The battle of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles fought during the United States Pacific campaign against Japan, during World War Two. The 36-day battle for control of the tiny island of Iwo Jima, located around 1,200 kms off the coast of Japan, started on February 19, 1945, and saw the death of 18,500 Japanese soldiers and almost 7,000 U.S troops.
Iwo Jima was the first native Japanese soil to be invaded during the Allied advance and was considered strategically important as a possible air base for B-29 bombers.
What the battle is best known for, however, is an image captured by Associated Press photojournalist Joe Rosenthal— six soldiers, raising the American flag over a mountain.
The struggle for dominance in the Pacific Theatre
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, they continued to push forward into the Pacific, expanding their influence over the central Pacific and southeast Asia.
This attack precipitated the entry of the U.S into World War Two. Soon, the US had rallied its troops and assumed command of the Allied forces in the Pacific theatre. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS) in command agreed on a two-pronged approach to tackling the theatre— Army General Douglas MacArthur proceeded to take over the Phillippines, landing on Filipino soil by October 1944, while Admiral Chester Nimitz advanced through the Central Pacific, seizing the Mariana Islands (which include the Northern Marianas and Guam.)
Iwo Jima is a small volcanic island 1220 kms off the coast of Japan, halfway between the Mariana Islands and Tokyo. It only spans 20 square kms and is covered in volcanic ash and sand. Mt Suribachi, a mostly dormant volcano, lies at the southwest end of the island.
It was deemed strategically significant by the JCOS, especially as a potential air base for B-29 “Superfortress” bomber raids on Tokyo. In October 1944, Nimitz began rallying his troops for an Iwo Jima invasion— known as Operation Detachment— also planning an Okinawa invasion.
General Nimitz had a total of around 70,000 troops, mostly belonging to the Navy and the Marines, along with a fleet of 11 warships. The command expected to have control over the island within four days.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had fortified the island of Iwo Jima. From May 1944, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi had been deputed to defend Iwo Jima, and he built a 21,000 strong garrison and a network of tunnels, gun sites and blockhouses (dug-in guard posts).
The battle of Iwo Jima and the photograph
After days of heavy bombardment via sea and air, American troops landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. Braving heavy gunfire from Japanese troops, and a kamikaze attack that severely damaged many U.S Naval vessels, the 28th Regiment secured Mt. Suribachi around four days into the fighting. U.S. soldiers raised the American flag on the summit of Mt. Suribachi twice— the second of these was on February 23. This was the moment immortalised by Associated Press photojournalist Joe Rosenthal in his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. The moment was also captured on film by Marine Sgt. Bill Genaust— killed in combat nine days later. Of the six men who raised the flag, three never returned from the battle.
Mr. Rosenthal’s photograph of the six soldiers planting the American flag over Iwo Jima made the front pages of many newspapers and became one of the most well-known images of the war. The image was also featured on a war-bond poster, helping to raise $26 billion in 1945 for the American war effort. It appeared on a postage stamp and was also the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. And it won Joe Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, a little more than two months after it was taken.
Mr. Rosenthal later related his own journey to capture the landmark shot, describing a trek up Mt Suribachi through volcanic ash with two soldiers, “sidestepping the numerous Japanese mines”, keeping clear of their own demolition squads.
“I began to wonder and hope that this was worth the effort, when suddenly over the brow of the topmost ridge we could spy men working with the flagpole they had so laboriously brought up about quarters of an hour ahead of us,” he said. Leaning back on the edge of the volcano’s rim, he tried to include everything he could into his frame, following up with a few more photographs of the group of cheering soldiers.
“The Marine history will record Iwo Jima as high as any in their many gallant actions in the Pacific,” he said, “I have two very vivid memories: The fury of their D-day assault and the thrill of that lofty flag-raising episode.”
The flag raising, of course, did not mark the end of the bloody battle. Fighting back fierce resistance from the Japanese, American troops finally secured the island on March 26, 1945, losing 6,800 soldiers in combat. The Japanese held out almost till their last men fell, losing 18,500 troops. According to some accounts, Lieutenant Genera Kuribayashi refused to surrender even in the end.
Of the six men who raised the flag over Iwo Jima, three were later killed in combat. Twenty-seven Medals of Honour (the highest award for bravery in the American military) were awarded to soldiers fighting in the battle of Iwo Jima.
“Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valour was a common virtue,” Admiral Nimitz is quoted as saying. After the war
After World War Two
Iwo Jima was returned to Japan in 1968 and is now officially known as Ioto, Japan. Japan maintains a military base on the island, and access to it is restricted without American or Japanese military permission. The island’s original residents, evacuated during the war, were not permitted to return, owing to the joint dangers of leftover artillery and volcanic activity.
The peak of Mt. Suribachi is scattered with a series of memorials— both Japanese and American. Joint U.S.-Japan memorial services are held each year to commemorate the anniversary of the battle, and former residents and veterans from either side visit the island to pay their respects.
Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid their respects in 1994— the first time a Japanese emperor had visited the island. In 2005, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi became the first to attend the memorial services.