Blood and Ash

Collin Beus

Blood and Ash:
The Battle of Iwo Jima

Thesis and Outline

The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the costliest American battles of WWII because of the
strategic importance of the island and the leadership of both sides.
I. Background to Iwo Jima
A. Japan’s expansion in the Pacific
B. American island-hopping campaign
II. Strategic Importance of the Island
A. Importance to Japan
B. Importance to United States
III. Leadership
A. Tadamichi Kuribayashi
B. Defense of Iwo Jima
C. American leadership
D. Effects of leadership on the battle

A little-known fact about hell: it can be found on the map. No, I’m not talking about any
small towns in the world that are quirkily named after the underworld. I’m talking about a small,
ash-covered island where thousands of men died in the most brutal and tortuous ways. The name
of this location? Iwo Jima. When most Americans hear this name, their minds conjure up the
image of six soldiers heroically mounting the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. To many,
this image symbolizes the highest forms of patriotism and valor. But, although it has been
romanticized, the actual battle for Iwo Jima was much bloodier and messier than most
Americans know. In fact, it was one of the costliest battles in Marine Corps history. Taking this
small island was a crucial step in the U.S. Pacific island-hopping campaign leading up to the
Japanese home islands, but it came at a high cost: some of the most brutal and bloody fighting in
all of WWII that left 6,000 Marines dead and many more wounded. Was winning this island
from the Japanese worth it? Why was this the only battle of the war where American casualties
exceeded that of the Japanese? The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the costliest American battles
of WWII because of the strategic importance of the island and the leadership of both sides.


It’s important to understand the circumstances leading up to the Battle of Iwo Jima, and
why the opposing forces of Japan and the United States found themselves at war over this little
island. To understand this, the battle must be viewed in the larger context of the Pacific War. The
day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on
Japan. From this point onwards, Japan swiftly began capturing island after island, including the
American islands of Guam and Wake. This was the start of not only the War in the Pacific, but a
long Japanese campaign in the coming years to expand their empire, with the eventual goal of
conquering as far south as Australia and New Zealand and as far west as India (Taylor). Why

were the Japanese so intent on expanding, though? Were they motivated solely by greed for more
land and resources? According to Iwo Jima veteran Richard Wheeler in his novel Iwo, “[The
Japanese] dreamed of creating a rich and powerful empire, one of benefit to all people of their
color, and one safe not only from Western exploitation but also from Russian communism. Many
Japanese viewed the war [in the Pacific] as a holy crusade” (Wheeler 6). After years of Western
“exploitation” of Pacific islands, the Japanese saw it as their right to finally assert their power
and way of life over all peoples in the East and the Pacific. By the end of 1942, Japanese
expansion had reached as far south as the Solomon Islands off the northern coast of Australia as
well as most of Papua New Guinea. At last, the American Navy and other Allied forces began to
turn the tide of the war against Japan, winning decisive battles such as the Battles of Guadalcanal

and Midway. Led by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, American forces led a successful island-
hopping campaign to reclaim island after island from the Japanese.

By early 1945, the Japanese navy was virtually decimated, and American forces found
themselves at the doorstep of the Japanese home islands. Although victory seemed inevitable for
the Allied countries, “the timing and cost were still unclear” (Roehrs 200). Having grown more
and more desperate, “military planners in Tokyo placed their last hopes on exacting such a heavy
cost in Allied lives in the approaching campaigns that negotiated peace would substitute for
unconditional surrender” and Japan could hopefully maintain at least a part of their once mighty
empire (200). Overall, the Japanese knew they were hopelessly outmatched, but were determined
to make the upcoming battles exceedingly bloody and brutal for their enemies. And thus,
American and Japanese forces found themselves drawn to the tiny island of Iwo Jima.


Strategic Importance of Iwo Jima

In the context of the Pacific War, Iwo Jima was of immense strategic importance to both
sides, resulting in determined fighting and massive casualties in the ensuing battle. But where is
this small island? Iwo Jima lies roughly 575 miles south of the Japanese coast and 660 miles
south of Tokyo. Translated into English, Iwo Jima means “Sulfur Island”—an appropriate name
for an island pockmarked with steaming sulfur deposits. The small fan-shaped island has a
meager area of eight square miles, and its boldest feature is the looming form of a 550-foot
extinct volcano known as Mt. Suribachi (Nalty 1). The rest of the island consists of twisting
black ravines, plateaus covered in volcanic ash, and ridges 340 to 368 feet in height (1). How
could such an insignificant, virtually inhabitable island become a main focus of two warring
world powers? Despite its small size, Iwo Jima held strategic significance for both the Japanese
and the Americans.
For the Japanese, Iwo Jima had already been serving in the Pacific War as a
“sophisticated observation platform” with numerous radar installations (Roehrs 201). This
allowed the Japanese to be constantly aware of enemy movements in the area. The island also
served as Japan’s “forward air warning station, advising of approaching American bombers from
the Mariana islands long before they reached Japan” (201). This advanced warning saved many
Japanese lives and lessened the impact of American bombers on the homeland. Additionally,
Japanese military leaders had constructed and used two full-length airfields to launch direct
attacks on these American bombers headed to the Japanese home islands. For such a tiny island,
Iwo Jima posed a significant threat to American planes and American efforts at fire-bombing

For the Americans, taking Iwo Jima became a main objective partially to eliminate these
threats posed by Japanese forces stationed there. But, Richard Wheeler also clarifies that Iwo
Jima had to be taken “to use as a base to help cover naval operations in Japanese waters, to equip
with a fighter escort service for the very long-range bombers, the new B-29 Superforts, that were
soon to start bombing Japan from the Marianas bases, and to provide these bombers with an
emergency landing place” (Wheeler 30). So, not only was it essential to knock out Iwo Jima as a
Japanese air base and radio station, but the island itself was an invaluable step towards the
Japanese home islands. Its sufficiently large airfields could serve as emergency landing strips for
crippled bombers returning from Japan, and the island could serve as a convenient naval base as
well. For these reasons, the Chief Joints of Staff (essentially the four top US military
commanders of the different military branches) decided in late 1944 that taking Iwo Jima would
become a main objective of their upcoming assaults. And by the war’s end, they weren’t proven
wrong on the island’s importance. An official analysis from the US Marines two decades after
the end of the war stated that “by the war’s end 2,251 heavy bombers carrying 24,761 Americans
had found refuge at Iwo Jima” (Nalty 9). Thus, the island became extremely valuable to the US
Air Force throughout the rest of the fight against Japan.
Both Japan and the United States were determined to have Iwo Jima as a valuable air and
naval base. This great value to both sides led to a bloody struggle for the island in which both
sides were determined to take the island at virtually any cost, leading to the deaths and injuries of
many Marines and the deaths of almost all the Japanese defenders.

Perhaps the most direct influence on the enormous loss of life of Americans on Iwo Jima
was the leadership of Japanese forces stationed on the island. Lieutenant General Tadamichi

Kuribayashi had been assigned to the defense of the island—a smart choice by Japanese war
planners in Tokyo. Kuribayashi was not only a seasoned war veteran in his early fifties, having
served in China in the 1930’s, but was also a brilliant tactician with an eye for details (Burrell
12). Additionally, Kuribayashi spoke English and, due to two trips to the U.S. in the 1920’s, was
very familiar with “American methods of operation” (Caruso 14). This meant that the Japanese
defenders had the distinct advantage of having a general with immense knowledge about the
strategies and tendencies of his enemy commanders. General Kuribayashi was truly a force to be
reckoned with.
By February 1945, the month of the American invasion of Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi and his
men had turned the island into a formidable fortress unlike the world had ever seen. In fact, it has
been recorded that “observers who examined German fortified areas in both World War I and
World War II testified that they had never witnessed a location so thoroughly defended as Iwo
Jima” (Burrell 48). How had they turned this sulfurous, volcanic island into a place of adequate
security and defense? In the months leading up to the American invasion, Kuribayashi had
overseen the construction of three airfields, sixteen miles of connected underground tunnel
systems, and a network of 1,500 interconnecting caves. Historian Mark D. Roehrs described the
defense of the island as a honey-combing of “bunkers, emplacements, and machine gun nests, all
well camouflaged. Many of the Japanese emplacements were impenetrable even to direct naval
gunfire” (Roehrs 201). Japanese soldiers would be well protected from American airstrikes and
naval bombardments in this way. Also, Kuribayashi strategically placed gun emplacements so
that the Japanese were “capable of hitting any inch of the island” (Caruso 15). This meant that no
location on the island was safe from Japanese fire, which lead to constant danger and heavy
casualties for U.S. Marines.

The preparation of American generals for the invasion of Iwo Jima had less of an impact
on American casualties than did Kuribayashi’s defense, but is still quite notable. American
forces composed of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions were chosen for the invasion, and were
led by Major General Harry Schmidt. Like Kuribayashi, General Schmidt had plenty of military
experience, and had played a leading role earlier in the Pacific War (Wheeler 46). However, the
preparation of him and other U.S. officials for the upcoming battle proved to lack the foresight
and brilliance of Kuribayashi’s preparation. Due to disputes between some of the American
leaders, the planned ten-day naval and air bombardment of Iwo Jima was reduced to a mere
three-day bombardment. The attack was still the most extensive and brutal of any pre-invasion
bombardment during the Pacific War, but ultimately had little effect on the strong Japanese
fortifications. This was because Kuribayashi had “ordered his men to stay in underground
shelters until the shelling had lifted, then to man their weapons. The Japanese commander
yielded the beaches. He placed his confidence in the elaborate defensive system tunneled among
the tortuous ravines of the northern plateau” (Nalty 2). Overall, American leaders underestimated
Kuribayashi, and had no idea that the Japanese were so well fortified and so well prepared.
The day of the invasion finally came on February 19, 1945. At 0900 (9 am), the first
American Marines landed on the beaches in amphibious tractor vehicles, quickly unloading from
the backs of the barges and trudging up onto the black sands of the beach. They had commands
to take Airfield No. 1 in the center of the island, as well as Mt. Suribachi to the south, by the end
of the day—a command that proved to be impossible. As the first wave of Marines to hit the
beaches advanced across the plateau, the Japanese suddenly opened fire from their camouflaged
positions dotted all across the landscape. They mowed down Americans with machine guns,
blasted convoys and tanks with mortar fire, and remained virtually invisible to the Marines.

Despite all of this, American soldiers advanced forward, but as many as 1 in 4 of them perished
in the initial fighting. The most effective weapons of the Americans against these Japanese
fortifications proved to be flamethrowers, used to flush out the Japanese from cave entrances and
pillboxes. Yet, each fortification had to be taken individually, and the Japanese soldiers had
commands from Kuribayashi to fight to the bitter end. In fact, “it was largely because the
majority of Kuribayashi’s troops obeyed his orders to make maximum use of their defenses,
supporting each other in an organized manner as long as possible, that Iwo Jima was so difficult
to conquer” (Wheeler 147). Rather than the relatively easy three days to conquer the island that
American generals had planned on, the island of Iwo Jima took virtually a month to conquer.
American underestimation and Japanese determination contributed to the brutality and slow pace
of the battle.
Although the island was declared secure on March 16th, the last pockets of Japanese
defenders weren’t eliminated until around March 26th. And interestingly, individual Japanese
soldiers held out even longer. Two defenders didn’t surrender until 1951, long after the war’s
end (Japanese Soldiers). This truly demonstrated the Japanese honor and courage in the face of
imminent death, particularly when led and encouraged by such a brilliant commander as
Kuribayashi. The Americans had finally taken Iwo Jima, but at an exceedingly bloody and steep
price due to determined Japanese leadership.

In the end, Iwo Jima had to be taken by American forces for its strategic importance, but
determination on both sides as well as brilliant leadership on the part of the Japanese exacted one
of the heaviest costs on American forces in all of WWII. Around 5,931 Marines perished on the
volcanic slopes of that island, with an additional 17,372 Marines wounded. Only the subsequent

battle of Okinawa resulted in more American casualties. The Japanese defenders had nearly as
many casualties as well, with almost all its 22,000 defenders perishing.

So it’s absolutely true that acts of valor and sacrifice took place on Iwo Jima. Twenty-
seven Medals of Honor were awarded for action in Iwo Jima—more than any other battle in U.S.

history. Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the Marines hoisting the flag over Mt. Suribachi
inspired millions of Americans and continues to do so today. But to truly recognize the sacrifice
of those young Marines, Iwo Jima must be remembered for the hell it was.


Works Cited

Burrell, Robert S. The Ghosts of Iwo Jima. Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
Caruso, Patrick F. Nightmare on Iwo. Naval Institute Press, 2001.
Nalty, Bernard C. The United States Marines in the Battle for Iwo Jima. Historical Branch, G-3
Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1962.
Roehrs, Mark D. World War II in the Pacific. Edited by William A. Renzi. M.E. Sharpe, 2004.
Taylor, Alan. “World War II: The Pacific Islands.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25

Sept. 2011,

“10 Japanese Soldiers Who Didn’t Surrender On August 15, 1945.” Listverse, 17 July 2017,
Wheeler, Richard. Iwo. Naval Institute Press, 1994.

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