From Booklist May 15, 1999
This gripping oral history offers military students a new perspective
on an epic battle of the Pacific war. Not only infantrymen report
their experiences; those who manned tanks and artillery, rescued
the wounded, cleared the airfields, steered landing craft on and
off the beaches, and eventually came in to replace the marines when
some Japanese were still alive and fighting after the island was
declared "secured" also testify. Individual informants
vary from a Heisman Trophy winner and a career marine who eventually
retired with three stars to many who returned to civilian life with
relief and no desire to ever do anything like this again. The men
point out, among other things, the physical demands made by the
peculiar volcanic ash that covers most of the island, the various
stenches, the absence of safety at their rear, and how most of the
fighting after the first few days was a muddled mess of winkling
the Japanese out of one underground complex after another. A very
welcome addition to the Pacific war literature. Roland Green
Survivors of one of the fiercest battles of the war in the Pacific
tell their dramatic stories in this collection of oral histories.
Veterans from all the services--Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard,
Army, and Army Air Corps--are represented, everyone from infantrymen,
machine gunners, and engineers to medics, airmen, and coxswains.
Their vivid firsthand accounts of personal experiences explore the
great variety of actions that made up the campaign to win Iwo Jima
from the Japanese. Their descriptions of events add new dimensions
to the history of the monumental battle. Ordinary young Americans
thrown into extraordinary situations, they recall the details of
battle as if it happened yesterday. Their recollections not only
provide insight into military operations but reveal the effect that
battle had on the course of their lives and the meaning it holds
for them today.
Interviews with forty-five Iwo veterans were selected for this book,
among them Angelo Bertelli, the 1943 Heisman Trophy winner, and
Charles Lindberg, the last survivor of the first flag raising on
Mt. Suribachi. Most accounts were recorded face to face, while others
were sent to Kessler on tape or were handwritten. Their compelling
stories about the reality of the battle honor the sacrifice of the
6,821 Marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen who died at Iwo Jima.
An informative introduction helps set the scene.
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