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The Battle of Iwo Jima: Securing the beachhead


By 19 February 1945 Iwo Jima had already endured the longest and most intensive aerial attack delivered in the Pacific during the Second World War.

It had started with a carrier raid in June 1944 and Seventh Air Force’s B-24 Liberator bombers stationed on the Marianas Islands began a six-month bombing campaign in August. The frequency and intensity of the air raids steadily increased and Marine B-25 medium bombers started their own raids in early December from new bases on the Marianas. Fighters also carried out low-level attacks, often targeting Japanese ships delivering troops and supplies to the island; 23 ships were sunk, leaving the garrison short of many essential items.

At 07:25 on 19 February the launching warning signal was given and 20 minutes later 482 amtracs loaded with the first wave of eight battalions turned towards the shore. The navy gunners set their shells for ground bursts while the rocket craft fired another salvo at the beaches and mortar boats shelled the surrounding area.

At 08:05 the naval guns stopped firing and the ships moved closer to the shore; it was time for Admiral Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Force to do its bit. As the LVTs neared shore, the Marines watched as 72 fighter and bomber planes flew low overhead, strafing, firing rockets and dropping bombs. Another 48 fighters followed, dropping napalm, firing more rockets and more strafing. Admiral Rodgers’ battleships resumed their bombardment as soon as the planes left the area.

At 09:02 the first wave of LVT(A)s hit the beaches of Iwo Jima. The crews discovered that they could not drive their vehicles up the steep terraces behind the beaches; they were also too high for them to give supporting fire. As they withdrew into the water in search of inland targets, the first wave of LCVPs hit the beach and lowered their ramps, allowing hundreds of Marines to step ashore along the 3500-metre wide strip of dark volcanic sand. The time was 09:05.

For the first few minutes Japanese resistance was light and the Marines were relieved to find that there were no obstacles or minefields along the beach. Units quickly reorganised and clambered up the first terrace, finding it hard to walk as their feet sank into the volcanic ash. For a few minutes all was calm and as the first wave advanced inland, some wondered if the naval gunfire and air bombardment had subdued the Japanese. It had not. They were being watched from dozens of hidden bunkers and emplacements. Artillery and mortar crews, machine-gun teams and snipers waited with their fingers on their triggers as the Marines moved tentatively forward.

Suddenly the guns and mortars on Suribachi and the northern plateau opened fired at registered targets along the beach. At the same time the men who had sat out the bombardment in their concealed pillboxes and caves opened fire with machine guns and rifles. In a matter of minutes the whole beachhead was under fire as the Marines scrambled for cover behind the beach terraces or in bomb craters.

Squad leaders and platoon commanders did what they could to rally their men and get them to locate the Japanese bunkers but casualties were mounting and units were disintegrating. For the time being, men took orders to advance from the nearest officer or squad leader. They engaged anything in range and little by little the Marines edged forward.

However, wave after wave of men and vehicles were coming shore, adding to the congestion and confusion along the water’s edge. As jeeps and trucks bogged down in the soft sand, artillery and mortar shells rained down on the landing craft, many of which were swamped or broached on the shoreline and their crews joined the Marines in their battle to advance inland.

The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted until 26 March. It cost over 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead, and it was the only US Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded those of the Japanese. However, of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers on the island it was believed that over 21,000 died from fighting or ritual suicide.

Extracted from Battle Story: Iwo Jima 1945 by Andrew Rawson

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