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 Drive North (continued)

As the Marines struggled to wrest the second airfield from the Japanese, the commanding terrain features rising to the north caught their attention. Some would become known by their elevations (although there were three Hill 362s on the island), but others would take the personality and nicknames assigned by the attackers. Hence, the 4th Marine Division would spend itself attacking Hill 382, the "Amphitheater," and "Turkey Knob" (the whole bristling complex became known as "The Meatgrinder"). The 5th Division would earn its spurs and lose most of its invaluable cadre of veteran leaders attacking Nishi Ridge and Hills 362-A and 362-B, then end the fighting in "The Gorge." The 3d Division would focus first on Hills Peter and 199-Oboe, just north of the second airfield, then the heavily fortified Hill 362-C beyond the third airstrip, and finally the moonscape jungle of stone which would become know as "Cushman's Pocket."

Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Cushman, Jr., a future Commandant, commanded the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines at Iwo Jima. Cushman and his men were veterans of heavy fighting in Guam, yet they were appalled by their first sight of the battlefield. Wrecked and burning Sherman tanks dotted the airstrips, a stream of casualties flowed to the rear, "the machine-gun fire was terrific." Cushman mounted his troops on the surviving tanks and roared across the field. There they met the same reverse-slope defenses which had plagued the 21st Marines. Securing the adjoining two small hills—Peter and 199-Oboe—took the 3d Marine Division three more days of intensely bitter fighting.

sketch of Marine throwing hand grenade
"The Grenade," an acrylic painting on canvas by Col Charles H. Waterhouse. Marine Corps Combat Art Collection

General Schmidt, considering the 3d Division attack in the center to be his main effort, provided priority fire support from Corps artillery, and directed the other two divisions to allocate half their own regimental fire support to the center. None of the commanders was happy with this. Neither the 4th Division, taking heavy casualties in The Amphitheater as it approached Hill 382, nor the 5th Division, struggling to seize Nishi Ridge, wanted to dilute their organic fire support. Nor was General Erskine pleased with the results. The main effort, he argued, should clearly receive the main fire. Schmidt never did solve this problem. His Corps artillery was too light; he needed twice as many battalions and bigger guns—up to 8-inch howitzers, which the Marine Corps had not yet fielded. He had plenty of naval gun fire support available and used it abundantly, but unless the targets lay in ravines facing to the sea he lost the advantage of direct, observed fire.

Marine Corps Air Support During Iwo Jima

For a few special moments just prior to the landing on D-day at Iwo Jima the Marines' long-cherished vision of an integrated air-ground team seemed to have been realized. As assault troops neared the beach in their tracked amphibian vehicles, dozens of Marine Vought F4U Corsairs swept low over the objective, paving the way with rockets and machine-gun fire. "It was magnificent!" exclaimed one observer. Unfortunately, the eight Marine fighter squadrons present at Iwo that morning came from the fast carriers of Task Force 58, not the amphibious task force; three days later TF 58 left for good in pursuit of more strategic targets. Thereafter, Navy and Army Air Force pilots provided yeoman service in support of the troops fighting ashore. Sustained close air support of amphibious forces by Marine air was once again postponed to some future combat proving ground.

Other Marine aviation units contributed significantly to the successful seizure of Iwo Jima. One of the first to see action was Marine Bombing Squadron (VMB) 612, based on Saipan, whose flight crews flew North American PBJ Mitchell medium bombers in nightly, long-range rocket attacks against Japanese ships trying to resupply Iwo Jima from other bases in the Volcano and Bonin Islands. These nightly raids, combined with U.S. Navy submarine interdictions, significantly reduced the amount of ammunition and fortification material (notably barbed wire) delivered to Iwo Jima's defenders before the invasion.

The contributions of the pilots and aerial spotters from three Marine observation squadrons (VMOs-1, -4 and -5) are described at length in the text. Flying into Iwo initially from escort carriers, or launched precariously by the infamous "Brodie Slingshot" from LST 776, or eventually taking off from the captured airstrips, these intrepid crews were quite successful in spotting enemy artillery and mortar positions, and reporting them to the Supporting Arms Control Center. When Japanese anti-aircraft gunners managed to down one of the "Grasshoppers," Marines from all points of the island mourned.

Marine LtCol Donald K. Yost in his F4U Corsair takes off from the flight deck of the Cape Gloucester (CVE 109) to provide close air support to the fighting troops ashore. This was one of a number of Marine aircraft flown at Iwo Jima. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 262047

Marine transport aircraft from Marine Transport Squadrons (VMR) 952, 253, and 353 based in the Marianas delivered critical combat cargo to the island during the height of the battle. The Marines frequently relied on aerial delivery before the landing force could establish a fully functional beachhead. On D+10, for example, VMR-952 air-dropped critically needed mortar shells, machine gun parts, and blood within Marine lines. On 3 March, Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm S. Mackay, CO of VMR-952, brought in the first Marine transport to land on the island, a Curtiss Commando R5C loaded with ammunition. All three squadrons followed suit, bringing supplies in, taking wounded men out.

On 8 March, Marine Torpedo Bomber Squadron (VMTB) 242 flew in to Iwo Jima from Tinian to assume responsibility for day and night anti-submarine patrols from the departing escort carrier force.

Colonel Vernon E. Megee, USMC, had the distinction of commanding the first Landing Force Air Support Control Unit, a milestone in the evolution of amphibious command and control of supporting arms. Megee came ashore on D+5 with General Schmidt, but the offloading process was still in such disarray that he could not assemble his communications jeeps for another five days. This did little to deter Megee. Using "borrowed" gear, he quickly moved inland, coordinating the efforts of the Air Liaison Parties, encouraging the Navy pilots to use bigger bombs and listening to the complaints of the assault commanders. Megee's subsequent work in training and employing Army P-51 Mustang pilots in direct support was masterful.

Before the battle's end, General Kuribayashi transmitted to Tokyo 19 "lessons learned" about the problems of defending against an American amphibious assault. One of these axioms said: "The enemy's air control is very strong; at least thirty aircraft are flying ceaselessly from early morning to night above this very small island."

Schmidt's problems of fire support distribution received some alleviation on 26 February when two Marine observation planes flew in from the escort carrier Wake Island, the first aircraft to land on Iwo's recaptured and still fire-swept main airstrip. These were Stinson OY single-engine observation planes, nicknamed "Grasshoppers," of Lieutenant Tom Rozga's Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 4, and they were followed the next day by similar planes from Lieutenant Roy G. Miller's VMO-5. The intrepid pilots of these frail craft had already had an adventurous time in the waters off Iwo Jima. Several had been launched precariously from the experimental Brodie catapult on LST 776, "like a peanut from a slingshot." All 14 of the planes of these two observation squadrons would receive heavy Japanese fire in battle, not only while airborne but also while being serviced on the airstrips as well. Yet these two squadrons (and elements of VMO-1) would fly nearly 600 missions in support of all three divisions. Few units contributed so much to the eventual suppression of Kuribayashi's deadly artillery fire. In time the mere presence of these small planes overhead would influence Japanese gunners to cease fire and button up against the inevitable counterbattery fire to follow. Often the pilots would undertake pre-dawn or dusk missions simply to extend this protective "umbrella" over the troops, risky flying given Iwo's unlit fields and constant enemy sniping from the adjacent hills.

A Marine dashes past a fallen Japanese killed a short time earlier, all the while himself a target of searching enemy fire, during heavy fighting in the north. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110922

sketch of explosion
"Fire in the Hole," an acrylic painting on untempered masonite by Col Charles H. Waterhouse, reflects the extensive use of TNT to blast Japanese caves. Marine Corps Combar Art Collection

The 4th Marine Division finally seized Hill 382, the highest point north of Suribachi, but continued to take heavy casualties moving through The Amphitheater against Turkey Knob. The 5th Division overran Nishi Ridge, then bloodied itself against Hill 362-As intricate defenses. Said Colonel Thomas A. Wornham, commanding the 27th Marines, of these defenses: "They had interlocking bands of fire the likes of which you never saw." General Cates redeployed the 28th Marines into this slugfest. On 2 March a Japanese gunner fired a high-velocity shell which killed Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson immediately, one week after his glorious seizure of Suribachi's summit. The 28th Marines captured Hill 362-A at the cost of 200 casualties.

On the same day Lieutenant Colonel Lowell E. English, commanding the 2d Battalion, 21st Marines, went down with a bullet through his knee. English was bitter. His battalion was being rotated to the rear. "We had taken very heavy casualties and were pretty well disorganized. I had less than 300 men left out of the 1200 I came ashore with." English then received orders to turn his men around and plug a gap in the front lines. "It was an impossible order. I couldn't move that disorganized battalion a mile back north in 30 minutes." General Erskine did not want excuses. "You tell that damned English he'd better be there, he told the regimental commander. English fired back, "You tell that son of a bitch I will be there, and I was, but my men were still half a mile behind me and I got a blast through the knee."

On the left flank, the 26th Marines mounted its most successful, and bloodiest, attack of the battle, finally seizing Hill 362-B. The day-long struggle cost 500 Marine casualties and produced five Medals of Honor. For Captain Frank C. Caldwell, commanding Company F, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines it was the worst single day of the battle. His company suffered 47 casualties in taking the hill, including the first sergeant and the last of the original platoon commanders.

Overall, the first nine days of the V Amphibious Corps drive north had produced a net gain of about 4,000 yards at the staggering cost of 7,000 American casualties. Several of the pitched battles—Airfield No. 2, Hill 382, Hill 362-B, for example—would of themselves warrant a separate commemorative monograph. The fighting in each case was as savage and bloody as any in Marine Corps history.

This was the general situation previously described at the unsuspected "turning point" on 4 March (D+13) when, despite sustaining frightful losses, the Marines had chewed through a substantial chunk of Kuribayashi's main defenses, forcing the enemy commander to shift his command post to a northern cave. This was the afternoon the first crippled B-29 landed. In terms of American morale, it could not have come at a better time. General Schmidt ordered a general standdown on 5 March to enable the exhausted assault forces a brief respite and the opportunity to absorb some replacements.

The 3d Battalion, 28th Marines, finds the terrain on Iwo Jima more broken and forbidding than the black sands of the beaches as they advance in a frontal attack northward against unremitting fire from determined Japanese troops. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 111933

The issue of replacement troops during the battle remains controversial even half a century later. General Schmidt, now faced with losses approaching the equivalent of one entire division, again urged General Smith to release the 3d Marines. While each division had been assigned a replacement draft of several thousand Marines, Schmidt wanted the cohesion and combat experience of Colonel James M. Stuart's regimental combat team. Holland Smith believed that the replacement drafts would suffice, presuming that each man in these hybrid units had received sufficient infantry training to enable his immediate assignment to front-line outfits. The problem lay in distributing the replacements in small, arbitrary numbers—not as teamed units—to fill the gaping holes in the assault battalions. The new men, expected to replace invaluable veterans of the Pacific War, were not only new to combat, but they also were new to each other, an assortment of strangers lacking the life saving bonds of unit integrity. "They get killed the day they go into battle," said one division personnel officer in frustration. Replacement losses within the first 48 hours of combat were, in fact, appalling. Those who survived, who learned the ropes and established a bond with the veterans, contributed significantly to the winning of the battle. The division commanders, however, decried the wastefulness of this policy and urged unit replacements by the veteran battalions of the 3d Marines. As General Erskine recalled:

I asked the question of Kelly Turner and Holland Smith and the usual answer was, "You got enough Marines on the island now; there are too damn many here." I said, "The solution is very easy. Some of these people are very tired and worn out, so take them out and bring in the 3d Marines." And they practically said, "You keep quiet—we've made the decision." And that was that.

Most surviving senior officers agreed that the decision not to use the 3d Marines at Iwo Jima was ill advised and costly. But Holland Smith never wavered: "Sufficient troops were on Iwo Jima for the capture of the island . . . . two regiments were sufficient to cover the front assigned to General Erskine." On 5 March, D+14, Smith ordered the 3d Marines to sail back to Guam.

Holland Smith may have known the overall statistics of battle losses sustained by the landing force to that point, but he may not have fully appreciated the tremendous attrition of experienced junior officers and senior staff noncommissioned officers taking place every day. As one example, the day after the 3d Marines, many of whose members were veterans of Bougainville and Guam, departed the amphibious objective area, Company E, 2d Battalion, 23d Marines, suffered the loss of its seventh company commander since the battle began. Likewise, Lieutenant Colonel Cushman's experiences with the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, seemed typical:

sketch of 'Turkey Knob'
"Turkey Knob," the outcropping which anchored the positions of the Japanese 2d Mixed Brigade against the advance of the 4th Marine Division for many days, was sketched by Cpl Daniel L. Winsor, Jr., USMCR, S-2 Section, 25th Marines. Marine Corps Historical Collection

Marines resting, tank in rear
Weary troops of Company G, 2d Battalion, 24th Marines, rest in a ditch, guarded by a Sherman tank. They are waiting for the tanks to move forward to blast the numerous pillboxes between Motoyama Airfields No. 1 and No. 2. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 109666

A light machine gun crew of Company H, 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, hugs the ground and takes advantage of whatever cover it can from an enemy gunner. Department of Defense (USMC) 110626

The casualties were fierce. By the time Iwo Jima was over I had gone through two complete sets of platoon leaders, lieutenants. After that we had such things as artillery forward observers commanding companies and sergeants leading the platoons, which were less than half-strength. It was that bad.

Lieutenant Colonel English recalled that by the 12th day the 2d Battalion, 21st Marines, had "lost every company commander . . . . I had one company exec left." Lieutenant Colonel Donn Robertson, commanding the 3d Battalion, 27th Marines, lost all three of his rifle company commanders, "two killed by the same damned shell." In many infantry units, platoons ceased to exist; depleted companies were merged to form one half-strength outfit.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division