Letters to Iwo Jima

By Alan P. Rems

The Perfect Storm

On 24 February 1945, D+5 on Iwo Jima, the Marine Corp's public relations director wrote to Erskine about a worrisome situation. Columnists and magazine writers, "evidently tarred with the same brush," had taken to criticizing the Corps for its high casualties in comparison with Army General Douglas MacArthur's "magnificent" performance farther south. He was referring to the powerful conservative press, with William Randolph Hearst himself soon thundering in an editorial, "the attacking American forces are paying heavily for the island, perhaps too heavily." Hearst had a special agenda: MacArthur's elevation to supreme command in the Pacific, perhaps as a stepping-stone to leading a resurgent Republican Party. But, regardless of politics, such words touched a sensitive nerve in the American public.

>Web Exclusive - Click here to view a slideshow of 3d Marine Division on Iwo Jima photographs as well as letters division family members and Major General Graves Erskine exchanged.  

When news had broken on 23 February of 5,372 casualties through D+2, shock waves ran through the nation. That was far worse than Tarawa and every other Marine invasion. At least in the first days there were notable gains, most visibly the conquest of Mount Suribachi on D+4, holding out hope that the bloodletting might soon end. Once the Marines came up against the main Japanese defenses, however, the battle came to resemble the deadlocked World War I Western Front. A nation's concern was then far surpassed by the anxiety of those whose own men were engaged in the fight, and they sought answers and comfort.

Formed in September 1942, the 3d Marine Division had trained for more than a year in the United States and South Pacific before its first operation, Bougainville, in November 1943. That highly successful campaign was followed by the recapture of Guam in July-August 1944. It then refitted on Guam and trained intensively with, according to the official division history, "every intricate detail of wiping out pillboxes, concrete emplacements and heavily fortified positions . . . studied and rehearsed." This training proved invaluable, although nothing could have fully prepared it for what lay ahead.

The 3d Division also acquired a new leader—Graves Erskine. After being seriously wounded during World War I in an action that earned him a Silver Star, Erskine went on to a distinguished career leading to his becoming, at 46, the youngest major general in the Marine Corps. He served as chief of staff of the V Amphibious Corps in the Central Pacific, forming a particularly close relationship with his commander, Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith. Later, after Smith was elevated to command of all Marines in the Pacific, events on Iwo Jima would sour their relationship forever.

Into the Inferno

The Iwo Jima landings were made by the 4th and 5th Marine divisions with the 3d Marine Division in floating reserve. It was hoped that the 3d would not be needed and would be available for the upcoming Okinawa campaign, but the tremendous Japanese resistance quickly ended that idea.

Successively, two regiments of the 3d Division were introduced between the other divisions and assigned a key mission. The Motoyama Plateau at the middle of the island is difficult terrain but still easier than elsewhere on Iwo Jima. A breakthrough there would outflank the Japanese opposing the other divisions from difficult-to-reach ridge positions. Continued to the north coast, the attack would split the enemy forces, which could then be defeated in detail.

Commitment of the division's forces began on 22 February, D+3, when the 21st Marines entered the line on the approach to Motoyama Number Two, the main Japanese airfield. The following day, a flamethrower operator earned the division's first Medal of Honor of the campaign. Corporal Herschel W. Williams, a West Virginia Mountaineer, gallantly attacked and destroyed half a dozen previously by-passed pillboxes that had prevented all forward movement.

Two days later, the 21st Marines assaulted the entirely exposed and heavily defended runway of Motoyama Number Two. Among the many killed was Private First Class Casimir Mackowski from Brooklyn, New York, eldest son in a proud Polish immigrant family. As Erskine wrote his mother: "artillery and automatic weapons swept the runways constantly. . . . Casimir was in the leading portion of his platoon when it charged across the runway and won a foothold upon the northern edge . . . but in the dash your boy was struck by mortar fragments or machine gun fire."

Rain of Steel

On D+6, the 9th Marines arrived and relieved the battered 21st. Little ground was gained in the next days as the Japanese resisted ferociously, showering artillery and mortar fire from the high ground. On his first day in the line as executive officer with a company of the 9th Marines, Captain William McCrory of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, assumed command after the company commander was hit, and then was killed at his command post by a dud mortar shell that passed through his lower abdomen.

Another mortar casualty that afternoon was Private First Class Hayden L. Purviance of St. Louis, Missouri, killed at the northern edge of the airfield. His mother, unaware nearly a month afterward, had written to Erskine begging for information: "He is our only son (19 years) and we are old, and sick from worry."

There were no rear areas—everything was beachhead. In the comparative safety of an ammunition dump, Private First Class Gordon L. Vinson, 3d Service Battalion, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was struck in the chest during an artillery and mortar barrage on D+7. Vinson's mother, who inquired about his burial place, was told he died on board a hospital ship and was buried at sea.

The intense shelling also produced many cases of shell shock requiring brief treatment or, if severe enough, evacuation. One evacuated Marine from Dumont, New Jersey, had further shocks to deal with: the deaths of three family members including a beloved sister, which a chaplain was delegated to break to him.

Breakthrough - and Renewed Stalemate

On 27 February, D+8, Erskine could finally muster adequate ground, air, and naval fire support. Employing a rolling barrage to neutralize the enemy as his infantry methodically advanced, significant gains were achieved on the heights dominating Motoyama Number Two. But whatever the weight of fire, the process still required that Marine riflemen seize the ground and hold it after the deeply entrenched enemy recovered. The fighting notably included the actions of a onetime Arkansas farmer with the 9th Marines, Private Wilson D. Watson. Virtually single-handedly, Watson and his BAR laid claim to the summit of dominating Hill Oboe for 15 minutes until support arrived. In the process, he killed 60 Japanese and earned a second Medal of Honor in the division.

Unknowingly, the Marines had pierced the main Japanese defensive line. But the secondary defenses, buttressed by hill masses whose summits could be gained only by direct frontal assault, were almost as difficult to breach. As the division advanced toward the third Iwo Jima airfield, unfinished Motoyama Number Three, gains were again measured in scant yards.

Once the front widened, Erskine positioned both his regiments abreast and heavy casualties continued. Losses in the 21st Marines included a communications officer, Second Lieutenant Hulan B. Hicks of Brownsboro, Texas, killed by shellfire while laying telephone wire between battalion headquarters and rifle companies under heavy fire. The same day, 1 March, Hospital Apprentice First Class Edward N. Smith of Weatherford, Texas, was evacuated after suffering severe chest and abdomen wounds serving with the 21st Marines. He was one of 724 corpsmen killed or wounded on Iwo Jima. Meanwhile that day among the 9th Marines, fragments from an exploding shell killed Private First Class Griffin P. Lilly of Beauer, West Virginia, during an attack on Motoyama Number Three. Lilly's father would ask for information about his son, as the family had still not received word a month and a half later.

The next day, immediately south of Motoyama Number Three, two battalions of the 9th Marines attacked together after intense naval gunfire and artillery preparation, meeting considerable small-arms fire intermixed with heavy mortar and artillery fire. The many casualties that yielded little ground gain included the leader of a mortar platoon and acting company executive officer, Second Lieutenant Cyril M. Hudechek of Munith, Michigan, who sustained a fatal chest wound. In error, the notification of his death wired from Washington was sent to his 12-year-old sister. Erskine's letter to the family mentioned that Hudechek earned his commission for performance in action and display of excellent leadership on Guam.

Command Decision

One regiment of the 3d Division remained offshore in reserve, the 3d Marines. Both Erskine and V Amphibious Corps commander Marine Major General Harry Schmidt wanted to use them. But final authority rested with Holland Smith, supreme Marine Corps commander in the Pacific. He refused, arguing that the island was too small to allow the introduction of an additional regiment, enough manpower was available, and, though it had become a dwindling problem, nearly all of Iwo Jima was still exposed to enemy shellfire.

While Smith's general rule was to maintain a reserve to deal with the unexpected, he had been willing to commit his last reserves on Tarawa, noting in his memoir, Coral and Brass, "Throwing in the Corps reserve had swayed the balance." Nothing is said there about his very different decision on Iwo Jima.

Smith also believed that an extended time in floating reserve impaired the fighting ability of troops. And so on 5 March, when mounting combat losses made such a seasoned, well-trained force priceless, the 3d Marines sailed back to Guam. Erskine apologized to the commander of the regiment for having to leave the 3d Marines out of the fight, promising that the unit would have a leading part in the next invasion. It was a promise he could not keep. But much more was at stake than hurt feelings.

When Ideas Fail

The Marines tried a new idea on Iwo Jima that had an important impact on the battle's duration and toll. Attached to each division were two replacement drafts, each containing 75 officers and 1,250 enlisted men. Initially used as shore parties and in other activities behind the front lines, members would later replace those who fell in the fighting.

In The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War , Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl identified serious deficiencies in the implementation. Many replacements arrived late to training bases and received inadequate instruction "not only with elementary tactics, but also with the intricacies of the assault squad and its vital part in the forward movement." Also, according to Schmidt's operations officer, there was little or no "indoctrination by the units to which they would eventually be assigned." Responsible for the readiness of all Marines in the Pacific, Holland Smith had ultimate culpability for the situation, shared in large part by the Marine Corps Headquarters Training Section in Washington. Just as Smith's memoir omitted mentioning his refusal to employ the 3d Marines, the replacement muddle also was left out.

The 3d Division's personnel officer was less reticent, observing: "So many of these casualty reports indicate what green troops we are having to use. They get killed the day they go into battle as brand-new replacements. Seventeen years old—four months, six months, after they've enlisted—and they are dead."

He was describing replacements like Private Curtis P. Allen of Los Angeles, California, struck in the chest by machine-gun fire on 6 March while assaulting a heavily defended cave on his second day with the 9th Marines. After receiving first aid, Allen expired moments after a stretcher squad reached him. No better was the situation of replacement officers like Second Lieutenant Sidney B. Pace, killed on 3 March by heavy rifle fire while advancing near Motoyama Number Three on his first day with the 9th Marines. Married away from home before going overseas, Pace's records were never updated so that his wife in Allentown, Pennsylvania, had to challenge his mother in Louisville, Kentucky, for his personal effects.

Erskine never forgave Holland Smith for expecting him to spearhead operations using two depleted regiments filled out by half-prepared replacements while one of his highly trained and experienced regiments remained idle. Also, Erskine suffered one more setback. On 1 March, Schmidt announced that most of the corps artillery would no longer be used in support of the 3d Division. Erskine would later reflect, "Had the bulk of all supporting weapons been allotted to this division instead of being more or less equally distributed between all three divisions, it is believed that penetration would have been effected sooner at less cost."

One Exceptional Day

The battle continued in a general pattern of neutralizing bombardment followed by direct attack. A notable exception was a predawn operation on 7 March that involved maneuver. Dispensing with an artillery prelude that would have alerted the enemy, the plan was to gain by stealth a key height, Hill 362C, the last great barrier before the north coast. Although the operation did not succeed as planned, some of the 3d Division's fiercest fighting won the hill by day's end. It was also a day when another Medal of Honor was earned, and, coincidentally, in the same company there occurred the most disturbing situation dealt with in Erskine's letters.

After seizing its objective during the late afternoon, a company of the 9th Marines found itself cut off. The Medal of Honor citation of the company commander, Second Lieutenant John H. Leims, told how he exposed himself to enemy fire crossing no man's land to maintain communication with headquarters. With some wounded carried on the backs of their comrades, Leims then successfully withdrew the company under cover of a blanket of artillery and mortar fire called down on the vacated position. According to the division history, in falling back the company "was forced to leave 24 dead and many wounded on the hill until darkness fell and they could be evacuated." Leims himself ran the gauntlet of fire twice more in the dark to bring back wounded.

One Marine who did not make it back was a replacement private in his sixth day with the company. Responding to a father who had received no word nearly a month after the action, Erskine told him his son was reported missing and details would be provided if more was learned. The private's body was never recovered, and he was officially declared dead one year later.

Actually, more would become known, although it would have provided no solace to a grieving family. During the last days of the war, a statement was obtained from a Marine lieutenant revealing that the private was wounded in the fighting and the lieutenant and a corporal attempted to remove him. The statement continued: "When the order came to withdraw I left [the private] with [the corporal] while I prepared the company for withdrawal. Mortar fell in our positions and [the corporal] was separated [from the private]. Due to darkness we were unable to find him."

This does not entirely correspond with the fact that it was not yet dark when the withdrawal took place. In such a desperate situation, the greatest pains may have been taken to rescue men one had long lived and campaigned with, putting a newcomer at a distinct disadvantage. Whether or not all possible care was taken to preserve the life of this private, the absence of developed comradeship in a combat unit was surely an impediment to survival that even the best replacement training could never overcome.

Elsewhere that day, Corporal VanBuren H. Lemons of Tucson, Arizona, in the 21st Marines, was struck in the abdomen attempting to remove a wounded man while leading his squad against a sniper's nest. Also wounded on 7 March, in the 9th Marines, was Second Lieutenant Raymond W. Ickes, son of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Writing to the Secretary, Erskine told how Ickes "led his men up onto that hill [362C] in the face of fanatical resistance. . . . While organizing his position for the night, . . . he was hit by a sniper [through the lungs]." Thanks to the magnificent efforts of the surgeons on Iwo Jima, those who survived to be put aboard a hospital ship had a better than 95 percent chance of survival. Both Lemons and Ickes would fully recover and live long and highly productive lives, Lemons as an engineer and Ickes as a brilliant lawyer and special deputy attorney general participating in the Nuremberg Trials.

To the Sea—and Beyond

Two days afterward, on 9 March, D+18, something occurred that was no less momentous than the conquest of Suribachi two weeks earlier. A 21st Marines patrol mounted a cliff and saw the ocean, an event commemorated by filling a canteen with seawater that would be presented to Erskine, and in turn to Schmidt, with a note reading, "Forwarded for inspection, not consumption." Like the exultation of the intrepid Greek warriors immortalized in Xenophon's Anabasis on reaching the Black Sea, those Marines would have sensed that the worst lay behind and they might yet survive. Many, however, continued to die, including Private First Class Leonard M. Larson of Chicago, a demolitions man in the 3d Engineers, killed that day atop the bluff overlooking the sea. As his heartbroken parents were told, Larson was struck in the chest by a sniper's bullet fired from the shore below while preparing demolition charges to seal an underground passage.

In the final week of the battle, division units wheeled south to help eliminate formidable Cushman's Pocket and north toward Kitano Point to help the 5th Marine Division subdue a remaining strongpoint. Although Japanese ability to maintain a fully coordinated resistance was broken, the defenders fought on fanatically while Marine replacements continued to pay a disproportionate price.

On 11 March, Private William M. Keyser of Maryland received gunshot wounds to both thighs on his second day with the 9th Marines. An officer friend of his family's had previously tried to have Keyser admitted to an officer's training program without a high school diploma. That afternoon, Private William S. Gilliam of North Carolina was wounded soon after assignment with the 21st Marines. As his wife and sister were told, while leaving the front line at a seemingly safe moment to find water, Gilliam was struck in the abdomen by a sniper's bullet. Keyser and Gilliam were evacuated to a hospital ship where, despite the favorable odds of those who made it that far, both died. Keyser passed away first and was returned to Iwo Jima for burial; Gilliam was buried when the ship reached Guam.

The Price of Victory

Although fighting would continue longer, the conquest of the island was announced on 14 March, D+23, marked by a brief flag-raising ceremony. This was also the day Iwo Jima's cemetery was dedicated. Ultimately, the 3d Division would suffer 5,569 casualties, including 1,131 dead. Most of the dead were buried on the island and eventually reburied, principally in Hawaii or their hometowns. Others had been blasted beyond recovery in the incessant bombardments or were consigned to the sea.

At the cemetery dedication, Erskine spoke eloquently of how his dead should be remembered: "Let us do away with names, with ranks and rates and unit designations, here. Do away with the terms—regular, reserve, veteran, boot, oldtimer, replacement. They are empty, categorizing words which belong only in the adjutant's dull vocabulary. Here lie only—only Marines."

In addition to the many letters of solace Erskine would write from Iwo Jima and later from his base on Guam, other missives were providing the welcome news that husbands, sons, and brothers emerged unharmed or had fully recovered from their wounds. As this would be the 3d Division's last campaign, surviving Iwo Jima meant safe return home.

One of those joyful recipients was Lillian Cody on her little farm in Alabama. The son she was certain had been killed or wounded came through unscathed, except for a stern lecture from his commander to write home immediately and regularly. It is unknown if Erskine ever accepted Lillian's invitation to "come out to my place [for] some old bacon, and eggs [and] chit[lins]." The reward would have been well earned by this dedicated and compassionate leader who was constantly reminded of the human face of war by the letters to Iwo Jima.



The letters cited in this study are among the unpublished papers of General Graves B. Erskine, which were fully arranged and indexed by Alisa Whitely of the Archives and Special Collections Section, Library of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia. Additional information about the missing Marine private is from a casualty record in the History Division at Quantico.

Joseph H. Alexander, Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima (Washington, DC: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994).

Robert A. Aurthur and Kenneth Cohlmia, The Third Marine Division (Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1988).

Robert S. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University, 2006).

Patrick F. Caruso, Nightmare On Iwo (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001).

George B. Clark, The Six Marine Divisions in the Pacific (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006).

George W. Garand and Truman R. Strobridge, History of Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Vol IV, Western Pacific Operations (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1971).

Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951).

Bill D. Ross, Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor (New York: Vanguard, 1985).

Robert Sherrod, On to Westward: The Battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1990).

Holland M. Smith, Coral and Brass (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949).

Staff of the Ninth Marines, The Ninth Marines (Washington, DC: Zenger Publishing Co., 1946).

Mr. Rems earned Naval History Author of the Year honors for his August 2008 article, " Halsey Knows the Straight Story ." A retired certified public accountant, he is currently coauthoring with his wife a book of historic maps tentatively titled Virginia—A Place in the American Imagination; Selected Maps from the Library of Congress (Globe Pequot Press, 2009).



Rear Admiral Hicks is Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the sea-based element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System under development by the Missile Defense Agency.

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