marine Corps Combat Art Collection

While the Marines comprised the bulk of the landing force at Iwo Jima, they received early and increasing support from elements of the U.S. Army. Two of the four DUKW companies employed on D-day were Army units. The 138th Antiaircraft Artillery Group provided 90mm AA batteries around the newly captured airfields. Major General James E. Chaney, USA, who would become Island Commander, Iwo Jima, at the battle's end, landed on D+8 with advance elements of the 145th Infantry.

As far as the Marines on the ground were concerned, the most welcome Army units flew into Iwo Jima on 6 March (D+15). This was the 15th Fighter Group, the vanguard of VII Fighter Command destined to accompany the B-29s over Tokyo. The group included the 47th Fighter Squadron, a seasoned outfit of North American P-51 Mustangs. Although the Army pilots had no experience in direct air support of ground troops, Colonel Megee liked their "eager-beaver attitude" and willingness to learn. He also appreciated the fact that the Mustangs could deliver 1,000-pound bombs. Megee quickly trained the Army pilots in striking designated targets on nearby islands in response to a surface-based controller. In three days they were ready for Iwo Jima. Megee instructed the P-51 pilots to arm their bombs with 12-second delay fuzes, attack parallel to the front lines, and approach from a 45-degree angle. Sometimes these tactics produced spectacular results, especially along the west coast, where the big bombs with delayed fuzes blew the sides of entire cliffs into the ocean, exposing enemy caves and tunnels to direct fire from the sea. "The Air Force boys did a lot of good," said Megee. With that, the escort carriers departed the area and left close air support to the 47th Fighter Squadron for the duration of the battle.

While technically not a "supporting arm," the field medical support provided the assault Marines primarily by the Navy was a major contributor to victory in the prolonged battle. The practice of integrating surgeons, chaplains, and corpsmen within the Fleet Marine Force units continued to pay valuable dividends. In many cases company corpsmen were just as tough and combat-savvy as the Marines they accompanied. In all cases, a wounded Marine immediately knew "his" corpsman would move heaven and earth to reach him, bind his wounds, and start the long process of evacuation. Most Marines at Iwo Jima would echo the sentiments of Staff Sergeant Alfred I. Thomas, a half-track platoon commander in the 25th Marines: "We had outstanding corpsmen; they were just like family."

Navy corpsmen tending to wounded Marine
Navy corpsmen tend a Marine who was shot in the back by enemy sniper fire. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110902

Unfortunately, the luxury of having first-rate medical assistance so close to the front lines took a terrible toll. Twenty-three doctors and 827 corpsmen were killed or wounded at Iwo Jima, a casualty rate twice as high as bloody Saipan.

Rarely had combat medical support been so thoughtfully prepared and provided as at Iwo Jima. Beyond the crude aid stations, further toward the rear, Navy and Army field hospitals arose. Some Marines would be wounded, receive treatment in a field hospital tent, recuperate in a bunker, and return to the lines—often to receive a second or third wound. The more seriously wounded would be evacuated off the island, either by direct air to Guam, or via one of several fully staffed hospital ships which operated around the clock within the amphibious objective area. Within the first month of the fighting on Iwo Jima, 13,737 wounded Marines and corpsmen were evacuated by hospital ship, another 2,449 by airlift.

For a wounded Marine, the hazardous period came during the first few minutes after he went down. Japanese snipers had no compunctions about picking off litter crews, or corpsmen, or sometimes the wounded man himself as his buddies tried to slide him clear of the fire. One of the most celebrated examples of casualty evacuation occurred after a Japanese sniper shot Corporal Edwin J. Canter, a rocket truck crew chief in the 4th Marine Division, through the abdomen. The rocket trucks always drew an angry fusillade of counterbattery fire from the Japanese, and Canter's friends knew they had to get him away from the launch site fast. As a nearby motion picture crew recorded the drama, four Marines hustling Canter down a muddy hillside heard the scream of an incoming shell, dumped the wounded man unceremoniously and scattered for cover. The explosion killed the film crew and wounded each of the Marines, including Canter, again. The film footage survived, appeared in stateside newsreels—and eventually became part of the movie "Sands of Iwo Jima." Canter was evacuated to a hospital ship, thence to hospitals in Guam, Hawaii, and the States. His war had ended.

surgeons operating
Installed in an abandoned Japanese dugout several thousand yards behind the fighting, 4th Marine Division surgeons operated on those badly wounded Marines and Navy corpsmen who might not have survived a trip to the hospital ship. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 111506

numerous watercraft on beach
As the fighting moved inland, the beaches of Iwo Jima became very busy places with the continual incoming flow of supplies. Note the many roads leading off the beaches over which trucks, LVTs, and DUKWs headed to the frontlines. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110852

Meanwhile the beachmasters and shore party personnel performed spectacular feats to keep the advancing divisions fully armed and equipped. It is difficult to imagine the scope of logistical management and sheer, back-breaking work required to maintain such a high volume of supplies and equipment moving over such precarious beaches. A single beach on the west coast became functional on D+11, but by that time the bulk of landing force supplies were on shore. General unloading ended the next day, releasing the vulnerable amphibious ships from their tether to the beachhead. Thereafter, ammunition resupply became the critical factor. On one occasion, well aimed Japanese fire detonated the entire 5th Marine Division ammo dump. In another tense moment, the ammunition ship Columbia Victory came under direct Japanese fire as she approached the western beaches to commence unloading. Watching Marines held their breath as the ship became bracketed by fire. The ship escaped, but the potential still existed for a disaster of catastrophic proportions.

The 2d Separate Engineer Battalion and the 62d Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) repaired and extended the captured runways. In short order, an entire Seabee brigade moved ashore. Marines returning to the beaches from the northern highlands could hardly recognize the place they had first seen on D-day. There were now more than 80,000 Americans on the small island. Seabees had bulldozed a two-lane road up to the top of Suribachi.

Communications, often maligned in earlier amphibious assaults, were never better than at Iwo Jima. Radios and handsets were now waterproof, more frequencies were available, and a variety of radio systems served the varying needs of the landing force. Forward observer teams, for example, used the back-pack SCR-610, while companies and platoons favored the SCR-300 "walkie-talkies," or the even lighter SCR-536 "Spain Can" portables. Said Lieutenant Colonel James P. Berkeley, executive officer of the 27th Marines and a former communications officer, "At Iwo we had near-perfect communications, all any commander could ask for." As the battle progressed, the Marines began stringing telephone lines between support units and forward command posts, wisely elevating the wire along upright posts to avoid damage by tracked vehicles.

Japanese counterintelligence teams expected to have a field day splicing into the proliferation of U.S. telephone lines, but the Marines baffled them by heavy use of Navajo code talkers. Each division employed about two dozen trained Navajos. The 5th Marine Division command post established six Navajo networks upon arrival on the island. No one, throughout the war, insofar as any one knew, was ever able to translate the Navajo code talkers' voice transmissions.

African-American troops played a significant role in the capture of Iwo Jima. Negro drivers served in the Army DUKW units active throughout the landing. Black Marines of the 8th Ammunition Company and the 36th Depot Company landed on D-day, served as stevedores on those chaotic beaches, and were joined by the 33d and 34th Depot Companies on D+3. These Marines were incorporated into the VAC Shore Party which did Herculean work sustaining the momentum of the American drive northwards. When Japanese counterattacks penetrated to the beach areas, these Marines dropped their cargo, unslung their carbines, and engaged in well-disciplined fire and maneuver, inflicting more casualties than they sustained. Two Marines, Privates James W. Whitlock and James Davis, received the Bronze Star. Said Colonel Leland S. Swindler, commanding the VAC Shore Party, the entire body of black Marines "conducted themselves with marked coolness and courage."

sketch of Navajo code talkers
"Iwo Jima," proof lithograph of two Navajo code talkers, by Sgt John Fabion. Marine Corps Combat Art Collection

News media coverage of the Iwo Jima battle was extensive and largely unfettered. Typical of the scores of combat correspondents who stuck with the landing force throughout the battle was Marine Technical Sergeant Frederick K. "Dick" Dashiell, a former Associated Press writer assigned to the 3d Marine Division. Although downright scared some times, and filled with horror often, Dashiell stood the test, for he wrote 81 front-line communiques, pounding out news releases on his portable typewriter on the edge of his foxhole. Dashiell's eye for detail caught the flavor of the prolonged assault. "All is bitter, frontal assault, always uphill," he wrote. He described how the ceaseless wind filled the air with fine volcanic grit, and how often the Marines had to stop and clean the grit from their weapons—and how naked that made any Marine feel.

Most Marines were exhausted at this point in the battle. Occasional hot food delivered close behind the front lines, or more frequently fresh fruit and milk from the nearby ships, helped morale some. So did watching more and more crippled B-29s soar in for emergency landings, often two or three a day. "It felt good to see them land," said Sergeant James "Doc" Lindsey, a squad leader in Company G, 2d Battalion, 25th Marines. "You knew they'd just come from Tokyo."

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division