The Price of Courage: The Battle of Iwo Jima – Part Five: Uncommon ValorMarch 13, 2016
D+18, March 9, marked the beginning of the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima. On that day a small patrol from the 3rd Division marched to the northern shores of the island.
As the patrol waded into the surf a canteen was sent back to the divisional commander, General Erskine, to prove their breakthrough. The container was labeled “For inspection, not consumption,” for it held water from this beach.
Kuribayashi now made his last stand in a large gorge known to the Marines as Death Valley. Flamethrowers burned through the area one cave or pillbox at a time and the area was almost impossible to reach with explosives.
On D+23 General Schmidt presided at a ceremony in which an American flag was run up a few hundred yards north of Suribachi. A proclamation from Admiral Nimitz was read which officially took possession of the island for the United States.
Despite the ceremony a few areas of Japanese resistance remained to be conquered. Kenneth Stockburger told of one of the last targets his flamethrower tank attacked:
About D+22 we were going off ahead of the infantry to burn out a
cave they were getting lots of resistance from… As we got up to the
proper distance so that we could reach the cave with our flame-
thrower, we had to traverse the turret to the left in order to hit
Just as we got ready to fire, a mine went off, and much to our sorrow
we were sitting on it… an electrically-controlled one. We were not
hurt, although this mine blew five blocks out the track on the tank.
Then of course we were unable to move either way.
The crew went ahead and burned out the cave,
but of course that wasn’t all that was left on the island. These
other Nips would try to get at us with suitcases [satchel charges].
But with the help of another tank behind us (and we still had two
machine guns), we were able to kill all of them, though we did
have to stay in that spot for four and one-half hours until the
infantry could catch up with us to give us protection while we
tied the tank to the other one, which pulled us to safety.
The next day Corporal Iven W. Riggle’s tank unit left at 5 A.M. To burn out a fair number of the caves in a gorge. Riggle told a friend that morning that “I had a feeling our luck had just run out and that someone was likely to get hurt today…”
As the crew went about its mission, everything looked routine. Riggle recalled that
I had just turned the turret left and sent a spray of flame at a cave when
we got a jar that was out of this world. The power was knocked loose
and the flame was cut off. A Suitcase Charlie had slapped a shape
charge on the side of our tank. We started to back out and he slapped
two more on the front slope plate of our tank.
We backed out a little way and ran into a bank and then checked to
see who was hurt… My feet felt like they were blown off. I got an
artery cut in my right leg. One piece (of shrapnel) hit my foot and
cut my big toe off. We finished our mission and shot hell out of
everything we could see, and then moved out of there.
There were also disasters not entirely of the enemy’s making. Tony Tanheimer was present at one such occasion on D+24. Having gotten permission to reconnoiter the area where his unit was currently bivouacked, he stopped near a cave where a diesel-fuel pressure pump was being tested. This high-powered flamethrower would shoot the fuel, then ignite it. Two engineers operated the contraption.
As the fuel was being sprayed into the cave it suddenly exploded and
a cloud of flame shot out of the cave entrance and fifty or more
feet into the air. The two engineers were directly in the flame path
and it hit them with all its force. The other men were in a semi-
circle about a hundred feet away. I’ve never seen a bunch of men
move faster, me included. Men were stumbling in and out of
foxholes, dropping weapons, and trying to get the hell out of
there, away from the heat.
[The two engineers] were burned beyond recognition. Their bodies
were charred and yellow. Their cries for help were pitiful. The
stench of burning flesh was sickening, something I will never forget.
The ambulance jeep finally arrived and the two men were rushed
to the hospital, but there were beyond medical aid and died the next
morning. At the time, shoving that stupid invention down the Major’s
[the inventor] throat would have been a pleasure.
The battle wound down. The last elimination of a Japanese stronghold occurred on D+34, March 25. The next day, Kuribayashi, still determined to kill as many Americans as possible, led an attack which killed a large number of his troops. The general had finally consented to a banzai charge. He received a minor wound in the battle and chose to commit seppuku.
Admiral Toshinosuke Ishimaru, the commander of the naval forces that fought on Iwo, died about this same time from machine-gun fire. He left behind a letter written in English and Japanese to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he accused the United States of setting up a “barbaric world monopoly” in league with the Soviet Union. The Japanese had striven heroically to prevent this catastrophe. He hoped his letter would be discovered by the Americans and it was. Today it is encased at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. The battle for Iwo Jima was now over.
On March 17, Admiral Nimitz declared (a bit prematurely) that “the battle of Iwo Island has been won” and he summed up what has become the consensus about the campaign: “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Milo Fisher stated in the paper “Defensive Positions” that “as a whole, this was the best-defended, most well-organized, and most difficult objective this force has operated against. The location and organization of the defenses was the best tactically yet encountered.”
The high morale of the Marines counteracted some of the toll the battle took on them. Many agreed with Ed Paxson that Iwo was “the little island that meant so much to bringing peace to the world. We were ready to pitch our wits, and even sacrifice our lives, just for that one thing which we all wanted so dearly, Peace.”
In all, 27 of the 353 Congressional Medal of Honor winners in World War II earned the award on Iwo Jima, 13 posthumously. Paxson assured “the mothers and fathers who lost their sons [at Iwo]… that they should and can always be proud of the job in which their sons played.”
Holland Smith took immense pride in the success of his men on Iwo and found a military lesson in the campaign: “Iwo Jima proved the falsity of theory that regiments or battalions that are decimated can never win battles.”
The tiny island became the site for hundreds of emergency landings for B-29s on bombing raids over Japan or returning from such missions. Most importantly, Iwo demonstrated the capacity for individual valor Marines had in spite of their training to work as a team.
Although more hardship lay ahead of the Marines in the Pacific, most agreed with the judgment of Robert McIntyre when he wrote that “I hope other fellows won’t have to go through an operation like Iwo Jima again.”
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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