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The Battle of Iwo Jima (Operation Detachment)

the only Marine battle where American casualties exceeded Japanese casualties

Iwo Jima is the middle island of the three Volcano Islands, or Kazan Retto, approximately 575 miles south of mainland Japan. The island is approximately 4 miles long and about 2.5 miles across at its widest point. Mount Suribachi, the volcano which formed the island, lies at the southern tip. The northern part of the island is hilly with deep gulches, while the central part of the island is flat enough to support a landing strip.

location of Iwo Jima
location of Iwo Jima

satellite view of Iwo Jima
satellite view of Iwo Jima

"Iwo Jima" is Japanese for Sulfur Island, a name it was given because the island supported a sulfur mine prior to World War II. About 1,000 Japanese lived on Iwo Jima prior to the war, but they were removed soon after Japan entered the war. During the war, Iwo Jima served as a base for the Japanese fighter planes that intercepted American bombers on their way to mainland Japan and other targets. At the time of the American invasion it was defended by about 23,000 Japanese army and navy troops, almost all of whom were dug into a complex of underground tunnels and fortifications, some of which extended two stories down, as well as into the island's numerous natural caves and crevices.

The Battle


U.S. commanders for the operation were assigned as follows:
--Admiral Raymond A. Spruance was the operation's overall commander.
--Joint Expeditionary Force commander was Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Second in command of the Joint Expeditionary Force was Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill.
--Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith was assigned as the commanding general of the expeditionary troops.
--The 5th Amphibious Corps was commanded by Major General Harry Schmidt. Under his command fell the 3rd Marine Division commander, Major General Graves B. Erskine; the 4th Marine Division commander, Major General Clifton B. Cates; and the 5th Marine Division commander, Major General Keller E. Rockey.

Japanese defense was headed by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.


Initial carrier raids against Iwo Jima began in June 1944. Prior to the invasion, the 8-square-mile island would suffer the longest, most intensive shelling of any Pacific island during the war.

The invasion of Iwo Jima began shortly after 9 a.m. on February 19, 1945. Marines of the 4th and 5th divisions initially met little enemy resistance, but the coarse volcanic sand hampered the movement of men and machines as they struggled to move up the beach. As the protective naval gunfire subsided to allow for the Marine advance, the Japanese emerged from their fortified underground positions to begin a heavy barrage of fire against the invading force. The 4th Marine Division pushed forward against heavy opposition to take the Quarry, a Japanese strong point. The 5th Marine Division's 28th Marines had the mission of isolating Mount Suribachi. Both tasks were accomplished that day.

One day after the landing, the 28th Marines secured the southern end of Iwo and moved to take the summit of Suribachi. By day's end, one third of the island and Motoyama Airfield No. 1 was controlled by the Marines. By Feb. 23, the 28th Marines would reach the top of Mount Suribachi and raise the U.S. flag.

Mount Suribachi
Mount Suribachi

The 3rd Marine Division joined the fighting on the fifth day of the battle. These Marines immediately began the mission of securing the center sector of the island. Kuribayashi concentrated his energies and forces in the central and northern sections of the island, where miles of interlocking caves, concrete blockhouses and pillboxes proved to be one of the most impenetrable defenses encountered by the Marines in the Pacific. As with most of the fighting on Iwo Jima, frontal assault was the method used to gain each inch of ground. By nightfall on March 9, the 3rd Division reached the island's northeastern beach, cutting the enemy defenses in two.

On the left of the 3rd Marine Division, the 5th Marine Division pushed up the western coast of Iwo Jima from the central airfield to the island's northern tip. Moving to seize and hold the eastern portion of the island, the 4th Marine Division encountered a "mini banzai" attack from the final members of the Japanese Navy serving on Iwo. This attack resulted in the death of nearly 700 enemy and ended the centralized resistance of enemy forces in the 4th Division's sector. The 4th Division would join forces with the 3rd and 5th on the coast on March 10.

By March 11 enemy resistance was no longer centralized and from that time on the individual pockets of resistance had to be taken one by one.

Finally on March 26, following a banzai attack against troops and air corps personnel near the beaches, the island was declared secure. The U.S. Army's 147th Infantry regiment assumed ground control of the island on April 4, relieving the largest body of Marines committed in combat in one operation during World War II.

Raising the U.S. Flag Atop Mount Suribachi

At 8 a.m., on Feb. 23, a patrol of 40 men from 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, led by 1st Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, assembled at the base of Mount Suribachi. The platoon's mission was to take the crater at Suribachi's peak and raise the U.S. flag. The platoon slowly climbed the steep trails to the summit, but encountered no enemy fire. As they reached the top, the patrol members took positions around the crater watching for pockets of enemy resistance as other members of the patrol looked for something on which to raise the flag. At 10:20 a.m., the flag was hoisted on a steel pipe above the island. This symbol of victory sent a wave of strength to the battle-weary fighting men below, and struck a further mental blow against the island's defenders. Marine Corps photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery captured this first flag raising on film just as the enemy hurled a grenade in his direction. Dodging the grenade, Lowery hurled his body over the edge of the crater and tumbled 50 feet. His camera lens was shattered, but he and his film were safe. Three hours later another patrol was dispatched to raise another, larger flag. The battle for Iwo Jima is encapsulated by this historic flag raising atop Suribachi, which was captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. His photo, seen around the world as a symbol of American values, would earn him many awards including the 1945 Pulitzer Prize.

raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi
raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi


The 36-day assault on Iwo Jima resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived. It was the only Marine battle where American casualties exceeded Japanese casualties. The Marines' efforts, however, provided a vital link in the U.S. chain of bomber bases. By war's end, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen made unscheduled landings on the island, with the first emergency landing occuring on March 4, while the Marines were still fighting to secure the island. Fighters began to operate from Iwo Jima on March 11, 1945.

Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors, many posthumously, more than were awarded for any other single operation during the war.


Naval History and Heritage Command

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The Robinson Library >> World War II, 1939-1945

This page was last updated on 08/10/2018.