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.

One of the participants, who wrote a brief history of the battle, stated, “There was no cover from enemy fire. Japs deep in reinforced concrete pillboxes laid down interlocking bands of fire that cut whole companies to ribbons. Camouflage hid all the enemy installations. The high ground on every side was honeycombed with layer after layer of Jap emplacements, blockhouses, dugouts, and observation posts. Their observation was perfect; whenever the Marines made a move, the Japs watched every step, and when the moment came, their mortars, rockets, machine guns, and artillery––long ago zeroed-in––would smother the area in a murderous blanket of fire.

“The counterbattery fire and preparatory barrages of Marine artillery and naval gunfire were often ineffective, for the Japs would merely retire to a lower level or inner cave and wait until the storm had passed. Then they would emerge and blast the advancing Marines.”

Fighting remained personal on Iwo Jima. A 24-year-old from Marvel Valley, Alabama, Sergeant Ross Franklin Gray, USMCR, was a platoon sergeant with Company A, 25th Marines, when his unit was held up by a grenade barrage near Airfield Number 1 on February 21. He pulled his platoon out of grenade range and then went forward alone to reconnoiter the enemy defenses. He discovered a large minefield and a strong network of emplacements and covered trenches.

Although under heavy enemy fire, Sergeant Gray cleared a path through the minefield and then returned to his platoon. He volunteered to lead an attack under the covering fire of three fellow Marines. Unarmed except for a huge demolition charge, he crawled to the first enemy position and blew it closed with the explosives.

Immediately taken under fire by another of the enemy positions, Gray crawled back to get another demolition charge. He then returned and destroyed the second enemy post. He did this again and again, destroying a total of six enemy pillboxes and killing 25 enemy soldiers. Not finished, he returned to the minefield and disarmed the remaining mines. He survived to wear his Medal of Honor.

As the battle slowly moved north, the 24th Marines came up against six pillboxes that were stalling the leading company. Two tanks came forward and tried to knock them out, but both tanks were themselves disabled by mines. The battalion commander asked a Marine “regular,” 43-year-old Marine Ira “Gunner” Davidson, from Chavies, Kentucky, if he could knock out the pillboxes. Davidson rounded up a gun crew of six Marines and a 37mm gun. While running across 200 yards of open ground under enemy fire, one was killed, two were wounded, and one knocked senseless before they could get the gun into position.

Davidson then set his sights on each bunker in turn, aiming for the firing slits in each pillbox and blasting away. Now protected by some riflemen, the Marines moved up to find that in each pillbox were from two to four dead Japanese. Davidson’s exacting aim had knocked out all six pillboxes by exploding his rounds inside each without destroying the emplacement itself. Davidson repeated this exploit a few days later and was awarded a Silver Star for his skills and courage.

The time had come to take Airfield Number 2 in the island’s center. During the advance of the 24th Marines on February 21, a company commander in the 2nd Battalion, Captain Joseph Jeremiah McCarthy, USMCR, a 34-year-old Chicagoan, refused to admit his men were stymied by the Japanese defenses around the airfield.

Despite heavy enemy machine-gun, rifle, and 47mm fire directed at his company, he organized a demolition and flamethrower team, covered by a rifle squad, and led them across 75 yards of fire-swept ground into a heavily fortified zone of enemy defenses. He personally threw hand grenades into the successive pillboxes as his team came up to destroy each in turn.

Seeing enemy troops attempting to escape from a destroyed position, McCarthy stood erect in the face of enemy fire and destroyed the fleeing enemy. Entering the ruins of one pillbox, he killed an enemy soldier who was aiming at one of his Marines, then went back to his company and led them in an attack that neutralized all enemy resistance within his area. Throughout this battle, he had consistently exposed himself to personally lead and encourage his Marines. He received the Medal of Honor.

Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi

The situation was no less dangerous at the supply and aid stations in the rear along the waterline. Enemy gunners seemed to target supply dumps and aid stations, and many Marines suffered second and third wounds while lying helplessly in an aid station. Vehicles bringing supplies to the forward areas were also targeted.

On the beaches, a sudden storm made unloading difficult and delayed removal of the wounded to hospital ships offshore. During the landing of the 4th Battalion, 14th Marine Artillery Regiment, on February 20, over half the battalion’s 105mm howitzers were lost to the sea and two more were lost on the beach due to high surf conditions. The surviving guns were set up on Yellow Beach and provided support for the infantry.

Advancing painfully, the 4th Marine Division had lost too many men to cover the assigned front. To assist with this, General Schmidt gave General Cates the 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, then offshore in reserve. Although he originally intended for the new arrivals to relieve the battered 25th Marines, General Cates was advised by his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Franklin A. Hart, that beach conditions and inland routes favored replacing the 23rd Marines instead, and it was so ordered.

Iwo Jima became a bloody battle between Marines above ground and Japanese deep underground, well camouflaged, and well supported by artillery, rockets, and mortars. Nights were full of enemy infiltration attempts and the occasional small counterattack. Single-plane enemy air raids dropped bombs at random, rarely hitting anything of importance, although one attack did hit the rear areas of the 25th Marines on Blue Beach on L+3. A cold, drizzling rain did little to cheer the exhausted Marines.

On February 23, L+4, a platoon of Marines reached the summit of the island’s most imposing feature: Mount Suribachi. Five men from the 28th Marines raised a small flag atop the volcanic mountain. Navy Corpsman John Bradley said, “It was so small that it couldn’t be seen from down below, so our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, sent a four-man patrol up with this larger flag….” Another group of men from the 28th Marines, including Bradley, raised the second, larger, flag––an event that was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and reproduced thousands of times. Although it was a photo that symbolized victory, final victory on Iwo Jima was still a long way off.

“It takes courage to stay at the front on Iwo Jima,” wrote Lieutenant Jim G. Lucas, a Marine Corps combat correspondent. “It takes something which we can’t tag or classify to push out ahead of those lines, against an unseen enemy who has survived two months of shell and shock, who lives beneath the rocks of the island, an enemy capable of suddenly appearing on your flanks or even at your rear, and of disappearing back into his hole. It takes courage for officers to send their men ahead, when many they’ve known since the [4th Marine] Division came into existence have already gone. It takes courage to crawl ahead, 100 yards a day, and get up the next morning, count losses, and do it again. But that’s the only way it can be done.”

The “Meat Grinder”

Having secured the Quarry and the high ground above the East Boat Basin, the 4th Marine Division was now faced with a major enemy defensive enclave. This was a mutually supporting group of defensive positions known as the “Amphitheater.” The main defenses of this area in the central and northern sections of the island––Hill 382, Turkey Knob, Charlie-Dog Ridge, and Minami Village––would soon be collectively known as the “Meat Grinder.”

The enemy had done everything possible to build these defenses. Hill 382, also known as “Radar Hill,” had the remains of a radar station atop it, but the hill itself had been hollowed out by Japanese engineers and filled with antitank guns and artillery pieces. Each resided safely in a concrete emplacement. The hill gave the enemy excellent observation over all approaches.

The remainder of Hill 382 was a honeycomb of caves, ridges, and crevices containing light and medium tanks, 57mm and 47mm guns, and infantry armed with rifles, mortars, and machine guns. Turkey Knob, some 600 yards south, was a major communications center for the Japanese and housed reinforced concrete emplacements.

In the Amphitheater, a southeastern extension of Hill 382, the Japanese had taken the bowl-shaped terrain and filled it with three tiers of heavy concrete emplacements. Here, too, were extensive communications facilities along with electric lighting for the vast underground defenses. Antitank guns and machine guns covered all approaches to Turkey Knob.

Between each of these was a jumble of rocky ground, caves, crevices, and open ground offering little, if any, protection for attacking forces. Torn trees blocked approaches, as did blasted rocks, depressions, and a host of irregular ground obstacles. This was the eastern bulge of Iwo Jima––the core of the Japanese defense in the northeastern half of the island––and the 4th Marine Division’s objective.