Donald Elder: Events in American History: Iwo Jima

Jun 11, 2016 by

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An Interview with Donald Elder: Events in American History: Iwo Jima

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one of the pictures that almost all historians have seen is the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Can you tell us a bit about what was occurring at that time?

World War II had started for the United States in December of 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. After suffering a continuous string of defeats for the first six months of the conflict, the United States finally handed Japan its first setback at the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. In August of that year, the United States went on the offensive, launching a campaign to capture the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. American forces succeeded in securing that objective in early February of 1943, and military planners then began to map out a strategy for eventually taking the war to the Japanese mainland. This effort would primarily involve Army and Marine Corps divisions capturing enemy-held islands, but it also included plans for the US Army Air Force (the Air Force would not become a separate branch until 1947) to undertake a campaign to bomb Japanese cities.

After US forces seized the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the summer of 1944, B-29 bombers began flying missions to accomplish that goal. While most B-29s returned safely after bombing Japan, many did not. Some developed engine trouble, while others failed to return home because of damage inflicted by Japanese fighter planes or anti-aircraft fire. Examining the route that the B-29s flew on their way to Japan, US military leaders deduced that enemy bases in the Volcano Islands undoubtedly contributed to the losses suffered by the American bombers.

They identified the island of Iwo Jima as the most problematic enemy base, as it had three airfields that Japanese fighter planes could operate from. In addition, reconnaissance revealed that the forces stationed on Iwo Jima had the capability of transmitting information to Japan about the B-29 missions, allowing anti-aircraft units to prepare for the arrival of the bombers. Because of this, American military leaders developed plans for conquering the island. They christened the campaign Operation Detachment, and set the invasion date for February 19, 1945.

2. Who were the military leaders at that event?

For the United States, the war against Japan consisted of two main campaigns to eventually conquer the enemy homeland. One of these efforts primarily involved US Army units, and focused on advancing toward Japan through New Guinea and the Philippines. The other campaign relied most heavily on Marine forces capturing enemy-held islands through the Central Pacific. Because Iwo Jima lay in that path, the Marines received the assignment to secure the island.

Since the Marine Corps is a part of the US Navy, a naval officer—Admiral Raymond Spruance, who had fought at the Battle of Midway—commanded Operation Detachment. Marine Corps Major General Harry Schmidt had the responsibility for the troops that would land on Iwo Jima. Japanese forces on Iwo Jima numbered close to 21,000, and consisted of units from both their Army and Navy. Japanese Army Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi commanded these forces.

3. What do we know about those brave soldiers that raised the flag?

As evidenced by the name of the island chain that Iwo Jima belonged to, it had a volcanic origin. Although long dormant, the volcano that created Iwo Jima (known as Suribachi) still dominated the landscape. As the Marines landed on the island, Japanese forces occupying Mount Suribachi rained deadly fire down on the Americans. General Schmidt knew that to secure the island, the Marines would have to capture Mount Suribachi.

On February 23, two small Marine units made their way to the top, and then reported their accomplishment back to their superiors. A larger unit then went up Mount Suribachi, and planted a small American flag on the summit. That caught the attention of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who had accompanied the invasion fleet to Iwo Jima. Forrestal asked for the flag as a souvenir, and the Marines obliged. A Marine officer then sent his runner up Mount Suribachi with a larger flag.

Five Marines and a Navy Corpsman attached the flag to a piece of pipe they found, and then raised the flag and secured it in place. An Associated Press photographer named Joe Rosenthal had accompanied the Marines up Mount Suribachi, and he managed to take a picture as the six men raised the flag. He sent the roll of film he used that day to his superiors, and when they saw the photograph of the flag raising they immediately recognized its powerful nature. Released for publication, Rosenthal’s photograph graced the front page of many American newspapers on Sunday, February 25. Soon, it appeared on the cover of magazines and on posters. It would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize as the best photograph of 1945. Rosenthal would go on to become one of the nation’s most respected photographers, earning many accolades before his death in 2006.

Sadly, by then all six of the men photographed by Rosenthal had already passed away. Three of them—Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Michael Strank—died in combat on Iwo Jima after the flag raising. The military withdrew the other three at that point, and sent them to the United States for a national tour to sell war bonds. When the war ended, the three received honorable discharges, and returned to civilian life.

Ira Hayes, a Native American of the Pima tribe, never really adjusted to his new life, and died in 1955. Rene Gagnon, who had brought the larger flag to the summit of Mount Suribachi, died in 1979. The Navy corpsman, John “Doc” Bradley, lived the longest of the six, passing away at the age of 70 in 1994.

4. How many men died that day? And did this battle contribute at all to the ending of the war?

Conquering Iwo Jima proved extremely costly for the Americans. 6,800 of them died, and another 20,000 suffered wounds. Virtually all of the 21,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima died. Most perished during the actual combat, but others died in caves that the Marines had sealed off. Only 216 Japanese surrendered during the campaign, but in the years to come a few more emerged from concealed positions to give themselves up. The last two to do so finally surrendered in 1949. Regarding its significance, historians differ on whether the Battle for Iwo Jima benefited either side. Some believe that the capture of the island meant a safer passage for the B-29s bound for Japan, and note that over 2,000 B-29s used Iwo Jima as an emergency landing site after the Marines secured the island. Others, however, point out that Japanese fighter planes based on Iwo Jima only shot down 11 B-29s, and argue that the 2,000 B-29s could easily have used other islands to land on.

Moreover, critics believe that if the United States had needed to invade the Japanese mainland, the military would have undoubtedly regretted that the loss of so many Marines at Iwo Jima. This debate will undoubtedly continue without a final resolution.

5. What have I neglected to ask about this great event in American history?

While Washington DC has many powerful memorials, one of the most striking is the monument to the United States Marine Corps. When deciding on an image to use, the government made a wise choice: it commissioned a statue depicting the flag raising at Iwo Jima captured by Joe Rosenthal. It reminds us today of the incredible heroism displayed by those Americans who risked their lives to achieve victory in a war to avenge those Americans who had lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

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