published on: 19/09/2020
It was perhaps the most iconic moment of the war in the Pacific. Photographer Joe Rosenthal’s image of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s highest point became an inspiration to millions of Americans back home, and remains a rallying point for U.S. Marines everywhere.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 February – 26 March 1945) was a major battle in which the United States Marine Corps and Navy landed on and eventually captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) during World War II. The American invasion, designated Operation Detachment, had the purpose of capturing the island with its two airfields: South Field and Central Field The strategic objectives were twofold: the first was to provide for B-29s unable to make it back to Tinian.
Codename: Operation Detachment
Location: Volcanic island 660 miles south of Tokyo Size: 2 miles wide by 4 miles long (8 sm)
Background: Summer/Fall 1944 Even before ground operations to secure the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian ended, U.S. Naval construction battalions were already clearing land for air bases suitable for the new B-29 “Superfortresses.” These huge bombers had a range capable of reaching the Japanese Home Islands. The first B-29 bombing runs began in October 1944. But there was a problem— Japanese fighters taking off from tiny Iwo Jima were intercepting B29s, as well as attacking the Mariana airfields. The U.S. determined that Iwo Jima must be captured.
The Battle: U.S. Marines invaded Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, after months of naval and air bombardment. The Japanese defenders of the island were dug into bunkers deep within the volcanic rocks. Approximately 70,000 U.S. Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers took part in the battle. In thirty-six days of fighting on the island, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines were killed. Another 20,000 were wounded. Marines captured 216 Japanese soldiers; the rest were killed in action. The island was finally declared secured on March 26, 1945. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. After the battle, Iwo Jima served as an emergency landing site for more than 2,200 B-29 bombers, saving the lives of 24,000 U.S. airmen. Securing Iwo Jima prepared the way for the last and largest battle in the Pacific: the invasion of Okinawa.
The Flag Raising: The flag-raising atop Mt. Suribachi took place on February 23, 1945; five days after the battle began. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the famous photograph of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag. The flag raisers were Cpl. Harlon Block, Navy Pharmacist’s Mate John Bradley, Cpl. Rene Gagnon, PFC Franklin Sousley, Sgt. Michael Strank, and Cpl. Ira Hayes. Three of these men—Strank, Sousley, and Block—were killed before the battle for Iwo Jima was over. The photograph was quickly wired around the world and reproduced in newspapers across the United States. The image was used as a model for the Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Awards: Twenty-seven Medals of Honor (our country’s highest military award for bravery) were awarded for action on Iwo Jima—more than any other battle in U.S. history
Operation Detachment was one of the deadliest conflicts in U.S. Marine Corps history. The Japanese death toll approached 18,500 soldiers, and some 6,800 U.S. Marines were killed and 19,200 were wounded. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded at the conclusion of the battle. The fact that Marines were forced to kill the Japanese virtually to the last man is a testament to the iron grip that Japan’s military indoctrination had on its servicemen. Even Kuribayashi refused to surrender in the end, by some accounts preferring to commit seppuku rather than fall into American hands alive. Those few Japanese soldiers who survived were often ostracized at home because of their failure to defend the homeland with their lives.
The bravery shown on Iwo Jima was neatly summarized by the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who said, "Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue."