Taken at face value, the island of Iwo Jima is pretty inconsequential. It’s one of 30 tiny islands and atolls that comprise the Bonin Islands, which rest roughly 750 miles south (and a little east) of Japan. The surface area of all the islands together isn’t much more than 50 square miles. Iwo Jima’s area is just 8 square miles…it’s a really small piece of real estate.
But in 1945, that small chunk of property had tremendous value to the U.S. military. If you look at a map of the Pacific Ocean, like this one, and draw a line from anywhere on Japan to the Marianas Islands (further south and east of the Bonins), you see that the line runs right over (or in close proximity to) Iwo Jima. The lines you drew?…they’re the flight paths that B-29s had to take on their missions to targets on mainland Japan, a 2,800-mile round trip. There was no escort fighter (the planes that protected the bombers) in the inventory that could make the trip, and damaged B-29s stood little chance of surviving the 1,400-mile return trip.
Iwo Jima, which stood right in the middle of the “Marianas-to-Japan” flightpath, had three airfields, making it the perfect mid-point from which P-51 Mustangs (the premier fighter escort) could take off and accompany the bombers on the final, and most dangerous, leg of their missions. Of course, the Japanese military also knew that, and had built up the island’s defenses in anticipation of action there. And the U.S. responded, as bombers from the Marianas (mostly Consolidated B-24 Liberators) attacked the island every day for nearly three months.
On February 19, 1945, the face-to-face battle began. In the early morning darkness, the sky lit up as U.S. Navy warships opened fire on the island of volcanic ash. This was followed up by attacks from naval aircraft and then more shelling. At 9:00am, General “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit the beach (the 3rd Marine Division would follow later), to an uneasy calm. Unlike the island battles of Peleliu and Tarawa, the Japanese (under orders from Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi) surrendered the initial landings, choosing instead to let their enemy move inland before opening fire.
And when the Japanese finally did let loose, it was the beginning of an intense five-week struggle where no quarter would be taken on either side, and none would be given.
Recommended Viewing: Iwo Jima – 36 Days of Hell – This two-DVD compilation is really educational…and really sobering. Dad and I watched it a few months back.