Seventy-five years ago, U.S. naval and Japanese forces locked horns over a remote volcanic island in the western Pacific Ocean. The importance to both sides of Iwo Jima, which is about 800 miles south of Tokyo, was vastly out of proportion to the island’s size—only eight square miles. Strategically, the battle for Iwo Jima was part of the Allies’ global offensive against the Axis powers. In Europe, the Soviet Union and the Western Allies were poised to close in on Berlin from the east and west. In January 1945, General Douglas MacArthur continued a vengeful return to the Philippines by launching a massive amphibious invasion of Luzon. And Iwo Jima lay in the path of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s central Pacific drive toward Japan.
In October 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered Nimitz to mount invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima within the first four months of 1945. In what was code-named Operation Detachment, Nimitz ordered Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet to seize Iwo Jima to deny the enemy use of its airfields, which instead would be put into service for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ B-29 Superfortresses.1 Iwo Jima would serve the dual purpose of allowing fighter escorts to join B-29s flying from the Marianas toward Japanese Home Island targets, while also providing airstrips for emergency bomber landings on the return trip.
Enter the U.S. Marines of V Amphibious Corps, commanded by Major General Harry Schmidt, whose 3d, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions were tasked with seizing the island. Lieutenant General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander of Task Force 56, was in overall command of the operation’s Marine force.
After only a two-day bombardment, the 4th and 5th Marine divisions landed on 19 February. The 5th Division shot across the narrow southwestern portion of the island, isolating Mount Suribachi by the end of the first day. The following day, the two divisions turned north, minus the 28th Marines of the 5th Division, which assaulted Suribachi and secured it by 23 February. On that day, Marines raised a small U.S. flag at the summit of the volcano, which elicited a chorus of bells, horns, whistles, and cheers from ships offshore. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal missed this moment, but he did photograph the second raising of a much larger ensign. Rosenthal’s iconic image would become the most famous and widely recognized wartime photograph in U.S. history.
But the battle was far from over. On D+2, units of the 3d Marine Division, which had been held in reserve, began coming ashore to join the main drive to seize the rest of the island. From 21 February to 26 March, the three divisions shot, scorched, blasted, and demolished their way across the island. The Marines paid dearly for every inch of ground. Japanese troops had constructed countless mutually supporting defensive positions connected by miles of tunnels that they defended to the death. Navy and Marine Corps planners had forecasted Iwo would fall in a week; the Japanese made sure it took the Marines more than a month. Only 900 of the 23,000 defenders survived.2
High Cost of Victory
The battle cost 5,000 American lives, including that of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism on Guadalcanal, and three of the six flag-raisers. The Japanese defenders wounded or incapacitated 20,000 others. However, the numbers do not capture the full extent of the sacrifice. Even physical evidence, such as the 4th Marine Division’s burial records—a particularly sobering stack of documents—can only scratch the surface. The burial list goes on and on for 1,631 entries, with each Marine’s name accompanied by a cause of death.3 Calculating the true cost of Iwo Jima becomes simply impossible when one considers the suffering both sides endured and the families who lost loved ones there.
The U.S. casualty figures caused many to question the necessity of the battle. Shortly after Iwo Jima was secured, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the operation’s Joint Expeditionary Force, considered the economy of losses on the island near perfect, while Holland Smith pointed out that those in charge of winning the war deemed the battle necessary.4
But others, such as retired Rear Admiral Charles Adair, a former amphibious operations planner for the Seventh Fleet during World War II, thought the island not worth the cost, and recent scholarship has come around to his thinking.5 This debate continues, but Marines did not get to choose where or when they fought in the Pacific war. Their superiors tasked them with taking the island, so they did.
Fulfilling a Mission
Necessary or not, the battle is still significant to the Marine Corps and to Americans. To the Corps, Iwo Jima is important in terms of mission, tradition, and public opinion. Regarding mission, the victory represented the fulfillment of a long-sought role for the Corps. In 1900, the Navy’s General Board assigned to the Marine Corps the mission of seizing advanced bases, but manpower shortages, force structure, and frequent expeditionary duty to the Caribbean and even to France during World War I kept this task largely theoretical until the 1930s.
With the issuance of General Order 241 in 1933, however, the Marine Corps became an offensive weapon of the U.S. fleet. Around the same time, Marines at Quantico produced the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, which the Army and Navy would adopt. By early 1941, the Corps’ force structure, organized as a Fleet Marine Force, had grown to include 2 permanent divisions, 13 defense battalions, and 2 air wings.
Marine officers had been calling for these changes since before World War I. Colonel John A. Lejeune argued in 1916 that the advanced-base mission would enhance the Marine Corps’ importance and prestige, and many Marine officers agreed.6 Iwo Jima, along with other landings in World War II, validated the foresight of advanced-base proponents. Iwo Jima has been described as the “classical amphibious assault of recorded history,” and the Marine Corps’ “Supreme Test.”7 Marines proved once again that amphibious assaults could succeed if surrounding sea and air domains were secured.
Present-day Marines would do well to remember the words of scholars Jeter Isely and Philip Crowl, who wrote shortly after the war: “The nation that could take Iwo can, by keeping abreast of technological improvements favorable to the attacker, always seize overseas objectives held by hostile powers.”8
Success at Iwo seemed to ensure the Marine Corps’ continued survival. As Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal watched the first U.S. flag rise on Suribachi as he came ashore with General Smith, he stated that this “means there will be a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”9 Forrestal spoke prematurely, because the Corps faced the fight of its life after the war. According to some scholars, whether the battle was necessary or not, victory at Iwo Jima helped save the Marine Corps during the defense unification fights of the late 1940s.10
Regarding tradition, Marines at Iwo Jima continued and added to traditions of courage, sacrifice, and combat prowess established at other battles in Marine Corps history. Twenty-two Marines earned Medals of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima, the only all-Marine island campaign of the entire war. Nimitz asserted, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” among the Marines who fought there.11 “Never in their 168 years’ history has their motto Semper Fidelis been tried or challenged so greatly as in the capture of Iwo Jima,” said Holland Smith shortly after the battle.12 Every Marine, whether in or out of uniform, has heard of the Battle of Iwo Jima and knows that when put to the test, he or she must rise to that level of effort and sacrifice if called on.
An Indelible Image
Public opinion, shaped largely by one iconic photograph, is where Iwo Jima’s lasting significance lies. Ten civilian and 16 Marine combat correspondents landed on the island with the infantry. The Marine correspondents produced 600 articles and 86 film packs during the battle.13 Of all these stories, photographs, and films, Rosenthal’s photograph of Marines raising the second flag on Mount Suribachi is the most important. Back in the United States, the image provided the symbol for the largest war bond drive of the conflict.14 It later precipitated the creation of Felix de Weldon’s sculpture depicting the flag-raising, versions of which stand at Arlington and Quantico, Virginia, and Parris Island, South Carolina.
The image appeared on stamps, recruiting posters, and billboards, and it inspired movies such as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), starring John Wayne, and more recently, Flags of Our Fathers (2006), directed by Clint Eastwood. It earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and went on to become the most famous image of the war.15 Though impromptu, the photograph was a triumphant image that took on positive meanings for the Corps and the U.S. public. The photograph is an overt glorification of the Marine Corps, and every reproduction of it memorializes the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima. Each rendition of the image also is a de facto advertisement for the Corps, one that conveys who the Marines are, what they do, and what they expect of the young men and women who join.
The image also stands for American unity, triumph, and heroism in a much broader sense. Weldon claimed that the Marines in his sculpture represent the United States helping rid the world of fascism. The three flag-raisers who died on Iwo represent all the U.S. servicemen who paid the ultimate price; the other three embody the ones who made it home.16 Not every American subscribed to these interpretations. Dwight Eisenhower and several of the Marines who raised the first flag on Iwo Jima saw only what they considered to be a staged moment that was of little value to winning the battle.17 But even historian Paul Fussell, who cynically compared Weldon’s sculpture to the propaganda found in “Soviet art” and “Italian fascist sculpture,” wrote that the image itself “seems right because it is so successful an emblem of the common will triumphant.”18
A Marine Corps Touchstone
On 17 October 2019, former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis delivered the keynote address at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City. Toward the end of his speech, he spoke of when Marine infantry battalions in April 2004 stood ready to assault into Fallujah, Iraq. “When one Marine thought I was out of ear shot,” Mattis said, “I heard him ask his squad leader ‘Do you think it’s going to be tough?’ And the squad leader replied in a corporal’s vernacular . . . ‘Hush and get some rest, we took Iwo Jima. Fallujah won’t be nothing.”19
Faced as we are with deep political divisions, vitriolic public discourse, and emerging threats from across the oceans, Mattis aimed to remind his audience that Americans have overcome greater adversities than the ones we currently face. He did so in Marine fashion by referencing Iwo Jima the same way Marines have done for generations: as a reminder of what is expected of them and as a measure for their resolve and faithfulness. If the Marines, and by extension, the American people, can achieve victory at Iwo Jima and in World War II, they can do anything. Therefore, the enduring significance of Iwo Jima is how it reminds us what American unity can accomplish.
1. George W. Garand and Truman R. Strobridge, Western Pacific Operations, vol. 4, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1971), 443–44; Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory, and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 432–33; Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, 3rd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 426–27.
2. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 427–31; Garand and Strobridge, Western Pacific Operations, 726–27; Mark Grimsley, “. . . The Marines Had Bypassed Iwo Jima,” World War II, 1 December 2007, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A213307935/ITOF?u=anna82201&sid=ITOF&xid=d9239c08.
3. 4th Marine Division Burial Records, Box 89, RG 127, Iwo Jima, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
4. “4,000 Marine Dead on Iwo Indicated: Admiral Turner Says Loss Was Less than Fifth of Japanese Killed—Operation Praised,” The New York Times, 16 March 1945.
5. Robert S. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), xvii.
6. COL John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The Mobile Defense of Advance Bases by the Marine Corps” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1916, 1.
7. Isely and Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, 432.
8. Isely and Crowl, 530.
9. Quoted in Victor Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 15.
10. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, xvii; Grimsley, “. . . The Marines Had Bypassed Iwo Jima.”
11. Quoted in Millett, Semper Fidelis, 432.
12. “4,000 Marine Dead,” The New York Times.
13. The Public Relations Officer to the Director, Division of Public Relations, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington DC, 21 April 1945, 5–6, Box 89, RG 127, Iwo Jima, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, NARA.
14. Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 102–3.
15. Craig Cameron, American Samurai: Myth, Imagination, and the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941–1951 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 251–54.
16. Cameron, American Samurai, 252–54; Breanne Robertson and Paul Westermeyer, “Every Marine a Flag Raiser: The Legacy and Meaning of the Iwo Jima Flag Raisings,” in Investigating Iwo: The Flag Raisings in Myth, Memory, and Esprit de Corps, ed., Breanne Robertson (Quantico VA: Marine Corps History Division, 2019), 252–53; Cameron, 252–54.
17. Marling and Wetenhall, Iwo Jima, 6–7, 15.
18. Paul Fussell, The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 232–33; Cameron, American Samurai, 254.
19. James Mattis speech to 74th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, New York City, 17 October 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=747&v=g_sG7N7pJ6g.