"In the beginning, Iwo Jima was just an unknown island in the
north Pacific Ocean. In the end, it was to become the island of
death." That grim but accurate appraisal begins The Battle
for Iwo Jima: 1945, a blow-by-blow eyewitness account of one of
World War II's most critical--and bloody--conflicts, what author
Hell of a Way to Die) describes as "the greatest battle
in Marine Corps history."
By 1945, Iwo Jima had become a linchpin of enormous tactical importance.
Victory in Europe was all but assured, and the largest navy ever
to set sail had chased Japan's Imperial fleet back to its native
shores. But Iwo Jima remained a persistent thorn, giving Japan hours
of warning for air raids and allowing Japanese fighters to harass
B-29 bomber routes. The Americans were forced to take Iwo Jima,
and the Japanese command knew it--and even though they couldn't
hold the island, they were determined to make the U.S. pay dearly.
"[F]orewarned of the American invasion and resigned to dying
at their posts, [the Japanese] were determined to take as many Marines
with them as possible. 'Do not plan for my return,' wrote the commander
of the island, Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi, in one of his last letters
to his wife."
Wright gets on the ground, down and dirty, covering both sides
of the conflict, interviewing survivors from both sides, excerpting
official documents and letters (including Kuribayashi's), digging
up previously unpublished photos, and giving intimate tooth-and-nail
(and often grisly) accounts of every engagement, from prelanding
prep to D day to D+36. An excellent and engaging piece of work,
with enough sketches, maps, photos, and command structure org charts
to satisfy the most serious military history buff. --Paul Hughes
Reviewed Br Edward M. COFFMAN
Hell was a small volcanic island in the Pacific
for five weeks in early 1945 during World War 11. There had been
other hells for those who fought with such viciousness, and in the
remaining months of the war, there would be others, but this 7!~-square-mile
island with the steaming volcanic sand looked the part. Almost 27,000
men died there, and those who survived would never forget Iwo Jima.
In The Battle for Iwo
jima 1945, Derrick Wright provides a brief but comprehensive history
of that epic battle, while Lynn S. Kessler and Edmond B. Bart, in
Never in Doubt: Remembering Iwo Jima furnish accounts from Americans
who fought there.
"The Godforsaken Dot”
Wright deftly sets the scene. After the Americans
captured Saipan their new B-29s could attack mainland Japan, but
the round-trip of more than 2400 miles was a perilous stretch. The
godforsaken dot of Iwo Jima was roughly halfway and, if the Americans
seized it, could provide a haven for damaged bombers. The Japanese
realized this, reinforced the garrison, and began fortifying Iwo.
In May 1944, a month
before the Americans captured Saipan, Prime Minister Tojo gave the
commander of the emperor's guard, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi,
the mission of preparing Iwo for the inevitable battle. Kuribayashi
studied the other island campaigns and designed an in-depth defense
that depended on the natural caves, supplemented with elaborate
fortifications and tunnels. Wright s use of this outstanding officer's
letters, as well as testimony from several of the Japanese survivors,
gives the reader substantial coverage of the defenders.
On February 19, a beautiful
day, assault waves of Marines hit the beach. The American commanders
veterans of other island battles, assumed that victory was inevitable.
The only questions were how many lives it would cost and how long
it would take. Based on their experience, it seemed likely that,
although the fight might be bloody, it would be over within ten
days. The massive preparatory naval bombardment and the strength
of the three divisions they could bring to bear were certainly formidable.
But the Marines soon learned that the bombardment did little damage
to the Japanese fortification and that, despite their great strength--more
than 70,000 men in all--only so many could get into position to
tight the enemy, which numbered 21,000.
Wright describes and
explains the lighting day to day, as the Marines slowly pushed back
the enemy. Although a detail of Marines was able to rose a flag
on the highest point of the island, Mount Suribachi, on D plus 4,
this meant only that they had secured one small part of Iwo.
Kudbayashi had prepared
well indeed, and, once the battle was joined, he and his troops
showed skill equal to the Marines,' making them pay dearly for every
yard they advanced. The Japanese assumed that they would not get
out alive; thus, their aims were to hold as long as they could and
to kill as many Marines as possible in the process.
Kessler and Ban get across the intensity, the
visceral fear, and the horror of this battle in the oral histories
they collected from 15 veterans. These include infantrymen, artillerymen,
junior officers, tankers, engineers, sailors, replacements, and
medics (including a Navy nurse), who give a broad perspective to
the American side of the story.
All who made it through the bouncing ride in
the assault boats to shore found it difficult to walk in the black
sand that seemed to pull one down. Bodies were strewn on the beach
and then later, as the battle progressed, stacked in rows. The stench
of death permeated the atmosphere
The Enemy unseen
One rarely saw the enemy 'they were too well
dug in and hidden, but they made their presence felt with accurate,
deadly artillery and machine gun lire. Fifty years later, veterans
carry memories of seeing men blown apart, of friends killed as they
stood next to them. Casualties were so heavy that one might find
a private first class commanding a company.
Those who did live wore
their clothes for weeks and tried to get what sleep they could in
steaming hot foxholes, in which a moment's lapse in alertness could
mean death at the hands of enemy soldiers who infiltrated the lines.
Night could mean Hand to hand combat, when bone-tired men fought
for their lives. When the tanks came in with their flame-throwers,
the Marines gained the advantage, burning and burying the Japanese
in their hideouts. When it finally ended, the B-29s had their way
One of the veterans Kessler and Bart located
was Angelo Bertelli, who had won the Heisman Trophy as Notre Dame's
quarterback in 1943. He landed at Iwo as a liaison officer but soon
found himself in command of a half-strength platoon that he led
throughout the rest of the battle. Bertelli died shortly after this
book was published. But his contribution reminds us of the importance
of oral history, and these two books enable us to appreciate what
really happened at Iwo Jima.
DERRICK WRIGHT is the author of Tarawa: A Hell
of a Way to Die
LYNN S. KESSLER is the author of Honor and Glory
and writes frequently for domestic and foreign publications. EDMOND
B. BART is a U.S. Marine Corps aviator whose father fought with
the 2d Marine Division in the Central Pacific.
EDWARD M. COFFMAN is Professor Emeritus of History at
the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His books include The War to
End All Wars: The American Military experience in World War L