On this day in 1945, six U.S. Marines hoist the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the jagged, sulfurous, stinking island known as Iwo Jima. The image of that moment, captured by American photographer Joe Rosenthal, won him a Pulitzer Prize and remains one of the most iconic symbols of WW2 to this day.
The Battle of Iwo Jima raged from February 19 to March 26, and is most often described by participants from the US and Japan as 36 days in hell. Designated Operation Detachment, the invasion had the goal of capturing the entire island, including the three Japanese-controlled airfields, to provide a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands. As these airfields were launching interceptor sorties against the American B-29 Superfortress bombing runs to the Imperial homeland, US planners and the Joint Chiefs gave Adm. Chester Nimitz the go-ahead.
On paper, the force invading Iwo Jima should have prevailed, quickly and violently. But the Japanese had also benefited from the prolonged island campaigns in the Pacific. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi commanded the 21,000 troops on the island, had abandoned the previous “water’s edge” strategy with its costly night time banzai attacks, and dug in. Heavily fortified with a dense network of bunkers, hidden artillery positions, and 11 miles of underground tunnels, Kuribayashi remained patient and undaunted by 110,000 American personnel supported with extensive naval artillery and complete US air supremacy.
Japanese combat deaths numbered three times the number of American deaths although, uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, American total casualties (dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner, some of whom were captured because they had been knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled. The majority of the remainder were killed in action, although it has been estimated that as many as 3,000 continued to resist within the various cave systems for many days afterwards, eventually succumbing to their injuries or surrendering weeks later.
Though the taking of Suribachi occurred in the earlier phases of the battle, and the Rosenthal photo depicts the hoisting of a second, larger flag, it is said that the image inspired the countless thousands of troops fighting for the tiny island, and millions of war-weary Americans at home.
In the aftermath, some dispute the strategic value of Iwo Jima as weighed against the cost of 26,040 casualties. One surviving Marine Corps officer thinks the question is still moot: “We saved a lot of airplanes, but whether it was worth the Marine lives to save Air Force planes, I don’t know.” However, the 2,400 Army Air Force pilots who were forced to land at Iwo Jima between its capture and V-J Day had no doubts. Said one, “Whenever I land on this island, I thank God and the men who fought for it.”
If you find yourself near to the nation’s capital, visiting the massive, Rosenthal-based Iwo Jima monument at Arlington is a must. It’s sheer scale and symbolism were as clear to your humble scribe at the age of 11 as they are today. And here, the lesson of strength and sacrifice endeth.