The Price of Courage: The Battle of Iwo Jima – Part One: Fortress Sulfur Island

The Price of Courage: The Battle of Iwo Jima – Part One: Fortress Sulfur Island

January 10, 2016 0 By phoenixgenesis®

The Battle of Iwo Jima stands as one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The United States Marines lost 6,000 troops on the tiny island, along with 20,000 wounded and 2,000 cases of combat fatigue (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island a mere thousand survived to be captured.

A study of Iwo Jima illustrates the weakness of the Marines’ belief that there were no individual heroes there. Although a coordinated team effort helped overcome immense obstacles, the special valor of each man who fought there carried the day.

The Milo Fisher Collection establishes this argument to a great extent. Housed today in the University of Tennessee‘s World War II Veteran’s Project (an adjunct of the school’s Center for the Study of War and Society), this file contains reminiscences of the men who took Iwo. Their eyewitness testimony allows for a greater understanding of the tremendous effort necessary to capture the island.

In quoting from the files in the Fisher collection, the bravery and everyday heroism of these once-young Marines comes through. Through their words they provide the greatest tribute to their accomplishment possible.


By the end of 1944, the empire conquered by Japan at the outset of World War II no longer existed. From the Coral Sea and Midway to Saipan and the Philippines American forces slowly rolled back the Iron Perimeter. By this time the American high command planned all campaigns to bring their forces ever closer to the invasion of the Japanese home islands that was intended to be the concluding battle of the war.

To Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, at least one future point of the American island-hopping strategy was obvious. In the late 1920s, as a military attache at the Japanese embassy in Washington, he had bought a car and toured the nation now at war with his own. Impressed with the industrial might of the United States, he never doubted that the Americans would be difficult to defeat in a war. Writing to his family during his posting to Washington, he told them that “the United States is the last country in the world that Japan should fight.” Despite Kuribayashi’s views Japan did fight the U.S. and he now prepared for battle on his own garrison. He was now the commander of Japanese forces on Iwo Jima.

A pork chop-shaped island of only seven and a half square miles, Iwo Jima lies about 700 miles south of the Japanese home islands. Japan gained control of Iwo in the 1860s and all of its civilian population of around 1,100 were of Japanese descent. Its name means “sulfur island” in Japanese; with no harbors or even sources of fresh water, only its rich sulfur deposits made it of any value whatsoever. Boats had to bring in its supplies from tankers anchored in the island’s rough waters.

The outstanding feature of this small landmass is Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano at its southwestern end. This means that Iwo has volcanic ash for soil, which made it almost impossible for trenches to be dug. In 1940 a military airstrip was built there; the following year the Japanese navy mounted guns there.

Overall, the war affected Iwo little until 1944. That spring new contingents of soldiers and sailors arrived from the mainland to reinforce the garrison. Soon the island had a second airfield and a rapidly-growing number of troops. The garrison would reach 21,000 by early 1945. The Japanese also shipped a variety of new arms from rifles to artillery to antiaircraft guns.

Starting with the American attack on Saipan in June 1944, Iwo was the objective of an increasing number of American flights. Most were bombing raids but others were intelligence flights which took several photographs allowing the American command to plan the upcoming invasion.

Despite the advantage these photos gave the Americans in planning their landing they had a drawback: not all of Iwo’s defenses could be spotted from planes. This was because of an innovative defense devised by Kuribayashi. The general was tempted to follow the advice of a staff officer and sink the island with explosives. Instead, his eventual plan made the landmass an important part of Japan’s defenses. This scheme made the island a virtual fortress.

Shunning two traditional forms of Japanese warfare – pillboxes on beaches and banzai charges – as too costly and inefficient, Kuribayashi used an underground strategy which took advantage of the large number of caves on Iwo. Despite intense subterranean heat the Japanese dug an elaborate system of tunnels which connected caves across the island. Using concrete and wood to reinforce and support these structures they tore down every wooden building to supply much of the necessary timber. A navy contingent built some bunkers and blockhouses connected to the tunnels so that men could be sent wherever they were needed. Some tanks on the island became stationary positions as well; the turrets made excellent locations for artillery crews to operate. Finally, the island was mined.

Kuribayashi’s plan ensured that each one of his men killed as many Americans as possible, thus delaying or possibly ending the threat of invasion of the home islands. He entertained no illusions about survival. Under his scheme “every man will resist until the end, making his position his tomb.”


The Americans who planned the invasion did not prepare for mass suicide on Iwo. They were more concerned with a struggle going on between the American commanders in the Pacific.

General Douglas MacArthur led a land-based force which was then in the process of retaking the Philippines. He now planned to invade Formosa (Taiwan), then to march on Japanese-occupied China with a larger force. From there he expected to invade Japan. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander of the combined Navy-Marine force moving in a more northerly direction, had different ideas.

To Nimitz, Iwo Jima was the logical next target for the Allied thrust toward Japan. It lay close to the home islands and would be an excellent base for American bombing raids over Japan. In addition, the big bombers would never again be shot down by planes from Iwo.

In a meeting at Nimitz’s headquarters in Honolulu, he and his staff convinced Admiral Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations, that Iwo was easier to secure and needed fewer men than did Formosa. King gave his assent and won the approval of the Combined Chiefs of Staff for the campaign. Nimitz proudly informed his staff that Iwo Jima was the next stop on what he referred to as “the Tokyo Express.”

A command structure was quickly set up for the invasion force. Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commander of the 5th Fleet, and Real Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of V Amphibious Force, were placed in charge of 800 ships and landing craft. Because the landing force would consist almost entirely of Marines, a commander from that service was appointed.

Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith was the choice. Although Smith insisted his nickname, “Howlin’ Mad,” came from its similarity to his real name, he was beloved by his men for his willingness to fight for them whenever he believed they deserved better than they got.

The Marine contingent consisted of three divisions. These were the 3rd, commanded by Major General Graves B. Erskine; the 4th, led by Major General Clifton B. Cates; and the 5th, under Major General Keller E. Rockey. This trio of division constituted Major General Harry Schmidt‘s V Amphibious Corps.

The most important component of the invasion force was the Marines who would do the actual fighting and dying on Iwo. From his first day in boot camp each Marine recruit had a set of ideas drummed into his head to give him the essential esprit de corps. This training can be best summed up “as a kind of threat: they were the greatest fighting men in the world and they had better never do anything to discredit their standing.”

The humiliation they endured at boot camp was a stronger memory for many Marines than any of their battle experiences. Still, the most important aspect of the training was the vivid teaching of effective battle techniques in a short number of weeks.

In addition, a Marine did not go through boot camp or fight alone; he learned to see himself as a part of a machine. If he did not do his job properly the entire operation would not work as well as possible. The new Marine learned that if he failed to perform his duty in battle he let down not only himself but all the men with whom he fought as well. This atmosphere bred the close-knit group of men who made the Marines the effective fighting force they were in the Pacific Theater.

These young men needed such solidarity for many of them had heard what Corporal Gene Jones heard on his first day of boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina:

A hard little corporal, who was about nineteen and had a Purple Heart and two battle scars, looked us in the eye and the first thing he said was, “I promise that 60 percent of you will be casualties within the year, and most of you will be killed.”

The preparations for the invasion, once planned for January 1945 but now pushed back to February 19, entered their final phase. The Marines learned the Japanese equivalents of such phrases as “Surrender!,” “We won’t murder you!” and “Shut up!”

Far more important preparations went on near the island itself. The naval bombardment of Iwo Jima continued unabated. Smith knew this was absolutely necessary to hold casualties to a bare minimum. In a conference at Nimitz’s headquarters shortly before the planned D-Day, Smith asked the admiral how many days of shelling he could expect from the Navy. Spruance informed him that he would get three days’ worth because of bad weather. He controlled his anger but was obvious he was displeased:

Damn it, Ray, three days won’t do the job. I need at least ten days of battleship and cruiser and carrier plastering. Otherwise the carnage will be unbelievable… our losses will be horrible regardless of what we do.

Years later Smith recalled his feelings after learning the news: “I was not afraid of the outcome of the battle. I knew we would win. We always had. But contemplation of the cost in lives caused me many sleepless nights.” Nevertheless, on February 19, 1945 the convoy carrying the invasion force sailed for Iwo Jima.

Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis

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