By Jeff Olson
America loses hundreds of World War II veterans every day and with each death passes a special chapter of America’s history. This month is the 75th anniversary of one of the most notable campaigns of the war and one of the most iconic moments in American military history. The place was Iwo Jima, a tiny island 660 miles south of Japan.
Iwo Jima was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. In Japanese, Iwo Jima means sulfur island and that’s exactly what it was (is) – Eight square miles of coarse volcanic sand and cinders which was seen by American military planners as a prime location for airstrips, as the war was moving ever closer to the Japanese mainland. In late 1944 U.S. military forces, eventually totaling approximately 250,000, began gathering for the landing on Iwo Jima which was set for February 19th. The Japanese knew of America’s strategic interest in the island and thus set about to prepare for the invasion almost a year earlier. They constructed 16 miles of tunnels, 1,500 caverns, and 750 blockhouses and pillboxes heavily fortified by over 18,000 Japanese soldiers armed with rifles, mortars and machine guns. Consequently, the months of B-24 bombing raids and the three day attack by the U.S. Navy immediately prior to the invasion had almost no effect. On the fifth day after the landing, February 23, 1945, a Marine patrol reached the crest of Mount Suribachi, a volcanic peak at the island’s southern tip, and a squad was dispatched to raise a flag there. The sight of the Stars and Stripes waving in the wind inspired American soldiers still fighting below. A Marine officer sent up a larger flag, which was mounted as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took what was perhaps the most famous picture of the war, and one which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. This photograph became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Of the six men who raised the flag, Navy Corpsman John H. Bradley was the last living survivor, having passed away in January 1994.
For many days after the flag raising, the battle for the island continued as, bunker by bunker, brave young Americans eliminated Japanese positions using grenades, bazookas, and flamethrowers. In all it was a 36 day battle, with approximately 70,000 U.S. Marines taking part. It was the costliest in Marine history, with nearly 7,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. Two out of every three young men were killed or wounded. In the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue” This was reflected in the awarding of 27 Medals of Honor, the most of any single operation of the war and one-third of all such medals awarded to the Marines in the war.
The sacrifice for Iwo Jima was not in vain, as American B-29 bombers (carrying 27,000 crewmen) would eventually make more than 2,400 emergency landings there and American fighter planes would use the airstrips to protect bombers flying from Saipan and Tinian to Japan. The victory on Iwo Jima saved many lives in these ways, and it hastened the end of the war. I know of at least one Polk County patriot who fought in this battle, and perhaps there are more.
On this 75th anniversary of the battle for Iwo Jima and Old Glory’s proud ascension to the summit of Mount Suribachi, each of those who had a part in this hard fought and gruesome battle deserves to be honored with eternal respect and gratitude from an America which has enjoyed these many years of freedom. At battle’s end, someone chiseled this message outside a cemetery on the island, “When you go home, tell them for us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”