Iwo Jima: Epic Battle for a Tiny Rock

EYEWITNESS 50 YEARS AGO

I FIRST heard of Iwo Jima in the fall of 1944 in Hawaii when a fellow lieutenant in the Marine Corps tossed a monograph across the table and said: ``Take a look at this - our next objective!'' Our division, the 4th, had just returned from capturing the Japanese-held islands of Saipan and Tinian. Before that, as part of Admiral Nimitz's amphibious drive through the central Pacific, we had fought on the coral atoll of Kwajalein.

Wars do funny things to people. At the time of Pearl Harbor, I was a reporter for a small daily newspaper in Maine, the farthest part of the United States from Japan. Personally, I had never seen a Japanese individual. But the Navy trained me in Japanese and I was soon translating captured documents and interrogating prisoners.

The 4th Division had been battered and we considered ourselves experienced in combat. But as we studied the secret intelligence information about Iwo Jima, we realized this might be the toughest of all.

We called it ``The Inevitable Island.'' Iwo lay midway between Tokyo and Tinian and Saipan, from which our B-29 bombers were taking off nightly to bomb Japan. From this tiny rock, 2.5-by-5 miles at its widest points, set in the vast expanse of the Pacific, Japanese fighter planes attacked our bombers and relayed word to defenses on the home islands that the bombers were coming.

Furthermore, with Iwo Jima in our hands, the lumbering bombers could have fighter escort to Tokyo. Clearly to pursue the war to Japan, Iwo Jima had to be taken.

As we studied intelligence data and pictures taken of Iwo by our planes and submarines, it became obvious that Iwo was heavily fortified already and hastily being made more so. The photos showed concrete being poured and pillboxes and bunkers sprouting on the island.

We stopped for a practice landing at Tinian, which we had left only five months before. Its aspect was completely changed. The Seabees had built huge runways of coral side by side across the north end. We watched the B-29s slowly climbing out on their long haul to Japan, even as the Enola Gay was to do less than six months later.

Attack day comes

Then the day came. We sailed straight west as if headed for the China coast, to confuse the lurking enemy submarines. At midnight the great convoy turned 90 degrees and headed for Iwo Jima.

The fleet kept radio silence, but one disturbing incoming message, which quickly made the rounds, said that American destroyers and rocket ships covering frogmen attempting underwater demolition work on the waterline defenses had taken extremely heavy Japanese fire. That day, open-air church services on the bow of our slowly rolling transport were heavily attended. D-Day was the next morning.

Breakfast on a troop transport the day of combat is an unforgettable experience. It starts around 2 a.m., although from midnight on sleep is impossible. The transport was alive with activity - buzzers buzzing, chains clanking, boats being lowered, sailors about on deck.

The Navy goes all out to serve a good meal - your choice of steak, eggs, and pancakes, as much as you can eat. The trouble was, not many felt like eating, even though we realized that this meal could be our last.

From the deck in the darkness we watched the shellfire. The battleships were easiest to spot. A great orange belch shot from triple gun turrets, then three tiny yellow fireballs floated close to the water until they slammed into the island.

I will never forget that dawn. The sun rose from the sea in a great yellow ball. Then through the smoke and haze the island itself became visible, like some giant, dark sea monster floating on the surface. Only then did I see that Iwo Jima was fighting back. Two huge geysers of water spouted up on either side of a US cruiser close to us and she made a high speed turn to get out of the way.

After that it was down the cargo net and into small boats for what seemed hours of circling in the choppy seas, soaked with spray coming over the sides. We had a radio man aboard and got reports of what was happening ashore. The first waves went in behind a curtain of naval gunfire almost unopposed.

But as subsequent waves hit the black sand beach, Japanese guns and mortars opened up and casualties mounted. We knew there were trenches on the beach at Iwo and that the sand was volcanic, but I wasn't prepared for what I stepped into. I went over my boot tops as I ran up the slope in the porous, soft, slippery sand.

Jumped in first crater

I jumped into the first bomb crater I found, but I was not the first to get there. I found two dead Marines already in it. The beach was being raked by direct fire from 5-inch guns in a line of pillboxes on our right flank. We could actually watch the muzzle blasts and a split second later see the shell burst among us.

These guns were silenced only after direct naval gunfire dug out the soft volcanic soil under them and the huge concrete-block houses toppled forward into uselessness. My division pivoted right and headed slowly up the wider part of the island. For almost a month we were hammered steadily by mortar and shellfire, plus the occasional explosion from what became know to the Marines as ``Screaming Mimi,'' a 320-millimeter spigot mortar with a 675-pound warhead that announced its coming with an ear-splitting scream.

On our left, the 5th Marine Division drove across the narrow neck of the island south of the airfield and began scaling the side of Mount Suribachi. At about D plus four days someone nearby shouted: ``Hey, look at the flag!'' We looked back and there atop Suribachi we saw the Stars and Stripes flying. It was a boost for morale, for it meant we would no longer have to worry about enemy fire from our rear. But then we shrugged and got back to the slow and deadly task of fighting the almost invisible enemy to our front.

Some months before our landing the Japanese command at Iwo Jima had shifted from Capt. Tsunezo Wachi of the Navy to Army Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. A tactical argument broke out, over whether to defend Iwo at the beach front or in depth from the network of caves and bunkers in the center of the island. Captain Wachi, who had been transferred back to Japan and thus survived the war, and with whom I later became well acquainted, told me that when the Japanese high command could not reach a decision, it was referred to their ally, Nazi Germany's military leaders. Germany recommended defense in depth, but by then the question was moot because the Japanese had been digging at both places, and the island was almost completely fortified everywhere.

The battle lasted a full month, even after it had been declared ``secure.'' I recall coming under Japanese rifle fire as we embarked in small boats to board our transports for home. For the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima, there was no doubt in our minds that the Japanese defenders had been a tenacious, skilled, and brave fighting force.

For many years after the battle, the US flag flew day and night atop Suribachi. A small American monument was erected on the crest. After Iwo Jima was handed back to the Japanese, they built their own monument in black marble alongside the American one. Today both monuments are cared for under the supervision of the Japan-American Society in Tokyo.

Last month in Tokyo, I had a warm reunion with my old, dear friend, former Japanese Naval Lt. Toshihiko Ohno. Ohno-San, cut off for weeks in a cave alone on Iwo, emerged a full month after the Marines had left the island. American fighter planes were then escorting our bombers to Tokyo and damaged superfortresses were being saved from crashing into the sea by landing at the new US airstrip on Iwo.

Ohno had three grenades and tried to blow himself up along with several American fliers. When each grenade failed to explode, he was overpowered and taken prisoner.

After war, friends

Fifty years ago had we met, Ohno and I would have tried to kill each other. We were at war. Our governments had ordered us to fight one another. Since then we have been fast friends and our now extended families feel the same way. For us Iwo Jima and its horrors are a memory from the past. We didn't speak much about Iwo during our get-together. We talked about our families and our plans for the future. And we were agreed in the hope that the future leaders of our two great nations can conduct themselves so wisely that such a tragedy between our countries can never happen again.

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