In a Style story Sunday about Iwo Jima, the first name of retired Marine Corps Col. Frank C. Caldwell was incorrect. Also, approximately 20,000 British soldiers died on the worst day of the Battle of the Somme in World War I. The 60,000 figure in the story included those wounded. (Published 2/22/95)
Where dark tides billow in the ocean,
A wink-shaped isle of mighty fame
Guards the gateway to our empire:
Iwo Jima is its name . . .
-- Japanese schoolchildren's song, 1945
It was, first and foremost, a forbidding, otherworldly place to fight -- eight square miles of lava, ash and cinders belched up by the still-roiling volcanic violence of the west Pacific Ocean floor. It exuded, one correspondent wrote, "a sullen sense of evil."
It was honeycombed with caves and tunnels, walled by scarred stone cliffs and slashed by boulder-strewn ravines. The enemy was usually invisible underground.
Wrapped in the rain and fog that marked some of the invasion's earliest days, the island steamed eerily in places, and if the nights were chilly above ground, digging in could yield a nightmare oven of a foxhole that stank of sulfur and sweat even without the scent of fear.
Every battleground of the Pacific war was its own particular hell -- the rain-washed mountains of New Guinea; the rotting, Stygian jungle of Guadalcanal; the naked corpse-cluttered reef at Tarawa; the malaria-ridden thickets of Bataan.
But Iwo Jima, where American Marines landed 50 years ago today, remains the iconic battleground of World War II, its image burned on the American soul by the famous, flag-waving photograph and the horror in the eyes of the men who fought there.
"Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was," said Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine in dedicating the Marine Corps Cemetery on the island in 1945. "What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left . . . at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner."
Iwo Jima remains the most costly battle in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps (one-third of all Marines killed in World War II died there), and one of the costliest for American servicemen since Gettysburg. More troops died assaulting it than died on the beaches of Normandy, and if the 6,821 total dead paled beside such carnage as the 60,000 British killed in a single day on the Somme in World War I, Americans were nonetheless stunned by the toll.
With the wounded, there were more than 28,000 U.S. casualties, and though all but about 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders died in the battle, it was the first and last time American casualties exceeded Japanese deaths in the Pacific offensive. Reinforced by even greater casualties in the Army-dominated battle for Okinawa the following month, the Iwo Jima toll would figure heavily in the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan.
"Please, for God's sake," one mourning mother protested to the White House, "stop sending our finest youth to be murdered on places like Iwo Jima."
Today at 11 a.m. President Clinton is scheduled to lay a wreath at the Iwo Jima Monument in Arlington to commemorate those long-ago dead. He'll be joined by some 4,000 people, including about 1,800 veterans from among the 75,000 who landed on the island in 1945.
They've been here all week attending reunions and seminars, memorial services and banquets. There is no getting away from what Iwo Jima means to them. It is not glory, for as they now can and will tell you, in some detail after half a century, there is precious little glory in seeing your best friend decapitated or disemboweled by an artillery shell, or witnessing floating corpses revolving in the propeller of a landing craft, or shivering all night listening to the screaming of a gut-shot 19-year-old taking a long time to die.
More than 2,600 men went crazy, most of them permanently, experiencing the particular horror of Iwo Jima, and those who survived the battle mentally intact tend to view their lives since with a kind of wonder, and with a profound sense of obligation to those who died there so that they could live.
"If anybody had told me on Iwo that I'd be sitting here 50 years later talking to you, I'd have marked him down for battle fatigue,' " says retired Col. Fred Caldwell at his home near Mount Vernon. As commander of Fox Company of the 26th Marines, "I landed on Iwo February 19 with 257 men and walked off March 26 with 44, even after getting replacements."
On the long panoramic photograph of his company, taken in California a few months before the battle, he later wrote tiny "KIAs" and "WIAs" in ink on those killed or wounded in action on the island. Only about 30 of the smiling, confident young men in the photo remain unmarked. Tortuous Terrain Iwo Jima, like most battles, was foremost a matter of geography. Unattractive as it was, the pear-shaped little island lay almost exactly halfway -- 700 miles -- between the U.S. bomber bases in the Mariana Islands -- Guam, Saipan and Tinian -- and the main target cities in Japan. The first long-range bombing raids from the recently captured Marianas in late 1944 had proven disappointing, with B-29s hampered by both high-altitude weather problems and harassment from Japanese fighters.
While too small -- 4 1/2 miles long by 2 1/2 miles at its widest -- for a major bomber base, Iwo Jima could provide both a valued emergency landing and refueling stop for bombers en route to and from Tokyo, and a base from which shorter-range fighter escorts could provide protection.
Had the United States moved boldly to seize the island in mid-1944, the Marines probably could have walked ashore. But in the next six months, Iwo Jima underwent a frenzy of reinforcement and fortification as the Japanese realized it was all that stood between their homeland and annihilation.
Sent to fortify the island was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, one of the more extraordinary members of Japan's World War II officer corps. A descendant of the country's samurai warrior caste, he had served as a military attache in both the United States and Canada and, in the late 1920s, toured the United States by car. He was impressed by the sights, and he reported home that America had immense industrial strength and was "the last country in the world that Japan should fight."
When he was sent to Iwo Jima, he realized his only recourse under the samurai's code of Bushido was to perform his duty to Japan's emperor with as much skill and energy as he possessed. He left his ancestral samurai sword at home with his wife and children, knowing he would never return.
With profound respect for America's immensely greater technology and industrial might, Kuribayashi discarded any notion of the fanatical banzai charges that had proved so futile in halting U.S. advances earlier in the war. Instead, he told his subordinates, Japan's only hope lay in a highly disciplined defensive battle that would force the Americans to bleed themselves to death assaulting near-impregnable fortifications.
"Each of us must kill 10 of the enemy before we die," he told his 22,000 fellow defenders.
For months he drove his men around the clock, turning Iwo Jima into a maze of cliffside caves and spider holes and machine gun nests and pillboxes, some with walls 10 feet thick and many with camouflaged doors. There were 750 artillery emplacements on the island, and 1,000 machine gun nests on Mount Suribachi alone. He designed his fortifications with interlocking fields of fire and linked them with 11 miles of tunnels and zeroed in his artillery and mortars on the only obvious landing beaches at the narrow end of the island. He stocked his caves with a 10-week supply of food, water and ammunition. Then, shrugging off the occasional U.S. air attack or naval bombardment, he and his men went underground and waited.
As U.S. officials learned what a bastion Iwo Jima had become, memos circulated proposing that the Navy bombard it with poison gas shells from offshore to kill the Japanese in their caves without risking American lives. Neither the U.S. nor Japan had signed the section of the Geneva Convention barring gas warfare, but President Franklin Roosevelt, mindful of American outrage over Germany's use of gas in World War I, vetoed the proposal. That left the Marines to battle an unseen enemy.
"I was fighting nonstop for six weeks, and I don't suppose I saw 20 live Japanese the whole time," remembers Cald well. "We were battling invisible holes in rocks. There was no room to perform the maneuvers we'd been taught, like diversion and encirclement. There were no trees left or brush, really, no cover of any kind. It was just throwing flesh against concrete, yard by yard: frontal assault the whole time." Like One of Us'
In a way, Kuribayashi's strategy of attrition was a throwback to the more grotesque horrors of World War I Verdun, where the French and Germans fought each other with grenades and flamethrowers in underground tunnels slimy with excrement and rotting corpses, and licked moisture from the fetid concrete to stay alive.
The Marines inched their way over the island amid showers of artillery and mortar shells, grenading machine gun nests and dynamiting pillboxes. The Japanese would retreat underground, then pop up from a tunnel somewhere else, or suddenly reappear behind American lines in a bunker long thought neutralized to machine-gun rear-echelon troops. The Marines shot streams of flaming napalm into their tunnels or buried them alive by exploding their caves. Or heard them blow themselves to pieces with grenades for the emperor rather than surrender. Many Marines began thinking of themselves as exterminators of underground vermin, divorcing themselves even further mentally from an enemy whose apparent hunger for death seemed not so much brave as inhuman.
"I remember we had one Japanese officer run out of a cave by himself and charge a flamethrowing tank with his samurai sword," remembers Caldwell. "All by himself. Against a tank. I don't know what the hell he thought he was doing, but the tank just moved that stream right up his body and burned him to a crisp. . . .
"Another time we were advancing past this rock pile with a hole in the top, and we dropped a phosphorus grenade in the hole just to be sure. And in a minute the rocks came all apart and out came this Japanese soldier with a hand grenade, smoking from the phosphorous burns, right at us. We all turned and shot him, just another dirty Jap,' you know. Except his helmet came off . . . and there in the top inside was a picture of him and his family. He had six kids. There he was with his wife and kids, all dressed up, looking proud. Like one of us. I still remember that." No End Still The Marines had landed at the narrowest part of Iwo Jima just north of Mount Suribachi, in ankle-deep volcanic sand that bogged down jeeps and stalled tanks and quickly turned the beach into a confused hell of tangled vehicles and stalled supplies. They fought their way across the half-mile neck of the island in 90 minutes, severing Suribachi from the plateau containing the airfield as well as from the hills and cliffs to the north.
Then, as mortar and artillery shells rained on them nonstop, they inched the beachhead wider, a few yards at a time. By nightfall, more than 2,400 had been killed or wounded and the 28,000 now ashore and still living were hunkered down together within a 4,000-yard perimeter among the bloody, shattered fragments of the dead. "The worst was that first night," Caldwell remembers. "We were packed in so tight there was no room to move. They knew right where we were, and of course we were all so concentrated we made a perfect target. They used to fire something we called a burping betty,' which looked like a 55-gallon oil drum coming through the air at you. They shot it with rockets off railroad tracks coming out of a cave. It wasn't accurate, but it made enormous craters and was a terrifying weapon until you got used to it."
It took only four days to plant the famous flag on Suribachi, but by that time Iwo Jima had already claimed more than 4,500 casualties. Alerted to the basic cave structure of the mountain by a captured Japanese, a scouting party reconnoitering a trail up the north side discovered that the crest of the inactive volcano had been abandoned. A second patrol from the 28th Marines planted a small flag there atop a piece of salvaged drainage pipe. It was later exchanged for a much larger flag, whose hoisting was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's Speed Graphic camera (1/400 of a second, between f8 and f10, on Agfa film) in what would become perhaps the most recognized war image of all time.
At 550 feet in elevation -- almost exactly the height of the Washington Monument -- Suribachi was the highest point of land on Iwo Jima and, remembers Caldwell, "it looked right down on you wherever you were. You felt they were up there aiming something at you every moment. When the flag went up you felt, well, maybe I'll live through this after all. Maybe the hardest part's over."
It wasn't, of course. The battle would last more than a month longer, claiming thousands more lives. But the first B-29, "Dinah Might," would touch down there for repairs March 4 en route from Tokyo. On Feb. 26, Caldwell saw 19 of his men killed and 30 wounded. On March 3 ("We were near exhaustion from lack of sleep by then") 20 more were killed and 25 wounded. There seemed to be no end to it. Even long after the island was declared secure and the Marines had turned it over to the Army, Japanese stragglers would emerge from some unfound hole to cut the throats of soldiers asleep in their tents.
For many -- perhaps most -- of the Iwo veterans, there's no end of it still. "You can't imagine how brave men can be until you witness it," Caldwell says. "We had two Medal of Honor winners in my company. One of them, George Whalen from Utah, was a little tiny guy, 120 pounds. He crawled out for three days under impossible fire to pull wounded men to safety. And he was wounded so bad himself he couldn't walk. And Franklin Sigler, he was wounded by a grenade but carried three other guys to safety. Franklin died just last week. But that kind of thing became almost ordinary on Iwo. And so many of the bravest never came back."
Caldwell himself won the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima, but appears helpless when asked about the actions that occasioned it. He has to rummage for a while to produce the citation that honors him for "extraordinary heroism" and "utter disregard for his own safety" in the leadership of his men.
What he remembers better is the way his men refused to give up in the face of endless fatigue and mind-numbing horror, the way they pulled themselves together over and over again and kept moving forward, doing a whole company's work with only 40 or 50 men. And he remembers, with woeful clarity, the men he lost and the loneliness and helplessness of their death.
"My first sergeant was sitting down one day taking casualty reports when a mortar round landed near him and killed him. He was seated there with his fatigue cap on and a pad in his hand and took a piece of shrapnel in the neck. You could see the blood. But his head just nodded forward and his eyes closed and he just kept sitting there. We tried to get to him, but we were under terrific fire and couldn't go near him. We couldn't get to him for three days.
"We'd be shooting and fighting and look over and he'd still be sitting there in the middle of it all like he was asleep. Hardly a mark on him. Three days in the sun. I wanted to get him out of there, you see, or cover him up at least. He was my man and my responsibility. But we couldn't get to him for three days. . . . And in the end, there was nothing I could do. Nothing that I or anyone could do. Nothing at all." This is one in a series of occasional articles that will mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.