On 19 February 1945 — 79 years ago today — the US Marine Corps began the bloody work of taking Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army. Casualties were extremely heavy — nearly 7,000 Americans killed and close to triple that number wounded. In today’s article, Capt. Dale A. Dye, U.S.M.C. (ret.) describes his experiences in visiting that historic volcanic island. 

Marines try to find cover in the volcanic sand on the Iwo Jima beach. A heavy rain of enemy fire comes from enemy positions on Mount Suribachi in the background. Image: U.S. Marine Corps

Unless you’re a Marine, it’s likely you don’t know that the Corps has its own version of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage that all Muslims are expected to make once during their lifetime. Devout Muslims make the trek to Mecca. Devout Marines — if they’re lucky enough — make a soul-stirring journey to Iwo Jima.


In this photograph, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took a film photograph of 4 U.S. Marines raising the flag of the United States of America on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in WW2. Part of the Pacific War, Iwo Jima was a volcanic island that had to be taken to provide P-51 Mustang escort fighter aircraft to Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress air raids on Japan. This helped to lead to the surrender of Japan and the Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day). 
U.S. Marines raise the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Image: Joe Rosenthal/A.P. (Public Domain)

It’s a rare opportunity for most Marines, but I’ve been blessed to make that Haj three times, walking the infamous black sands and standing on the very spot where five men back in 1945 raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi and created an image so timeless and impactful that it has come to visually define the Marine Corps. 

Setting My Path to Iwo Jima

My first visit to what is now called Iwo To by the Japanese government was really an accident. I was flying across the Pacific aboard a KC-130 that developed engine trouble and had to land on the sulfur island as a precaution. Say what you will about that Marine aircrew regarding flight safety and NATOPS procedures, but I’ll always believe they ginned up that detour just so they could say they’d been on Iwo Jima.


In this digital photograph, a lone Marine holds a M1 Garand rifle in a prone position as he protects the flank of a United States Marine Corps patrol making its way up the hill behind him. The Battle of Iwo Jima was largely the plan of United States Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and carried out by the 4th Marine Division and 5th Marine Division. 
A lone Marine covers the flank of a patrol making its way up Mount Suribachi. From this vantage point, the enemy had a clear view of the Marines landing on Iwo Jima. Image: Lou Lowery/U.S. Marine Corps

Back in those days of the mid-1960’s, there wasn’t much more than a small Japanese Self-Defense Force garrison and a detachment of US Coast Guard technicians running a Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) station on Iwo Jima. They seemed more interested in whacking golf balls into black sand traps than exploring the island’s pivotal place in World War II history. Not much to see in those days other than a few rusty relics and a chance to climb Mount Suribachi. 


This is a modern day view of the invasion beaches from Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. The United States Army Air Forces saw the island as being a good launching point for strategic bombing missions against the Empire of Japan. U.S. Navy Seabee construction battalions would later repair and upgrade the island's airports to support the US allies of World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy fought a largely defensive battle until the war's end.
A modern view of the Iwo Jima landing beaches from Mt. Suribachi. From frame lower right to center left: Beaches Green and Red (5th MarDiv) and then Yellow and Blue (4th MarDiv). Image: Dale A. Dye

But looking down from that perch over the volcanic beaches was still awe-inspiring for a Marine steeped in the lore of the Corps. For years, I longed to return, so I armed myself with maps and began a knee-deep study of the battle, hoping for a future opportunity. I went into research mode and learned a hell of a lot more than I was taught in boot camp history classes.


flamethrowers in action on Iwo Jima
Two Marines hit the deck to throw a scorching inferno at reinforced Japanese defenses that blocked the way to Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. Image: NARA

[Check out Tom Laemlein’s article on WW2 American flamethrowers.]

Contested Ground

On maps of the vast Western Pacific, Iwo Jima is a flyspeck located about 750 miles southeast of Tokyo, Japan. It’s part of the Volcano Islands south of the more familiar Marianas Islands (Guam, Saipan and Tinian) for geographic reference. And it turns out, early explorers — for reasons not explained — named the island after a grinding bowl used in Japanese cooking.


In this photo, two Marine infantrymen stay low in their trench while U.S. Navy ships continue the bombardment of the volcano island. Part of the United States Armed Forces amphibious warfare strategy, naval warfare typically included the use of battleship artillery hitting the blockhouse and pillboxes used by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Two Marines in a hole hastily dug from smoking sulphur rock stand ready to repel a Jananese counterattack on Iwo Jima. Image: Sgt. Bob Cooke/U.S. Marine Corps

Mount Suribachi is the highest point on the island at 554 feet above sea level. Otherwise, the eight square miles of Iwo Jima are relatively flat, featureless and composed mainly of dark volcanic sand. There are two other similar but smaller islands in the Volcano Group, but they were never contested during World War II. Iwo Jima proper — and later Okinawa — were the primary targets of the Allied powers slogging toward the Japanese homeland in early 1945.


In this photo, we can see the black sand of the Iwo Jima beaches today. Iwo Jima and Okinawa were two bloody battles necessary in the Pacific War. Lessons learned on the island of Iwo Jima were later applied to the preparations for the invasion and Battle of Okinawa. 
A view across the beach toward Mt. Suribachi. Plunging fire from this high position took a heavy toll on Marines attempting to push inland from all of the landing beaches. Image: Dale A. Dye

As usual in Allied strategy during the island-hopping campaigns of war in the Pacific, the focus was on airfields. Iwo Jima had three of them (designated Motoyama 1, 2 and 3), making the island an ideal fighter escort base as well as a refuge for bombers damaged during raids on the Japanese mainland.


In this photo, we see Marines with military radios or two-way radios moving with the attack inland. Defended by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Iwo Jima was one of the toughest battles in Marine Corps history. It took more than five weeks resulting in heavy losses of Navy and Marine servicemen.
Burdened with heavy packs and equipment, Marine communicators dash for cover during the inland drive from the Iwo beachhead. Image: Warrant Officer Obie Newcomb/U.S. Marine Corps

America’s new B-29 Super Fortress long-range, heavy-duty bombers had been striking Japanese home island targets since the summer of 1944, and these raids required escort by fighter aircraft that didn’t have the legs to reach Japan from more distant bases. Iwo was also an ideal location for damaged Super Forts to conduct controlled crashes or land for repairs before returning to airbases in the Marianas. Allied planners realized all this. So did the Japanese. 

There was also a certain last-ditch, face-saving element involved for the Imperial Japanese Forces reeling from defeat elsewhere in the Pacific. Iwo Jima was considered a part of Tokyo Prefecture. If Iwo fell, it would be the first part of the traditional homeland to be captured by their enemies. Iwo Jima had to be heavily defended, so they sent a couple of their best to fortify the island and command its defenders.


In this photo, a U.S. fighter flies over Mt. Suribachi. This was part of the Bonin Islands campaign in military history. In the Battle for Iwo Jima lasted until the end of the battle in the black volcanic sand that the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions had to slog through to achieve victory at Iwo Jima. 
Marines at Motoyama Airfield No. 1 are dwarfed by Mt. Suribachi. The highest point on the island was defended by the Japanese using honeycombed caves. Image: Pfc. Jack Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps

Lieutenant General Tadamishi Kuribayashi would command the soldiers and Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru, a naval aviator, commanded naval forces. Kuribayashi had better than two regiments of infantry, plus artillery and heavy mortar outfits, and a tank battalion on the island. Ichimaru controlled two large fighter units, a construction battalion and a bunch of coastal defense and AA units. It all amounted to around 20,000 Japanese defenders on the island. 


In this overhead photo of the island, we see Mount Suribachi at the south end. After Iwo Jima had been captured, the Marine Corps history division documented the anniversary of the battle with the Navy and Marine Corps. Iwo Jima's strategic importance has been questioned in recent years, but at the beginning of the battle, planting a flag on Iwo Jima seemed to be necessary.
Approaching Iwo Jima from the north for a landing at what was once Motoyama Airfield No. 1. Mount Suribachi is the high ground at the top (south) end of the eight-square-mile island. Image: Dale A. Dye

They went to work with tenacious defense as a single-minded purpose. All over Iwo’s eight square miles of volcanic ash, Japanese forces found, cleared and reinforced natural caves. They dug in like termites all over Mt. Suribachi at the island’s southern tip where the high ground dominated both of the island’s possible landing beaches.


In this digital reproduction of a photograph, we see Marines who landed on the island crawling through the sands of Iwo Jima. An epic battle, Iwo Jima provided a stepping stone to the ultimate invasion of mainland Japan. The Iwo Jima Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia is based on the second flag raised at the summit of Mount Suribachi. It was a larger flag in the popular Marines raising the American flag photos and video.
Fourth Marine Division Marines are briefly pinned down by enemy fire as they hit the beach at Iwo Jima on D-Day. Image: Tech Sgt. H. Neil Gillespie/U.S. Marine Corps

Every inch of those beaches was zeroed in for enfilading fire. Blockhouses and pillboxes flanked the landing areas. Machine guns were sighted for deadly interlocking fire. Rockets, anti-boat and anti-tank guns were emplaced with wide-open fields of fire. When the calendar flipped to 1945, the Japanese were ready. 

A Marine’s Second Look

With all this in mind and a set of copious notes, I visited the island for a second time as Marine Combat Correspondent based in Hawaii. It was coming up on the 45th anniversary of the Iwo Jima fight when I conned my way into a solo visit to the island by promising a feature story based on something nebulous like “the ghosts of Iwo Jima.” Call it hubris, but I thought I might somehow channel both defenders and attackers if I could spend a week or so crawling that old, remote and relatively unchanged battlefield.


In this photo we see a U.S. Marine with a M1 Carbine that has a rifle grenade attachment and ammunition. Behind him is another Marine carrying a 12 gauge shotgun. These were common firearms carried by American troops in this part of the island. 
Determination written on their faces, Marines start the drive to the interior of Iwo Jima. Image: Warrant Officer Newcomb/U.S. Marine Corps

The first thing I noticed was the smell. There’s an obvious and odious miasma that hangs over Iwo Jima. It’s no wonder Marines and others called it sulfur island. The place reeks of that element and reminds constantly that you’re walking around on a dormant volcano. Seeking escape from the heat and odors, I climbed Mount Suribachi and stood on the spot where a patrol from the 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division raised the American flag.


Here we see a Japanese anti-aircraft gun emplacement on the island. The gun also worked as an anti-tank gun. It was a variation of a French Hotchkiss design. 
Remains of a Type 96 25mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank cannon emplaced near Motoyama Airfield No. 1. It is a Japanese variant of the French Hotchkiss 25mm AA gun. Image: Dale A. Dye

There’s a monument up there marking that spot where AP correspondent Joe Rosenthal took his immortal still photo of the flag-raisers. Those included Pima Indian Ira Hayes, immortalized much later by a popular Johnny Cash song that could have been the original anthem for PTSD.


Shown here is one of several Iwo Jima memorials. The Marines on Iwo Jima sacrificed a great deal in their amphibious landing on Iwo Jima. The importance of the island is debated by historians today, but the decision to invade Iwo Jima seemed obvious to many at the time. It was no emergency landing, but a planned operation.
A monument to one of the battle’s unsung heroes: Sgt. Bill Genaust. A Marine Combat Photographer, he shot 16mm color film of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi. Sgt. Genaust was KIA. Image: Dale A. Dye

And I thought about a lesser-known photographer who also captured that drama. Marine Sergeant Bill Genaust shot 16mm color film of the flag-raising. His brief view was eventually shown as a patriotic trailer in theaters all across the nation and later became a standard in early TV signoffs. Genaust was killed on Iwo and his body never recovered. 

Picking up a white basalt rock from the flag-raising summit, I stepped down a bit onto a ledge that overlooked the landing beaches and sat thinking about the V (Fifth) Amphibious Corps (Marine Major General Harry Schmidt) and the units that bobbed around in LVTs on the morning of 19 February 1945.


We see naval gunfire hitting Japanese positions at the base of the volcano. In the foreground is a U.S. Marine waiting for the firing to lift so he can move forward.
Marines blast Japanese positions near the base of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Image: Pvt. Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps

Below me, stretching from southwest to northeast were beaches Green and Red (5th Marine Division/Major General Keller Rockey), Yellow and Blue (4th Marine Division/Major General Clifton Cates) over which some 70,000 US Marines — including the 3rd Marine Division (Major General Graves Erskine) in Corps reserve — would eventually land on this porkchop-shaped island.


In this photo we see a collection of Marine officers going over the invasion plan of the capture of Iwo Jima ahead of D-Day. Once the battle started, the seizure of Iwo Jima was certain due to good planning and the dedication of the men sent to carry out the invasion plan. Letters from Iwo Jima told tales painted a grim picture of commonplace valor and heroism. 
Maj. Gen. Clifton Cates with his executive staff and regiment commanders in a final conference aboard ship before the Iwo Jima landings started. Image: U.S. Marine Corps

Iwo Jima had been blasted and pummeled from air and sea for weeks prior, which tore away at Japanese positions above ground but hardly touched the maze of underground fortifications. That left the assaulting Marines with just one tactic — frontal assault.

At Great Cost…

D-Day was nothing short of a bitch-kitty for those men as they struggled for traction over the shifting, slippery black sand of the landing beaches. One step up and three steps back just to reach the beach plateau.


In this photograph we see reinforced concrete bunkers that were part of Iwo Jima even today. During the defense of Iwo Jima, these strongpoints made tough work for the Marines tasked with taking the island. Iwo Jima would claim the lives of thousands of US and Japanese men.
A cluster of defensive bunkers atop Hill 362-B, a strong point near a site known as Bloody Gorge. It was one of the last and most ferocious set-piece battles on Iwo Jima. Image: Dale A. Dye

Fighting their way through constant enemy fire and high-explosive raining down on their helmeted heads, plus mass confusion on overcrowded beaches, littered with burning and wrecked landing craft, the assault elements lost nearly 600 killed and some 1,800 wounded that morning while barely getting a toehold on Iwo.


The wreckage of landing craft along the shoreline on the second day of the battle testifies to the stiff opposition put up by the defending Japanese. Image: Cpl. Eugene Jones/U.S. Marine Corps
The wreckage of landing craft along the shoreline on the second day of the battle testifies to the stiff opposition put up by the defending Japanese. Image: Cpl. Eugene Jones/U.S. Marine Corps

One of those who died on a black sand beach was Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on Guadalcanal. He didn’t have to be there on Iwo, but Manila John wanted to be where he could use his experience to help others survive.


Marine spotters in a forward OP located an enemy machine gun nest and call in artillery and mortar fire. Image: Cpl. John T. Dreyfuss/U.S. Marine Corps
Marine spotters in a forward OP located an enemy machine gun nest and call in artillery and mortar fire. Image: Cpl. John T. Dreyfuss/U.S. Marine Corps

February 19 was just the first of 36 bloody days it took to secure Iwo Jima. Below my perch on Suribachi were other infamous battle sites such as the Quarry, the Amphitheater, Turkey Knob, Hills 362A, B and C, and the Motoyama airstrips. As much as possible, those were the sites I wanted to explore.

A Lonely Pilgrimage

America had returned Iwo Jima to the Japanese in 1968, but the government in Tokyo didn’t show much interest in the restored island at first. Quasi-official visitors like me were pretty much left on their own to explore. And a military history nerd like me knew where to do that. I crawled through numerous caves that still contained rusty weapons, ammo and little housekeeping items like teacups, canteens, molding equipment and green IJA-issue sake bottles. 


A typical bunker guarding the area of Motoyama Airfield No. 3 which was still being built by Japanese naval construction workers when Marines assaulted Iwo Jima in February 1945. Image: Dale A. Dye
A typical bunker guarding the area of Motoyama Airfield No. 3, which was still being built by Japanese naval construction workers when Marines assaulted Iwo Jima in February 1945. Image: Dale A. Dye

Under some rocks in a cave at the base of Hill 362-A, I found two blue and white porcelain mess tins marked with the anchor and rising sun symbol of the Rikusentai, or Japanese Special Naval Landing Force. Apparently, Admiral Ichimaru had some of his own Marines on the island to face their American counterparts. 


Artifacts remained in the Iwo Jima underground bunker complex believed to be the final command post of Japanese General Kuribayashi. The heat this far under the surface was intense. Image: Dale A. Dye
Artifacts remained in the Iwo Jima underground bunker complex believed to be the final command post of Japanese General Kuribayashi. The heat this far under the surface was intense. Image: Dale A. Dye

Practically everywhere in caves and crumbling fortifications, detritus of men at war lay where it had fallen or been discarded more than two decades earlier. Most of it was Japanese origin, including the rusting hulks of heavy-caliber guns like the ubiquitous Type 92 “woodpecker” and it’s lighter Nambu cousins. There were many caves too thoroughly blasted or threatening to collapse, which limited exploration.


A Japanese POW (middle) tries to talk other Japanese soldiers out of caves. Image: U.S. Marine Corps
A Japanese POW (middle) tries to talk other Japanese soldiers out of caves. Image: U.S. Marine Corps

Much of the work on Iwo Jima to winkle Japanese defenders out of hiding was done by flamethrowers followed by demolitions or a barrage of heavy-caliber direct fire. But there were enough navigable fortifications above and below ground to give an explorer a nasty close-up look at what fighting must have entailed for attackers and defenders. 


The entrance to what is believed to be one of General Kuribayashi’s command posts on Iwo Jima. This one is extensive and winds deep into Iwo Jima’s sweltering interior. Image: Dale A. Dye
The entrance to what is believed to be one of General Kuribayashi’s command posts on Iwo Jima. This one is extensive and winds deep into Iwo Jima’s sweltering interior. Image: Dale A. Dye

A map developed by the Marine Corps after the fighting pointed me to a deep cave complex that was presumed to be General Kuribayashi’s command post. It had been hard hit during the fighting in 1945. Heavy chunks of shrapnel from 16-inch naval shells littered a scorched area around the entrance, but if you were willing to crawl down the tunnels on your belly, you got a close-up look at how the Japanese lived underground.


Forget cell phones on Iwo. The only way I had to report to my sponsors during the Reunion of Honor event in 2003 was a satellite phone. Image: Dale A. Dye
Forget cell phones on Iwo. The only way I had to report to my sponsors during the Reunion of Honor event in 2003 was a satellite phone. Image: Dale A. Dye

The cave was full of little nooks, crannies and antechambers, and you always felt like you were headed downward, deeper and deeper into the guts of Iwo Jima. And the deeper you got, the hotter it was. Never mind the shells, bombs and rockets, just breathing in that cave complex was a chore. And in the deepest chamber, a broad rock platform surrounded by shredded wires and remnants of Japanese field phones. Probably where the General received field reports and studied his maps. 


Navy corpsmen administer to wounded Marines at an aid station established in a gully on Iwo Jima. Image: Warrant Officer Obie Newcomb/U.S. Marine Corps
Navy corpsmen administer to wounded Marines at an aid station established in a gully on Iwo Jima. Image: Warrant Officer Obie Newcomb/U.S. Marine Corps

At the end of my second visit to Iwo, following a week of spelunking and study of the battle sights at the infantryman’s level, I was in awe of the official butcher’s bill. It was staggering even in comparison to other bloody Pacific battles: 5,931 Marine KIA, 17,272 Marine WIA on the American side of the ledger.


Three Leathernecks carry a wounded comrade to an evacuation point on the Iwo Jima beachhead. Image: Cpl. Eugene Jones/U.S. Marine Corps
Three Leathernecks carry a wounded comrade to an evacuation point on the Iwo Jima beachhead. Image: Cpl. Eugene Jones/U.S. Marine Corps

The U.S. Navy lost almost 900 sailors with another 1,900+ wounded. The escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) sunk after being hit by five bomb and kamikaze attacks. The carriers USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Lunga Point (CVE-94) were also damaged by kamikaze attacks. In total, 18 U.S. ships and gunboats were damaged or sunk during the invasion.


Catholic Mass is celebrated on Iwo Jima. Two Marines wearing helmets shield the improvised altar from high winds that rake the volcano summit. Image: Sgt. Lou R. Burmeister/U.S. Marine Corps
Catholic Mass is celebrated on Iwo Jima. Two Marines wearing helmets shield the improvised altar from high winds that rake the volcano summit. Image: Sgt. Lou R. Burmeister/U.S. Marine Corps

Japanese defenders lost nearly everyone involved in the battle. Barely a thousand of 20,000 original defenders survived. Most committed suicide or eventually crawled out to surrender after a few weeks of starvation. And some of them held out by raiding Allied positions at night for water and provisions. The last two surviving Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima surrendered on 6 January 1949 four years after the battle ended. 

The Final Step

The third and last time I visited Iwo Jima was to attend something called the Reunion of Honor during which American veterans of that battle were transported to the island to meet with families of Japanese soldiers or sailors who died in the fighting. It was a different trip in a lot of ways. No cave-crawling allowed these days, and the Japanese Self Defense Forces have beefed up their presence significantly.


Marines of the 5th Marine Division with a captured Japanese flag on Iwo Jima. Image: Staff Sgt. M.A. Cornelius/U.S. Marine Corps
Marines of the 5th Marine Division with a captured Japanese flag on Iwo Jima. Image: Staff Sgt. M.A. Cornelius/U.S. Marine Corps

Now civilian access to the island is restricted to things like the Reunion of Honor and other memorial services for the American and Japanese fallen, visits by construction workers and the occasional foray by technicians from various meteorological agencies. And sometimes Marine or Navy Squadrons cruising in the Western Pacific are permitted to use the island’s expanded and improved airstrips for practice carrier landings. Battlefield exploration, souvenir hunting and cave crawling are strictly forbidden.


The author with his wife Julia Dye at the 5th Marine Division monument on Iwo Jima. Image: Dale A. Dye
The author with his wife Julia at the 5th Marine Division monument on Iwo Jima. Image: Dale A. Dye

But I’d gotten in under that wire at least twice and, as I watched a Battalion Landing Team from Okinawa land in modern AAVs (Amphibious Assault Vehicles) across the black sand to honor the surviving vets and complete their own version of the Marine Corps Haj, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I’d discovered on that reeking sulfur island. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz had it right. “Among those who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

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