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)

Iwo Jima's Costs, Gains, and Legacies

In its 36 days of combat on Iwo Jima, the V Amphibious Corps killed approximately 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors. The cost was staggering. The assault units of the corps—Marines and organic Navy personnel—sustained 24,053 casualties, by far the highest single-action losses in Marine Corps history. Of these, a total of 6,140 died. Roughly one Marine or corpsman became a casualty for every three who landed on Iwo Jima.

According to a subsequent analysis by military historian Dr. Norman Cooper, "Nearly seven hundred Americans gave their lives for every square mile. For every plot of ground the size of a football field, an average of more than one American and five Japanese were killed and five Americans wounded."

The assault infantry units bore the brunt of these losses. Captain William T. Ketcham's Company I, 3d Battalion, 24th Marines, landed on D-day with 133 Marines in the three rifle platoons. Only nine of these men remained when the remnants of the company reembarked on D+35. Captain Frank C. Caldwell reported the loss of 221 men from Company F, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. At the end, a private first class served as platoon commander for Caldwell's merged first and second platoons. Elsewhere in the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Captain Tom Fields relinquished command of Company D on the eighth day to replace the battalion executive officer. Rejoining his company at the end of the battle, Fields was sickened to find only 17 of the original 250 men still in the ranks. Company B, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, went through nine company commanders in the fighting; 12 different Marines served as platoon leader of the second platoon, including two buck privates. Each division, each regiment, reported similar conditions.

Marines holding captured Japanese flags
The fighting hardly over, grizzled, begrimed, and tired Marines solemnly display the spoils of war captured in a very long, difficult, and hard-fought battle. Marine Corps Historical Collection

As the extent of the losses became known in the press, the American public reacted with shock and dismay as they had 14 months earlier at Tarawa. This time, however, the debate about the high cost of forcibly seizing an enemy island raged in the press while the battle was still being fought.

The Marine Corps released only one official communique about specific battle losses during the battle, reporting casualties of nearly 5,000 men on 22 February. Five days later, at the insistence of press baron William Randolph Hearst, an early supporter of the MacArthur-for-President claque, the San Francisco Examiner ran a front page editorial bewailing the Marines' tactics and losses. "It's the same thing that happened at Tarawa and Saipan," the editorial stated, urging the elevation of General MacArthur to supreme command in the Pacific, because "HE SAVES THE LIVES OF HIS OWN MEN." With that, 100 off-duty Marines stormed the offices of the Examiner demanding an apology. Unfortunately, the Hearst editorial received wide play; many families of Marines fighting at Iwo Jima forwarded the clippings. Marines received these in the mail while the fighting still continued, an unwelcome blow to morale.

President Roosevelt, long a master of public opinion, managed to keep the lid on the outcry by emphasizing the sacrifice of the troops as epitomized by the Joe Rosenthal photograph of the second Suribachi flag-raising. The photograph was already widely renowned. FDR made it the official logo of the Seventh War Bond Drive and demanded the six flag-raisers be reassigned home to enhance popular morale. Regrettably, three of the six men had already been killed in subsequent fighting in the drive north on Iwo Jima.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff looked appraisingly at Iwo Jima's losses. No one questioned the objective; Iwo Jima was an island that categorically had to be seized if the strategic bombing campaign was ever going to be effective. The island could therefore not be bypassed or "leap frogged." There is considerable evidence that the Joint Chiefs considered the use of poison gas during the Iwo Jima planning phase. Neither Japan nor the United States had signed the international moratorium, there were no civilians on the island, the Americans had stockpiles of mustard gas shells in the Pacific theater. But President Roosevelt scotched these considerations quickly. America, he declared, would never make first use of poison gas. In any case, the use of poison gas on an area as relatively small as Iwo Jima, whose prevailing winds would quickly dissipate the gas fumes, became moot. This left the landing force with no option but a frontal amphibious assault against the most heavily fortified island America ever faced in the war.

The fighting continues and continues. For weary flamethrower operators Pvt Richard Klatt, left, and PFC Wilfred Voegeli the campaign is just one cave after another. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110599

On the other hand, seizure of Iwo Jima provided significant strategic benefits. Symbolically, the Marines raised the flag over Mount Suribachi on the same day that General MacArthur entered Manila. The parallel capture of the Philippines and Iwo Jima, followed immediately by the invasion of Okinawa, accelerated the pace of the war, bringing it at long last to Japan's doorstep. The three campaigns convincingly demonstrated to the Japanese high command that the Americans now had the capability—and the will—to overwhelm even the most stoutly defended islands. Kyushu and Honshu would be next.

dead Marine
Uncommon valor in a peaceful setting: this 4th Division Marine threatens the enemy even in death. His bayonet fixed and pointing in the direction of the enemy, he was killed by a sniper before he even got off the beach on D-day. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 109624

Iwo Jima in American hands produced immediate and highly visible benefits to the strategic bombing campaign. Marines fighting on the island were reminded of this mission time and again as crippled B-29 Superforts flew in from Honshu. The capture of Iwo Jima served to increase the operating range, payload, and survival rate of the big bombers. The monthly tonnage of high explosives dropped on Imperial Japan by B-29s based in the Marianas increased eleven-fold in March alone. As early as 7 April a force of 80 P-51 Mustangs of VII Fighter Command took off from Iwo Jima to escort B-29s striking the Nakajima aircraft engine plant in Tokyo. But the Army Air Force valued Iwo Jima most of all as an emergency landing field. By war's end, a total of 2,251 B-29s made forced landings on the island. This figure represented 24,761 flight crewmen, many of whom would have perished at sea without the availability of Iwo Jima as a safe haven. Said one B-29 pilot, "whenever I land on this island I thank God for the men who fought for it."

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi proved to be one of the most competent field commanders the Marines ever faced. He displayed a masterful grasp of the principles of simplicity and economy of force, made maximum use of Iwo's forbidding terrain, employed his artillery and mortars with great skill, and exercised command with an iron will virtually to the end. He was also a realist. Without hope of even temporary naval or air superiority he knew he was doomed from the start. In five weeks of unremitting pressure, the Americans breached every strongpoint, exterminated his forces, and seized the island.

burial ceremony
With his buddies holding the four corners of the National Colors, the last rites for a fallen Marine are offered by the chaplain at a temporary gravesite in Iwo's black sand. Chaplains of all religious persuasions heroically ministered to all Marines and Corpsmen throughout the thick of the fighting at their own risk. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 142434

Iwo Jima represented at once the supreme test and the pinnacle of American amphibious capabilities in the Pacific War. The sheer magnitude of the task—planning the assault and sustaining of that many troops against such a formidable objective—made Operation Detachment an enduring model of "detailed planning and violent execution." Here the element of surprise was not available to the attacker. Yet the speed of the American landing and the toughness with which assault units with stood the withering barrages astounded the Japanese defenders. "The landing on Iwo was the epitome of everything we'd learned over the years about amphibious assaults," said Colonel Wornham of the 27th Marines. Bad as the enemy fire became on D-day, there were no reports of "Issue in doubt." Lieutenant Colonel Galer compared Iwo Jima with his Guadalcanal experience: "Then it was 'can we hold?' Here at Iwo Jima the question was simply 'When can we get it over?'"

The ship-to-shore assault at Iwo was impressive enough, but the real measure of amphibious effectiveness can be seen in the massive, sustained logistical support which somehow flowed over those treacherous beaches. Not only did the Marines have all the ammunition and flamethrower refills they needed, around the clock, but they also had many of the less obvious necessities and niceties which marked this battle as different from its predecessors. Marines on Iwo had ample quantities of whole blood, some of it donated barely two weeks in advance, flown in, refrigerated, and available. The Marines also had mail call, unit newsletters, fresh water, radio batteries, fresh-baked bread, and prefabricated burial markers, thousands of them.

Iwo Jima featured superior inter-service cooperation. The Navy-Marine Corps team rarely functioned more efficiently. The blue-water Navy continued to earn the respect of the Marines, especially on D-2 when the flotilla of tiny LCI gunboats bravely attacked the coastal defense guns to protect the Navy and Marine frogmen. Likewise, the Marines welcomed the contributions of the Army, Coast Guard, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Red Cross, and the host of combat correspondents—all of whom shared both the misery and the glory of the prolonged battle.

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Twenty-seven men received the Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity during the battle of Iwo Jima: 22 Marines, four Navy corpsmen, and one Navy landing craft commander. Exactly half of the awards issued to Marines and corpsmen of the V Amphibious Corps were posthumous. Within a larger institutional context, Iwo Jima represented more than one-fourth of the 80 Medals of Honor awarded Marines during the Second World War. This was Iwo Jima's Roll of Honor:

Cpl Charles J. Berry, 1/26, 3 March 1945*
PFC William R. Caddy, 3/26, 3 March*
LtCol Justice M. Chambers, 3/25, 19-22 February
Sgt Darrell S. Cole, 1/23, 19 February*
Capt Robert Dunlap, 1/26, 20-21 February
Sgt Ross F. Gray, 1/25, 21 February
Sgt William G. Harrell, 1/28, 3 March
Lt Rufus G. Herring, USNR, LCI 449, 17 February
PFC Douglas T. Jacobson, 3/23, 26 February
PltSgt Joseph J. Julian, 1/27, 9 March*
PFC James D. LaBelle, 1/27, 8 March*
2dLt John H. Leims, 1/9, 7 March
PFC Jacklyn H. Lucas, 1/26, 20 February
1stLt Jack Lummus, 2/27, 8 March*
Capt Joseph J. McCarthy, 2/24, 21 February
1stLt Harry L. Martin, 5th Pioneer Battalion, 26 March*
Pvt George Phillips, 2/28, 14 March*
PhM 1/c Francis J. Pierce, USN, 2/24, 15-16 March
PFC Donald J. Ruhl, 2/28, 19-21 February*
Pvt Franklin E. Sigler, 2/26, 14 March
Cpl Tony Stein, 1/28, 19 February*
PhM 2/c George Wahlen, USN, 2/26, 3 March
GySgt William G. Walsh, 3/27, 27 February*
Pvt Wilson D. Watson, 2/9, 26-27 February
Cpl Hershel W. Williams, 1/21, 23 February
PhM 3/c Jack Williams, USN, 3/28, 3 March*
PhM 1/c John H. Willis, USN, 3/27, 28 February*

* Posthumous

Medal of Honor

Two aspects of the battle remain controversial: the inadequate preliminary bombardment and the decision to use piecemeal replacements instead of organized units to strengthen the assault forces. Both decisions, rendered in the context of several competing factors, were made by experienced commanders in good faith. Unavoidably, Iwo Jima's biggest cost to the V Amphibious Corps was the loss of so many combat veterans in taking the island. While the battle served to create a new generation of veterans among the survivors, many proud regiments suffered devastating losses. With these same units already designated as key components of the landing force against the Japanese home islands, such losses had serious potential implications. These factors may well have influenced General Holland Smith's unpopular decision to withhold the 3d Marines from the battle. From the perspective of an exhausted company commander on Iwo Jima, Smith's decision seemed inexcusable, then and now; from the wider perspective of the commanding general, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, the decision makes more sense.

At the end of a very long fight, a Marine flamethrower operator pauses to light up. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 111147

Whatever his shortcomings, Holland Smith probably knew amphibious warfare better than anyone. Of the hundreds of after-action reports filed immediately following the battle, his official analysis best captured the essence of the struggle:

There was no hope of surprise, either strategic or tactical. There was little possibility for tactical initiative; the entire operation was fought on what were virtually the enemy's own terms . . . . The strength, disposition, and conduct of the enemy's defense required a major penetration of the heart of his prepared positions in the center of the Motoyama Plateau and a subsequent reduction of the positions in the difficult terrain sloping to the shore on the flanks. The size and terrain of the island precluded any Force Beachhead Line. It was an operation of one phase and one tactic. From the time the engagement was joined until the mission was completed it was a matter of frontal assault maintained with relentless pressure by a superior mass of troops and supporting arms against a position fortified to the maximum practical extent.

We Americans of a subsequent generation in the profession of arms find it difficult to imagine a sustained amphibious assault under such conditions. In some respects the fighting on Iwo Jima took on the features of Marines fighting in France in 1918, described by one as "a war girt with horrors." We sense the drama repeated every morning at Iwo, after the prep fires lifted, when the riflemen, engineers, corpsmen, flame tank crews, and armored bulldozer operators somehow found the fortitude to move out yet again into "Death Valley" or "The Meatgrinder." Few of us today can study the defenses, analyze the action reports, or walk the broken ground without experiencing a sense of reverence for the men who won that epic battle.

Fleet Admiral Nimitz said these words while the fighting still raged: "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue," a sentiment now chiseled in granite at the base of Felix de Weldon's gigantic bronze sculpture of the Suribachi flag-raising.

Smith, Brown
LtGen Holland M. Smith, USMC, with his Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, chief of staff, Col Dudley S. Brown, surveys the wreckage along the landing beaches. Iwo Jima was Gen Smith's last battle. After this, he returned to his headquarters on Hawaii. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110635

Twenty-two Marines, four Navy corpsmen, and one LCI skipper were awarded the Medal of Honor for utmost bravery during the battle of Iwo Jima. Half were posthumous awards.

General Erskine placed these sacrifices in perspective in remarks made during the dedication of the 3d Marine Division cemetery on the embattled island:

Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was. What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate our cemetery at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gunner.

Assault Division's Command Structures

As the 3d, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions conducted their final preparations for Operation Detachment, these were the infantry commanders who would lead the way at the beginning of the battle:

3d Marine Division
3d MarinesCol James A. Stewart
9th MarinesCol Howard N. Kenyon
1/9LtCol Carey A. Randall
2/9LtCol Robert E. Cushman, Jr.
3/9LtCol Harold C. Boehm
21st MarinesCol Hartnoll J. Withers
1/21LtCol Marlowe C. Williams
2/21LtCol Lowell E. English
3/21LtCol Wendell H. Duplantis

4th Marine Division
23d MarinesCol Walter W. Wensinger
1/23LtCol Ralph Haas
2/23Maj Robert H. Davidson
3/23Maj James S. Scales
24th MarinesCol Col Walter I. Jordan
1/24Maj Ralph S. Treitel
2/24LtCol Richard Rothwell
3/24LtCol Alexander A. Vadergrift,. Jr.
25th MarinesCol John R. Lanigan
1/25LtCol Hollis U. Mustain
2/25LtCol Lewis C. Hudson, Jr.
3/25LtCol Justice M. Chambers

5th Marine Division
26th MarinesCol Chester B. Graham
1/26LtCol Daniel C. Pollock
2/26LtCol Joseph P. Sayers
3/26LtCol Tom M. Trotti
27th MarinesCol Thomas A. Wornham
1/27LtCol John A. Butler
2/27Maj John W. Antonelli
3/27LtCol Donn J. Robertson
28th MarinesCol Harry B.l Liversedge
1/28LtCol Jackson B. Butterfield
2/28LtCol Chandler W. Johnson
3/28LtCol Charles E. Shepard, Jr.

[Note: Of those infantry battalion commanders who landed on Iwo Jima on D-Day, only seven remained unwounded and still retained command at the battle's end].

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division