It is D+5, 24 February 1945, and the rugged, bloody, savage battle for Iwo Jima, the world's highest-priced piece of real estate, continues with an unrelenting fury. Probably never before in any war's history has there been such an enormous concentration of arms and fighting men to capture such a small area.
Iwo Jima offers indication that the Japanese have assembled fortifications here for the past 20 years. Mount Suribachi, a 550-foot peak at the southern end, is one solid mass of pillboxes, and from its hundreds of caves have poured hell-ripping mortar fire down onto the beaches where Marines and shore and beach parties have landed. Suribachi is a mammoth anthill in which were garrisoned possibly thousands of enemy troops to man the innumerable guns that swept the beaches.
Even to stand offshore and view the island of Iwo is nigh on conducive to fright itself. Its volcanic, rugged terrain; its sharp, twisting ridges; and its pockmarked, bomb-gutted holes give it a great similarity to the moon or some alien planet.
Told to me by a pharmacist's mate was the statement of an early Marine casualty. A veteran of South Pacific warfare, he stated after being wounded and brought back to this ship from the Iwo beach: "Give me jungle fighting. To hell with this open terrain."
About the second day the story got around that Iwo was worse than Saipan, than Tarawa, and it was confirmed when Lieutenant General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith gave out the statement that Iwo was the hardest fighting the Marines had seen in 168 years.
We accuse the Japs of fanaticism in fighting, but to conquer such a foe and an island as Iwo, it is necessary that our own Marines even employ fanaticism in their tactics. Capturing Iwo is a matter of moving and crawling inch by inch, of the immediate aim to kill a single damned Jap, not ten, and of the nerve-wracking and backbreaking job of digging a Jap from a cave after you have been lucky enough to find it.
Now it's D+8 and I have made no headway in setting down these notes; consequently, the continuity must be lacking.
American forces on Iwo are meeting their stiffest opposition yet, and there is no doubt that the Jap is resisting with all the cruel fierceness he can muster.
Yesterday and last night, after lying to off the Iwo shore for a solid week, this ship began to make progress in unloading. In this operation, though all the world may never know, we have done it the hard way. Confusion has been rampant. In such an enormous undertaking as we have entered into, a percentage of confusion and misunderstanding is unavoidable, but in this case the supply seems to have been overabundant. Still, in the picture given the world, that part is whitewashed. The scene will be glorified; it will be toned up as a brilliant operation, and naturally, in the end, no matter what the cost, our side will meet success in removing the enemy from Iwo.
That may be the only payoff—the final outcome. I am unable to decide this in my mind. Maybe it matters not what the confusion, what the mistakes. Still, foregoing entirely the cost in American lives, considering only the landing beaches strewn with wreckage—landing craft ripped, broached, wrecked, and sunk, vehicles of all types bogged in volcanic ash, resting at insane angles and later blasted to hell by our own demolition squads—all of this is deathly sickening to behold. Back in the States such implements had to be forged, many shipped across the nation on overcrowded transportation systems, then placed deep in the holds of ships and sent some 5,000 miles across the ocean. With the consumption of all that time, of all that effort, millions of dollars worth of equipment never got into the fight. "The high cost of war" is the mildest phrase ever uttered.
The cost of American lives at Iwo Jima is a thought to be reckoned with by any man who considers himself worthy to draw a breath of life. Even though one entertains the simple philosophy that in wartime there are two categories—the lucky and the unlucky—anyone who can fail to take a determining note at the consequences of Iwo Jima is the filthiest SOB who ever lived. The tearful, pitiful part of it all is the millions who will benefit from the hell faced by American invaders at Iwo Jima, and yet the beneficiaries will not be conscious of a spark of appreciation or gratitude. It is one of the hardest of all laws of life to understand—that only those at the battlefronts know the story—and most men who've been through the grinding, roaring mill don't understand the law, and bitterness and feeling and mild hatred are spawned, and brothers become divided.
Openly I have always damned the U.S. Marines for the unjust reason that I have never been able to get past a sentry when he had orders not to allow anyone to pass. Recently I was told the true story of a Marine sentry who replied to a persistent general whose car had been stopped that "I don't give a damned who you are sir, I have orders not to let anyone pass." Right on the spot, the general commended the sentry, and such is typical of the Marines.
Some of the many casualties brought back to this ship have been ghastly, but in practically all cases, when a man was conscious, he was cheerful. Last night a kid on a stretcher was being logged in, and he discovered his buddy also coming in. His eyes lit up, and he yelled loudly: "Hey hey. Hey you bastard. Where did they get you? Look, look!" he exclaimed, wildly waving a hand. "That's my buddy. Ole buddy buddy. You people got to put me with my buddy!"
Another kid came in with a head wound, one that had creased his skull deeply after the bullet or shrapnel went through his steel helmet. The officer logging him in inquired as to the island battle. Replied the Marine: "It's been the damndest eight days I've ever seen in my life. I never dreamed anything could be like that."
Also last night a young captain was brought in who had been right up in the front lines since the battle began. He had been hit in the buttocks, and the steel ripped through and came out his groin. Perfectly cheerful, he choked up when he began to tell of his men. Out of 150 in his original outfit, he could account for only about 50 remaining in the fight. He seemed to want to give them all the glory, which can be said of a man in battle, and from the way he talked, one sensed it was not something he was repeating from a storybook.
It may seem strange but probably no other such tumultuous event exposes everything in a man like the Iwo battle. All that is in a man comes to the surface under such stress—simultaneously, all that is good, all that is bad; courage and cowardice; purity and the vulgar. Almost at the same instant he can be sympathetic, feel pity, yet be utterly stoic. It is not hard to understand why men who face battle fire can age so rapidly. In one swift minute they have to deal with powerful emotions that some are permitted to spread over a lifetime.
On D+4, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, for the benefit of news and movie cameramen, went ashore at Iwo from Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner's flagship offshore. All of the necessary effects were staged for the proper pictures. Forrestal had joined the invading fleet at Saipan just prior to its shoving north to Iwo. Why he elected to be present on this particular invasion is not quite clear (to myself), except I can trace it to one rumor which has tabbed the Iwo invasion as the last "all Navy" affair in the Pacific.
The secretary of the Navy's presence at Iwo Jima is basis for one helluva story, and the American public will down it gloriously. And although the little men in this war, the ones under fire, are normally resentful of such intrusions, from the overall standpoint, Forrestal's presence may prove beneficial. It can be one of those necessary mechanics used to sustain a people on a higher plane than the one beastly war is conducted upon. My main hope is that the pictures in the newspapers and movie houses back in the States, the ones showing Forrestal ashore at Iwo, will not be such a gross misrepresentation to the American public that it will exclaim: "It couldn't have been so tough. Why there's the secretary of the Navy."
Whether it be wholly imaginary or a probability, I can visualize a state of utter disgust felt by Japanese war lords on learning that the secretary of the United States Navy, without harm to a single hair of his head, had been present at the invasion of Iwo Jima, a mere 660 miles south of Tokyo. To me, I see American leaders and policy makers spitting right in the Jap's eye and practically calling him an SOB and daring him to do anything about it. From an international standpoint, Forrestal's presence at Iwo Jima was staged, among other things, for tremendous prestige.
It was about noon on D-day just outside the radio shack that I met one of the landing boat officers. I didn't have to ask him where he had been or how he felt. He looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, "Hi chief," as if I were a true friend he hadn't seen for 50 years. Twice he had carried troops onto the beach that morning, and a thousand times in those few hours he had failed to understand why he was still alive. His nerves were resting on the outside of his skin.
A couple of days later one of the boat radiomen returned to the ship after some 48 straight hours of working the beaches, directing traffic and pulling off broached boats. Never before under fire and now having witnessed some, and possibly the greatest, murderous fire seen in the Pacific, he couldn't quite comprehend the terrible sights he had seen. He had seen it, but still the horror didn't register easily. He told of seeing two corpsmen bringing a litter down the hillside, and then suddenly they weren't there anymore. He told of a man in a burial and evacuation squad pulling along the beach a half body, from the waist down. At least for two days after D-day the blood-soaked beaches were littered with American bodies, and thousands of Marines scrambling ashore had to hurtle their own dead.
In discussing the situation with an associate on board, remarking of how tough the opposition was in spite of constant pounding, my friend stated one had to give the Japs credit for their resistance. I retorted I gave them no credit, that I could find no admiration. My attitude is based on the fact that the enemy had years and years to defend this island, and my admiration was for the man who had guts enough to invade and go in and face head-on the fire that the enemy poured out.
Fabulous Suribachi, which has stirred the imagination of every man who has stood and watched thousands and thousands of tons of American red-hot steel blasting almost vainly at its steep slopes, has proved a bastion of caves and connecting tunnels in which are garrisoned innumerable Japanese forces. Possibly no other spot in the world has taken such a pounding as Suribachi, whose code name in the operation was "Hotrocks," and still stood to offer just as much opposition as if it had never been touched. Ceasing of enemy fire from Suribachi has been promoted only by the direct penetration of U. S. Marines.
After landing on Iwo, inch by inch, one regiment of Marines crawled toward Suribachi, and on D+4, a combat patrol from one its companies scaled the heights and raised the American flag at the highest point on the volcanic peak. By all standards, it was recorded as a point in American history, for three minutes later the word was being radioed from Admiral Turner's flagship offshore to Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz's headquarters on Guam. Over the loudspeakers of my ship, the word was passed of the American flag now flying atop Suribachi, and from the topside decks and from deep in the holds, from my position on the bridge, I heard cheers arise into the air.
It has been my observation that the U. S. Marine Corps is founded and lives on an esprit de corps excelled by no other organization in the world. From my own personal standpoint, I have no yearning to be immersed in the atmosphere, but I can stand off and find great admiration. Many of the casualties brought back to this ship were bitter because of being out of the fight. They wanted to get back and be in on the kill. My analysis of the mood is that when you harm the hair of a single Marine, you must answer to every damned one of them.
Jim Adams, his son, was an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service assigned to the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, and is coauthor of USS Arizona: The Ship, the Men, the Pearl Harbor Attack, and the Symbol that Aroused America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001).