African American Voices from Iwo Jima: Personal Accounts of the Battle

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Shaped like a pork chop, the island was just five miles long and two and a half miles wide at its broadest point; at its narrow southern tip lay a dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi; north of Suribachi lay three Japanese airfields, two complete and one under construction—and that was the problem. American bombers making the 1,mile run to Tokyo were being seriously harassed by Japanese fighters from Iwo; and crippled bombers returning from Tokyo needed a place to put down. On February 19, , after more than two months of steady air and naval bombardment, Iwo Jima was invaded by the first wave of the three Marine divisions assigned to the task.

Originally it had been assumed that it would not be more difficult to take than islands that had preceded it. The assumption was wrong. The Japanese, under Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had constructed an astoundingly complex and well-fortified network of artillery positions and pillboxes all over the island, many of them connected by underground tunnels and all of them protected by tons of concrete and volcanic ash—and very few of these defenses had been seriously damaged by weeks of bombardment.

The result was some of the most vicious and costly fighting of the war. Iwo Jima was not secured until after twenty-six days of almost constant carnage. There were 6, Americans killed and 19, wounded in the action; more than 20, Japanese died. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.

My affair with Iwo began late in What seemed like a lifetime before, I had enlisted in the Marines, received my boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and because of a pre-war career as a newspaperman with the New York Herald Tribune and as a radio news director for the Mutual network, had been sent from Parris Island to Marine headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, for training as a combat correspondent. My orientation in the mechanics of copy flow from front-line outfits to command ships and rear-echelon distribution points lasted a couple of months, and when I went overseas to join the fighting in the Solomon Islands, I carried not only all the combat gear of a Marine enlisted man but an awesome array of journalistic paraphernalia.

In my transport pack, among skivvies, socks, shirts, and rations, were a flat portable Hermes typewriter later shattered on Guam by a Japanese mortar fragment that otherwise would have split my back , typewriter paper, carbons, notebooks, and pencils. In addition, I was one of several combat correspondents who was to try to record eyewitness descriptions of battle for use on the networks and radio stations back home. So I also lugged with me a heavy tape recorder, a twelve-volt storage battery and converter for power, and a sea bag full of tapes, repair equipment, wires, microphones, spare needles, and condoms with which to sheath the mikes against saltwater and South Pacific humidity.

Together we made hundreds of recordings—first on Guadalcanal, then in the Marshall Islands, and finally in the Marianas—that were played over American radio stations and networks. Toward the end of we were on Guam—now securely in American hands—and wondering where we were going next. To many Marines in the Pacific, it seemed that we were always just getting on a ship or getting off one.

African American Voices from Iwo Jima

Hung with combat gear, blanket roll, pack, and entrenching tools, we were masters of the cargo nets, clambering up or down the sides of transports, hands on the vertical ropes, feet on the horizontal ones, and every so often in heavy swells, hanging upside down and searching for the next foothold. One day we got the word: We were going to Formosa. Relief maps made of rubber were laid out, and it looked horrible. We were going to land on the east side of that big island in a huge wilderness of forests, mountains, head-hunters, and poisonous snakes.

There were long faces among our men. Many had been in the Pacific for more than two years, fighting in tropical jungles and swamps. They had seen just too much of battle and death; many hardly ever spoke. Earlier in the year some had set their minds on being rotated home after the Guam operation. Then the attack on Formosa suddenly was called off. We had no idea what was happening, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff had switched strategy.

Formosa was going to be ignored, and a new attack was going to be aimed right at the inner defenses of Japan itself. Soon afterward we learned that we were going to be in on the new campaign, but not as assault troops. We would turn around and sail back and then, probably, most of our men would at last be replaced and rotated home for a well-earned furlough.

Our spirits lifted immediately, and the Asiatic looks of many disappeared magically. We stepped up our drilling and maneuvers, and everybody on Guam it was now teeming with Army, Navy, and Air Force units knew we were again preparing to go somewhere. When we began to load ships, I suddenly was transferred from my own outfit, the 21st Marines, to the Division Headquarters Company, the explanation being that if any one unit of our division did have to get into the battle, our division commander, Major General Graves B.

Erskine, would go with it. By being on the same ship with General Erskine, I, as a combat correspondent, would be able to land with whatever part of the division went into action. Division Headquarters was assigned to a former passenger liner that had been converted to an APA troop transport early in the war and already had carried men to many operations. Soon after we sailed, we were collected in units in the holds and on deck and told by our officers that we were going to take Iwo Jima. The contour and rubber relief maps we were shown gave little idea of how hard it was going to be, but the plan was for our 4th and 5th Divisions to land abreast on the black, volcanic sands of the eastern beaches.

Then one regiment would turn south and capture Mount Suribachi while the others, spread out in a single line across the whole island, would move north over the high, rocky ground of its widest part to seize the other two airfields. Later, to my consternation, I learned that the 21st Marines had been ordered to pull ahead of the rest of the reserve units of the 3rd Division and get to Iwo quickly, ready to land immediately, if necessary, in support of the 4th and 5th Divisions.

It was an ironic situation for me, and I felt a sense of guilt. I had left my outfit so that I would have the flexibility to go in with the first of our units that might be ordered to land. Now I was stuck with the division command, which was not going to move ahead with the first unit—and the first unit was going to be my own.

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As the rest of us continued to sail north at a slower pace, the weather gradually turned gray and colder. Of course, it was winter, but we had been in the tropics for so long that it was hard to realize that we were at last moving out of them. At night the holds below the water level were very cold, and we slept on the tiers of canvas bunks and huddled in dungarees and heavy combat jackets under our blankets and camouflaged ponchos. The ventilation pipes that ran through the holds gave us more trouble. In the tropics troops had punctured the pipes in hundreds of places so that the cool air would blow onto their steamy bunks.

Now we tried to stuff every hole to prevent the air from freezing us.

North of us that morning the preliminaries of the battle began. At A. The day was a failure. An overcast came down, and all shelling and air attacks had to end with the known destruction of only seventeen of almost seven hundred identified pillboxes and other targets. It was decided that on the final day everything would have to be concentrated on the Japanese beach defenses, so that the Marines could at least get ashore.

That objective was met. In a final thunderous shelling that pounded the eastern rim of the island on February 18, many Japanese installations, housing heavy guns overlooking the landing beaches, were rocked and smashed, from Suribachi in the south to the high ground in the north. Still, as night fell, it was known that hundreds of other strongholds somehow would have to be eliminated after the Marines got ashore.

Even though we were still south of Iwo and out of sight of the island, we followed the progress of the landings the next morning, February 19, as if we were about to go ashore ourselves.

History, myth and the shifting sands of Iwo Jima | The Independent

On our transport were many signal company men with radios used to link together the different elements of the division. We gathered around the receivers, listening to the crackling transmissions coming from ships of the fleet, from air observers in small planes over the island, and from units of the 4th and 5th Divisions, which were preparing to make the beachhead.

Then our shelling and bombing would have to lift, the enemy would come alive and rush back to their guns, and our later waves would catch hell. At the same time, those who got onto the beach would start taking casualties from the front and flanks. But by then we would be moving steadily against the enemy, no matter how strong the resistance might be.

Our boats moving in. For an hour the news seemed incredibly good. As the storm and smoke of our naval gunfire lifted off the beaches, the Japanese began fighting back, but not with the intensity we expected. We heard of wave after wave coming ashore, of men clambering up the sliding-sand terraces and reaching a part of the first airfield. Japanese mortars and machine guns began to claim lives, but the Marines kept moving ahead, knocking out pillboxes with demolition charges or silencing their defenders with grenades and flame throwers.

By mid-morning all the assault battalions had landed, and the beaches were crowded with men and equipment. Up ahead, infantry companies of the 4th and 5th Divisions pushed inland, trying to achieve their objective of getting across the narrow neck of the island to cut the Japanese forces in two. Casualties were increasing, but the situation still seemed surprisingly good. Then suddenly the concealed heavy weapons of the Japanese opened up. From hidden fortifications around Suribachi in the south, from the bunkers and ridges on the high northern part of the island, and from pillboxes protecting the first airfield, barrages of huge rockets and artillery and heavy mortar shells began crashing on the beaches and among the men trapped above them on the tableland.

We could tell something terrible was going on. Normally, in the past, the Japanese had fought furiously to defend their beaches.

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But as we later learned, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commanding the Japanese forces on Iwo, had decided to let our main attacking force crowd ashore, offering only minimal resistance while the Marines spread across the low saddle of the island. Once he felt he had the bulk of our troops exposed on that open f latland and on the beaches, caught between his concealed heavy weapons on Suribachi and the northern plateau, he would let us have it, hoping to stop all reinforcements and annihilate the men ashore or drive them off the island.

For a time it seemed that he might succeed. From the radio reports we knew we were taking huge casualties, and whole companies and platoons were losing their leaders. Somehow, in all the wild fighting during the rest of the day, units of the 28th Marines of the 5th Division got across the island and effectively isolated Mount Suribachi.

Throughout the second day we continued to listen to our radios. In the morning progress seemed good.


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Most of the first airfield was in our hands, and the 28th Marines were moving closer to the base of Suribachi. On the right flank other regiments were straightening a line across the island and beginning to fight northward toward the second airfield. But as the day wore on, grimness returned. The advances had been stopped, and in some places our units seemed to have been pushed back. The announcement of our casualties shocked us. They ranged from 25 to 35 per cent among the assault battalions. Several thousand men, we were told, already had been taken off the island.

Late in the afternoon word circulated that the battered units of the 4th and 5th Divisions needed reinforcements, and the 21st Marines had been ordered ashore. We understood that a crisis was developing, that the Japanese had stopped our entire northward push and were inflicting intolerable casualties on us.

Few of us talked. We worried, wondering who among our friends had been killed or wounded. Meanwhile we continued to cruise about, still out of sight of the island, waiting for orders. Finally they came. Division command was going in.