“You know,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Clifton B. Cates to a war correspondent on the eve of Operation Detachment, the invasion of Iwo Jima, “if I knew the name of the man on the extreme right of the right-hand squad of the right-hand company of the right-hand battalion, I’d recommend him for a medal before we go in.”
And for good reason. General Cates’s 4th Marine Division was tasked with conducting its fourth opposed amphibious landing on a heavily defended island. The 4th was the right flank division of General Harry Schmidt’s V Amphibious Corps and, together with Maj. Gen. Keller E. Rockey’s 5th Marine Division on the left, was about to begin one of the bloodiest battles in American history. Also taking part would be Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division.
General Cates understood what his men were about to face. Born August 31, 1893, in Tiptonville, Tennessee, he was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps after receiving his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He fought in the Great War with the Marine Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division at Verdun, Belleau Wood, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne.
After inter-war duty in China and several military schools, Cates commanded the 1st Marine Regiment on Guadalcanal. Then, after commanding the Marine Corps Schools, he was sent back to the Pacific to command the 4th Marine Division, which had just completed the seizure of Saipan in July 1944. His many well-deserved decorations included the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Distinguished Service Medals, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.
Whoever the unknown Marine on the far right flank was, he was a member of the 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. Most of the men in the division had already made three or more opposed landings in the Marshall Islands, at Saipan, and most recently at Tinian, both in the Mariana Islands. Like General Cates, who had taken command of the division from General Schmidt after Saipan, they knew all too well what they were about to encounter.
They had learned fast. For a unit that had not existed when General Cates and the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal in 1942, the 4th Marine Division had been organized, trained, and took part in four amphibious assault landings in less than 13 months. And Iwo Jima, scheduled to be attacked on February 19, 1945, would be the worst.
The Strategic Importance of Iwo Jima
Iwo Jima was also important. Lying midway along the direct path from Saipan to Tokyo, Iwo Jima had two airfields with a third under construction. From here Japanese fighters were able to attack B-29 Superfortresses on bombing raids to Tokyo or returning home to Saipan, picking off bombers that had been damaged by antiaircraft fire. As a result, the B-29s had to fly higher, along circuitous routes, with a reduced payload. At the same time, enemy bombers based on Iwo often raided B-29 bases in the Marianas. Iwo’s radar station also gave the Japanese defense authorities two hours advance notice of coming B-29 strikes.
Because of the distance between mainland Japan and American bases in the Mariana Islands, Iwo Jima, if captured, would provide an emergency airfield for damaged B-29s returning from bombing runs. The seizure of Iwo would also allow for sea and air blockades, plus strengthen America’s ability to conduct intensive air bombardment and degrade Japan’s air and naval capabilities.
Iwo was, and is, an isolated, sulfurous, seven-square-mile island that is part of the Bonin Group located 750 miles south of Tokyo. The Japanese, who considered the island part of the Tokyo Prefecture, had occupied it for decades and had spent all of 1944 creating a spider web of stinking, stifling hot underground tunnels, warehouses, command posts, fortifications, and fighting positions. Two airfields were spread across the island’s surface, and 14,000 soldiers and 7,000 Japanese marines manned the defenses. The island garrison’s commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was confident that his position was as impregnable as anyone could make it.
The 4th Marine Division consisted of the standard three Marine infantry regiments (the 23rd, 24th and 25th) and one artillery regiment (the 14th). It included tank, engineer, and medical battalions as well as other supporting units. The 4th’s assignment at Iwo was to secure a beachhead, seize the first enemy airfield, and then pivot to the north and east, clearing out enemy opposition as it went. Critical to success was the reduction of the enemy’s ability to deliver flanking fire on the landing beaches from an area known as “the Quarry,” which overlooked them from the north.
The various Marine divisions and regiments had specific sectors of the two-mile-long beach assigned to them. In the first wave, Colonel John R. Lanigan’s Regimental Combat Team 25 would come ashore on Blue Beach on the right flank, Colonel Walter W. Wensinger’s RCT 23 was assigned the Yellow landing beaches (to the left of the 25th) and to assault the first enemy airfield. The 27th Marines would land on Red Beach to the left of center, while the 28th would hit Green Beach on the far left, closest to Mount Suribachi. The 24th was in reserve and would come ashore at about 5 pm on L-Day (landing day).
Softening up enemy defenses was deemed critical. After sustaining a terrific naval and aerial bombardment that lasted for days (but not as long as American commanders wanted), the Japanese, although a bit shaken and deafened, looked through their telescopes and field glasses to see the 450-ship American armada parked off the island’s southern coast.
“Land the Landing Force!”
At 6:45 am on February 19, 1945, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner signaled, “Land the landing force!” It took hours to obey that order, but shortly after 9 am Marines of the 4th and 5th Divisions began hitting Green, Red, Yellow, and Blue Beaches abreast, initially finding little enemy resistance. Kuribayashi had ordered his men to hold their fire until the beaches were crowded with invaders; most would obey. There would be no suicidal banzai charges, either.
After wading ashore, the 4th Marine Division’s 25th RCT’s mission was to push forward to take the Quarry, a Japanese strongpoint, while the 5th Marine Division’s 28th Marines had the task of attacking Mount Suribachi, which loomed 556 feet above the invasion beaches. The 3rd Marine Division would be kept in reserve and land on L+5 to capture Airfield Number 2. More than 80,000 Marines would eventually take part in Operation Detachment.
The Japanese watched and waited as the Marines in their camouflage-speckled uniforms came ashore, followed by their great, lumbering Sherman tanks. Supplies began to pile onto the black sand. The Marines were obviously relieved that, thus far, everything was proceeding without a hitch. Few shots had been fired at them. Maybe the preliminary barrages had wiped out all of the enemy.
And then, at about 10 am, the calm morning was shattered as General Kuribayashi gave the signal and hundreds of guns, firing from hidden emplacements, opened up on the Marines.
Colonel Wensinger’s RCT 23 discovered that trying to run across the soft, yielding volcanic sand was like running through molasses. Struggling inland under increasingly severe enemy fire, they pushed forward until they reached the edge of Motoyama Airfield Number 1 in early afternoon. But enemy opposition had depleted the ranks of the leading battalion, and despite support from Lt. Col. Richard K. Schmidt’s 4th Tank Battalion, the attack stalled at the edge of the airfield. Even the tanks had difficulty reaching the airfield, several being lost to enemy mines buried in the soft sand and others temporarily stranded on the beach in that same black volcanic sand.
Wensinger’s 23rd Marines ran into a series of blockhouses and pillboxes manned by the 10th Independent Anti-Tank Battalion and the 309th Infantry Battalion. It was here that Sergeant Darren S. Cole, USMCR, a 24-year-old from Flat River, Missouri, serving with Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, became the first Marine on Iwo Jima to earn the Medal of Honor. When his squad was halted by devastating small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire, Sergeant Cole led them up the slope to Airfield Number 1 and alone destroyed two enemy positions with grenades. He then identified three enemy pillboxes threatening his men.
Putting his machine gun into action, he managed to silence the closest pillbox. Suddenly, his weapon jammed and the enemy opened up a renewed fusillade, including knee mortars. Sergeant Cole, armed only with a pistol and one hand grenade, charged alone at the enemy, tossed his grenade, and then returned for more. He repeated this action twice more, each time knocking out an enemy position. As he destroyed the final enemy post, he returned to his squad only to be killed by an enemy hand grenade. His self-sacrifice had enabled Company B to continue its advance against Airfield Number 1.
Colonel Wensinger ordered his reserve battalion, Major James S. Scales’s 3rd, into the fight. As Major Scales’s men came forward, the tanks were forced to withdraw under an intense Japanese antitank barrage. Nearby, Major Robert H. Davidson’s 2nd Battalion couldn’t even get tank support, so intense was the enemy fire. Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon the Marines of the 23rd Regiment, through sheer guts, had reached and secured the edges of the airfield.