The Battle of Iwo Jima Proved That Marines Have Grit

The Battle of Iwo Jima Proved That Marines Have Grit

Thirty-six days of hell.

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.

“One of the Worst Blood-Lettings of the War”

Colonel Lanigan’s RCT 25 was on the extreme right of V Amphibious Corps. Their assignment was twofold. After landing over the Blue Beaches, they were to attack in two directions; Lt. Col. Hollis Mustain’s 1st Battalion was to strike directly inland, protecting the right flank of the 23rd Marines attacking Airfield Number 1, while Lt. Col. Justice M. Chambers’s 3rd Battalion was assigned to take the Quarry. Because of concerns that fire from the Quarry and East Boat Basin would be severe against the landing beaches, Blue Beach 2 was not used, and Chambers’s battalion landed behind Mustain’s battalion over Blue Beach 1.

Because the two battalions followed each other across Blue Beach 1 under heavy enemy fire, some confusion and mixing of units resulted. The 3rd Battalion in particular was hard hit, with Company K losing eight officers by mid-afternoon; Company I lost six others and Company L another five. The supporting tanks of Company A, 4th Tank Battalion only drew more enemy fire. A bulldozer cutting a road off Blue Beach 1 was destroyed when it hit a large enemy mine hidden in the sand, and the tanks of Company A were halted barely 100 yards off the beach by a large enemy minefield.

Using their main 75mm guns, Company A’s tankers provided what support they could to the Marines attacking the enemy positions in the cliffs and pillboxes to the north. Engineers from the 4th Engineer Battalion worked under enemy fire to clear the blocking minefield.

Landing 15 minutes after H-hour, Lt. Col. Chambers’s 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, took the heaviest beating of the day on the extreme right while trying to scale the cliffs leading to the Quarry. “Crossing that second terrace,” Chambers recalled, “the fire from automatic weapons was coming from all over. You could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by. I knew immediately we were in for one hell of a time.”

The enemy bombardment was unlike anything the Marines had ever experienced. There was hardly any cover. Japanese artillery and mortar rounds blanketed every corner of the 3,000-yard-wide beach. Large-caliber coast defense guns and dual-purpose antiaircraft guns firing horizontally caught the Marines in a deadly crossfire from both flanks.

Marines searched for cover in vain as the Japanese artillery and machine-gun fire cut them to shreds. One Marine combat veteran observing this expressed a grudging respect for the Japanese gunners. “It was one of the worst blood-lettings of the war,” said Major Frederick Karch of the 14th Marine Artillery Regiment. “They rolled those artillery barrages up and down the beach—I just didn’t see how anybody could live through such heavy fire barrages.”

At sea, Lt. Col. Donald M. Weller, the naval gunfire officer with Task Force 51, tried desperately to hit the Japanese gun positions that were blasting 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, from the Quarry. It would take longer to coordinate this fire: the first Japanese barrages had wiped out the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines’ entire shore fire control party.

Medal of Honor in the Quarry Battle

As the two battalions of the 25th Marines attacked in different directions against strong enemy resistance, they soon lost contact with each other. This had been foreseen, and Colonel Lanigan called forward Lt. Col. Lewis C. Hudson’s 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, from Blue Beach 1 to fill the gap.

With all his battalions now on line, Colonel Lanigan ordered a coordinated attack to clear the beaches and move on the airfield and the Quarry. This attack began well, but soon both the 1st and 2nd Battalions were forced to ground by enemy fire. The 3rd Battalion managed to clear about 200 yards before halting.

The 3rd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Justice M. Chambers, USMCR, of Huntington, West Virginia, was already a legend in the Marine Corps before he ever set foot on Iwo Jima. Having served as a Marine Raider in the Solomon Islands campaign before joining the 4th Marine Division, he had earned a reputation as a daring leader in addition to several medals for bravery.

He was also a caring leader and trained his battalion hard. Chambers preached “mental conditioning” to his men and kept them for weeks on the rifle range to ensure accurate marksmanship. Not much for close-order drill, he kept his men out in the field, training at every opportunity. Some men groused and even considered revolt but gradually came to respect their battalion commander when they began to realize they were among the best trained battalions in the division. Now, after three campaigns, they would follow Chambers’s lead anywhere.

On L-Day at Iwo Jima, he led them against the Quarry. It was a bitter, brutal fight and cost the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines dearly.

By late afternoon, Chambers reported to Colonel Lanigan that of the 900 Marines he had landed with that morning only 150 were still on their feet as the first day ended. Lanigan immediately rushed up elements of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, to the Quarry battle.

As night fell, Chambers’s battalion, or what was left of it, was relieved by Major Paul S. Treitel’s 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. For his personally courageous leadership of 3rd Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, from February 19 to February 22, when he was seriously wounded, Lt. Col. Chambers was awarded a Medal of Honor.

Eight Percent Casualties

Not far behind the thin line of Marine infantrymen, Colonel Louis G. DeHaven’s 14th Marine Artillery Regiment landed over the now secured beaches. Because of the heavy and accurate Japanese fire, only the 1st and 2nd Battalions came ashore on L-Day, the 3rd and 4th Battalions landing the following day.

The artillerymen had problems of their own. The beachhead was too small and did not include areas that had been preselected for the artillery to emplace their guns. There were no roads inland, and the soft sand hindered movement of heavy equipment. Casualties, including a battalion commander, further hindered the artillery. Even Lt. Col. Carl A. Youngdale’s 4th Battalion, which had spent the day aboard ships awaiting orders to land, suffered six casualties from enemy shells falling among the transports.

Japanese tactics so far in the Pacific War had been to launch a major counterattack on the first night of any invasion of their islands. This “defense at the water’s edge” doctrine had broken the back of Japanese resistance in many island battles. But not at Iwo Jima. Although enemy artillery and mortars pounded the Marines all night long, no serious ground attack was launched against the V Amphibious Corps’ beachhead. Iwo Jima was already showing signs of being a different type of battle than those the Marines had fought earlier in the Pacific.

The constant Japanese barrage took a toll, however. Both Lt. Col. Ralph Haas, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, and his operations officer were killed during the night, and the supply dump of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, on Blue Beach was destroyed by enemy rockets. Preliminary casualty counts showed that about eight percent of the 30,000 men who landed on L-Day had become casualties. Of these 2,420 casualties, about 20 percent, or 548 men, had been killed.

February 20 dawned clear and with good visibility. The 4th Marine Division attacked toward Airfield Number 1 with the 23rd and 25th Marines abreast; battalions of the 24th Marines reinforced both regiments. With the support of Company C, 4th Tank Battalion, the 23rd Marines secured the airfield, breaching an important section of the Japanese defensive line. Minefields, rough terrain, and fierce enemy opposition slowed the advance. Heavy rocket, artillery, and mortar barrages constantly struck the advancing Marines.

Late in the afternoon, the 23rd Marines made contact with the 27th Marines of the 5th Marine Division, forming a connected line of advance across the middle of the island. The 25th Marines advanced with two battalions, while the attached 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, held in place at the Quarry until the rest of the corps came alongside.

Again, the cost of the advance was high. A mortar shell knocked out the command staff of the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, and killed the commander of Company B, 4th Tank Battalion. Lt. Col. James Taul, the executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, then in reserve, took command of the 2nd Battalion.

Knocking Out Bunkers on Iwo Jima

Meanwhile, the fight raged on. Lieutenant Arthur W. Zimmerman, seeing that tank support was desperately needed, constantly exposed himself to direct tank fire against a blockhouse that had his platoon pinned down. A tank commander, Sergeant James R. Haddix, volunteered to remain in an exposed position protecting several Marines who were pinned down in a shell hole, eliminating every enemy threat that came against them.