Clint Eastwood’s recent films about Iwo Jima have served to recall an important page of American military history. Should Iwo Jima now be celebrated as an example of American courage and bravery? Or, was it another shameful chapter in the wanton loss of American lives in a Pacific War battle that had virtually nothing to do with defeating Japan?
It is important to understand why the area commanders decided to invade Iwo Jima. The B-29s needed a safe haven, an emergency landing site, midway between their home base in the Marianas Islands and Japan. After the battle, Iwo Jima did in fact serve as a safe haven for the crippled 2,400 B-29s that landed there during their 3,000 mile round trip.
But which was the objective in taking Iwo Jima? To win the war? Or, was it to save the lives of the B-29 air crews? This muddled military thinking was no doubt influenced by the record of a trouble-prone plane that had been plagued with problems, one after another ever since inception, especially with engines that overheated, destroying the plane’s wing assembly.
Long before Iwo Jima, the Japanese High Command had decided there was no hope for victory. Their objective, accordingly, was to make America pay dearly in blood for each battle hereafter. Iwo Jima would exact the bloodiest toll of American lives up to that time.
The battle plan for General Kuribayashi, the Iwo Jima Commander, called for “a gradual depletion of the enemy’s attack forces.” He told his troops, “Even if the situation gets out of hand, defend a corner of the island to the death!” Another order exhorted his soldiers to “kill ten of the enemy before dying!”
In one of his last letters to his wife, the General told her, “Do not look for my return.”
The Japanese had learned well from each battle how to build up their defenses, how to thwart each of the oncoming assaults of the American juggernaut. What had America learned? Had we altered our battle plans, especially in view of what we knew about Japan’s increasingly more formidable redoubts? Had we decided how best to deal with their dogged defenses?
In all of our amphibious assaults before this one, US forces had always landed in direct. massive assaults on the beaches. Iwo Jima would be no different; the Marines would debark from their landing craft on Iwo Jima’s 3,000 yards of beaches under the same withering Japanese gunfire they had encountered in all battles before this one.
What about “softening up” bombardment? Renowned Marine General Holland Smith had urged sustained bombardment by the Navy’s heavy guns prior to the landings. When considering the high esteem with which Smith was held by his fellow senior officers it seems incredible that his sound advice was completely ignored. No, the landings would proceed just as they had in battles before this one.
There are many who contributed to the sad legacy of Iwo Jima: the Boeing Company, which continued to manufacture faulty planes all during the war; the US Air Force, whose procurement agents seemingly chose to look the other way as these lousy planes were handed off to the air crews; and those in command whose decision to take the island resulted in 26,000 US casualties, a fateful decision with no direct connection to the defeat of Japan. In no small measure, these casualties came about by the order to launch a direct, frontal assault on an island US commanders knew to be heavily prepared against such assaults.