The Battle of Iwo Jima took place in February and March of 1945 as part of the Pacific Campaign during World War II. Although the Battle of Iwo Jima was initially expected to be a short battle to secure control of the strategically-placed island, the battle was one of the deadliest of the war on both sides with the United States losing almost 7,000 troops and the Japanese suffering the staggering loss of nearly 20,000. One of the most remarkable aspects of the death toll after the Battle of Iwo Jima was the relative small size of the island. As a whole, it was only 8 square miles and was largely barren, aside from an inactive volcano and a few very small isolated settlements. Still, the importance of the island as a strategic center made the extensive resources and loses worth it to the Americans, just as future history in the Far East would be the site of future American intervention in the Far East.

After the most intense fighting during the Battle of Iwo Jima at the summit of Mount Suribachi (the location of a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal that shows American troops hoisting up an American flag) the fighting soon decreased and the Americans took control. By securing the island they were able to go on with their bombing campaigns. What they did not predict, however, was the fierce tenacity with which the Japanese defended this pivotal landmass. Although the Americans finally took the island by the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima and were able to enjoy its strategic positioning in later military actions in the Pacific, this stands as one of the most intense displays of Japanese military might in World War II.

There were many reasons for the Battle of Iwo Jima and all of them are tied to the idea but for the most part, the island had significant strategic importance for both sides. While it may be true that the Japanese did not wish to be seen as an easy enemy and thus fought hard for the territory, it was also of great value to them in their effort to halt the American bombing campaign. Since the island was located under the flight path of many B-29 bombers used in the air assaults, it was a key position for them to perceive incoming attacks. Furthermore, “Japanese fighters on Iwo Jima made almost nightly raids on the Marianas airfields [where downed U.S. bombers were], destroying many B-29s on the ground. As long as Japan controlled Iwo Jima, it posed a threat to the success of the bombing campaign.” The Japanese knew that the future of the conflict wrested on this small island and this explains the fearless resistance with which they held out for so long.

The Americans saw the island of crucial importance because they were starting to tire of the constant deaths and destroying of their bombers. It was also strategically vital that they get control of Iwo Jima for two other reasons. First of all, the Japanese had radar capabilities on the island and thus they were able to predict attacks as much as two hours in advance. In addition to this, the island was equipped with airstrips which would allow the United States much safer access to their bombing targets and would allow them a convenient location to refuel and rest. These airfields were of key strategic importance, in part because of their size as well as location. “Along the central plateau of Iwo Jima, the Japanese had laid out three airfields…The first had two strips. 5,225 and 4,425 feet, built in the form of an X. The third, with a single strip, never became operational.” Without these airstrips and the success in securing the island, the United States would have a much harder time achieving their goals in the Pacific.

In the lead-up to the battle at Iwo Jima, the Japanese forces were facing some problems. They had spent several naval and aircraft resources fighting the Americans in their attempts to take over key islands and those that were leftover were being saved for more important upcoming battles. As a result of this, both the offensive and defensive forces on the Japanese side were mostly ground troops. It was not long before the Japanese realized that an attack on Iwo Jima was imminent and as a result they sought to send troops as early as the summer of 1944. With only ground troops at his disposal, the Japanese general Kuribayashi knew that he would have to take great measures to make the island impenetrable with only men on the ground. The first step the general took was to evacuate the island of the small number of villagers living about. His next and most crucial step was to fortify the island with a number of hideouts for artillery and snipers. These, as well as the system of underground tunnels, would make the island much more difficult to gain than the Americans predicted. He hid many of these weapons locations either underground or in other unnoticeable locations so that when the Americans finally landed, they would have to move farther inland before being hit with an unseen barrage of both light and heavy arms fire.

Throughout the Battle of Iwo Jima, the underground tunnels and weapons/supplies repositories were among the keys to the successes made on part of the Japanese in holding out. The island’s geology included a porous stone that was easy to cut into with basic tools and thus building a network of caves and tunnels was not entirely difficult. Even more importantly, they were able to dig so far down into the earth that even the constant round of bombings on the island did not effect those underground. In fact, the bombings actually helped the Japanese because it made the terrain even more inaccessible. This fact, added with a diverse array of artillery (including anti-aircraft weaponry and mortars) made the island far more secure than it may have seemed to the first Americans who entered the island in 1945.

What is most staggering about the Battle at Iwo Jima is that the Americans had over 70,000 troops in all branches, plenty of air and naval power, and sophisticated communications technology. Despite this fact, there were only around 21,000 Japanese at the height of the conflict and yet they were able to hold out for over a month. In nearly all accounts of the history of the Battle of Iwo Jima, it is often remarked that the Americans counted their progress each day of the battle in terms of yards rather than miles. It was difficult for them to move forward with a constant rain of artillery raining down from the summit of Mount Suribachi and the other subterranean holes, caves, and hideouts used by Japanese snipers. To make things even worse for the Americans, the Japanese proved to be an incredibly tenacious force and they were willing to die rather than let go of their territory. “Commentator after commentator in the Anglo-American camp stated flatly that the Japanese were more despised than the Germans, and usually, they agreed that there was a good and simple reason for this: the Japanese were uncommonly treacherous and savage.”

These sentiments were not meant to imply that the Japanese were savages, but rather more alluding to their remarkable tenacity in the midst of this battle. They simply refused to give up any territory and incurred thousand of losses daily without any possibility of surrender. The Americans, to cope with this unexpected resilience, kept bombing but to no avail. It was clear that it would be necessary to go full force up the mountains and hills and engage in combat on Japanese terms. The actual battle got underway on February 19, 1945. The United States Marines advanced first and attempted to cover ground and make it inland, which was incredibly difficult due to the harsh terrain. Roughly 32,000 Marines then made an attempt to surround the edges of Mount Suribachi. They would eventually be joined by a backup force of nearly 38,000 more troops. Since they could not see the enemy, their guns were useless and they used grenades to wipe out what Japanese forces they could. The decent was slow, but once they made it to the top the famous photograph was taken, even though it was only the middle of the battle. The United States forces, now with the upper hand, was able to secure the mountain and then gradually take control of the rest of the island, a much longer process than was initially estimated. After the smoke had cleared and any leftover insurgencies had been taken care of, the island served the Americans well.

This battle of Iwo Jima is ingrained in the mind of many Americans in part because of the famous Rosenthal photograph depicting the soldiers erecting a flag at the top of the mountain. While this is a heroic image, it is easy to forget that this battle was hardly a simple military victory. The Japanese army, even without the assistance of naval or air resources, was able to hold a much larger American force at bay through sheer ingenuity and strategic planning. Their victory was not certain but once it was achieved it allowed the Americans a much better position in the Pacific. After the battle had been won, the airstrips on the island were expanded and put into use as a refueling station. This was a much better location for the United States forces because it allowed them to a have a stopping place in between many of the key islands in the Pacific.

It was also important because the Japanese left radar just in case any errant Japanese air fighting forces should emerge. The Americans were glad to finally be able to be safe over the Pacific islands because the radar outpost on the island when controlled by the Japanese gave so much notice of the impending attacks. In general, in the battle of Iwo Jima there was a tremendous loss of life on both sides, particularly on the Japanese. It is truly amazing to consider that so many perished on such a tiny island over what might initially seem like a place not worth such high casualities. In sum, the battle was fought for strategic reasons and would later go on to shape the United States military (and public) perception of Japanese strengths. When America went on to use the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, this was a terrible event but one that might have occurred because the Americans knew that it the Japanese would never surrender unless drastic measures were put into practice.

Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include : Condensed History of the Vietnam War : Major Events and Facts  •    North Korea’s Nuclear Path: A Historical Look at U.S. Involvement    •   Profile of Tokyo in the Context of Globalization    •     A Few Insights on Birth Control and Contraception Use in China   •    American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends

References / Sources

1) Shively, John C. The Last Lieutenant: A Foxhole View of the Epic Battle for Iwo Jima. Bloomington; University of Indiana Press. 2006 (45).

2) Nalty, Bernard C. With Courage: The United States Army Air Forces in World War II. Darby; Diana Publishing. 1994 (102).

3) Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.  New York; Pantheon Books. 1993 (57).