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.

Two Days of Fighting For Hill 382

On February 24, the 24th Marines began to move across those approaches.

After several hundred yards the Marines were stopped cold. From Charlie-Dog Ridge came heavy machine-gun, rifle, antitank, and mortar fire at point-blank range. From behind came antiaircraft fire using airbursts, antitank fire, and artillery. The Marines called for supporting fire of their own, but because they were so close to the enemy this was refused.

Only the 14th Marine Artillery’s 105mm guns were accurate enough, along with the infantry’s own 60mm and 81mm mortars; Marines of the Weapons Company dragged a 37mm gun forward and helped. Four machine guns were also pushed forward to help in suppressing enemy fire.

Then it began again. Advancing by rushes, individual squads of Marines attacked each enemy position in turn, working from one position to the next. Shooting, burning, and blasting, they fought their way to the top. By late afternoon, Companies G and I had made it and were mopping up the last of the defenders.

The 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, was not so fortunate. They hit the Amphitheater itself, suffered heavy casualties, and had to use white phosphorous smoke shells to screen the evacuation of their wounded. Among these was the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Alexander A. Vandegrift, Jr., son of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who was seriously wounded.

By this time, L+6, two-thirds of the 3rd Marine Division was ashore on Iwo Jima and had taken over the center of V Amphibious Corps’ front line. The 4th Marine Division continued on the right flank, facing the Amphitheater; one-third of the island lay in their sector. It was the most rugged terrain on the island and defended by determined enemy soldiers and sailors.

The 23rd and 24th Marines, the latter reinforced with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, and Company A, 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion, opened the attack with a fierce barrage from supporting weapons. Because enemy defenses blocked the use of tanks on the division’s front, permission had been given to move the 4th Tank Battalion’s tanks through the adjoining 3rd Marine Division’s sector. These were particularly helpful to the 23rd Marines’ advance, knocking out enemy pillboxes, machine guns, and antitank guns.

The 24th Marines and their reinforcements took on the Amphitheater and Minami Village. From offshore, the amphibian tractors tried to support the attack, but rough seas reduced their effectiveness and they were recalled.

Incredibly heavy resistance greeted the 24th Marines. Even the arrival of five tanks did little to aid the attack due to the rough ground and fierce enemy resistance. Once again, key leaders were among the first to fall to enemy fire. After gaining a few hundred yards, the attack halted for the night. General Cates alerted the 25th Marines to replace the 24th Marines in the morning. All three of its battalions, including the 2nd, which was already at the front, would resume the attack.

Using a rolling barrage, with the 14th Marine Artillery Regiment providing an artillery bombardment that advanced toward the enemy 100 yards at a time every five minutes, for 20 minutes, the 25th Marines advanced for the first 100 yards successfully. They then ran into a wall of enemy fire from the Amphitheater and Turkey Knob.

Tanks from Company A, 4th Tank Battalion, came up to assist, but they soon became targets of the enemy artillery. Attempts at counterbattery fire were frustrated by poor observation, even though two observation planes flew over the area attempting to locate the enemy guns. To the left, the 23rd Marines had doggedly moved on Hill 382 using flamethrowers, rockets, and demolitions to gain about 200 yards.

For the next two days the battle continued without pause. Time after time the Marines would gain the top of Hill 382 only to be forced back to cover by enemy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire. Fighting became hand-to-hand around the ruins of the Japanese radar station.

As one Marine later remarked, “The easiest way to describe the battle … is to say that we took the hill [Hill 382] almost every time we attacked––and that the Japs took it back.”

Marine engineers and bulldozers finally cleared a path for tanks to move to the front, and Company B, 4th Tank Battalion, came up to support the 23rd Marines. But once again, the Marines were forced to withdraw for the night. That night Japanese planes were observed parachuting supplies to their troops; Marine artillery took the drop zone under fire.

Navy Corpsman Cecil Bryan

No description of Marines in combat is complete without an acknowledgement of the brave Navy corpsman assigned to them. One such was Pharmacist’s Mate 2/c Cecil A. Bryan. During one battle on Iwo Jima, he saw First Sergeant Fred W. Lunch of the 24th Marines fall seriously wounded.

Despite heavy enemy fire, Bryan raced to the sergeant’s side and saw that his windpipe had been severed by a shell fragment. Unless something was done immediately, he would be dead within moments. Bryan knew he had to give Sergeant Lunch an alternate windpipe––but how? Thinking quickly, he reached into his medical bag and grabbed a piece of rubber tubing normally used for plasma transfusions. He cut off six inches and thrust it into Lunch’s throat. Then he carried his patient, barely alive and bleeding profusely, to an evacuation station. Lunch survived the war with no ill effects.

Combat Effectiveness Down to 50 Percent

At the Amphitheater and Turkey Knob, the 25th Marines, with the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines attached, continued their frontal attacks. There was no way to surround either terrain feature since they were mutually supporting. On February 27, the 1st Battalion attempted to flank the Amphitheater by moving through the zone of the 23rd Marines, but the latter had not advanced far enough.

Finally, late in the day an opening was cleared, and Company A, supported by tanks, moved forward. The advance soon turned into a disaster. Three tanks were quickly knocked out by enemy antitank fire, and enemy small arms, mortars, rockets, and artillery saturated Company A. Fire from Turkey Knob also ravaged the advancing Marines, and a withdrawal was soon ordered. The only significant success was the securing of the East Boat Basin by the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.

The constant attacks day after day not only wore down the Americans, but the Japanese as well. By March 1, Hill 382 was surrounded, many of the heavier enemy guns silenced, and many of the Japanese defenders dead.

For several more days the battle continued. Company E of the 24th Marines repeatedly attacked, and it seemed as if every attack cost the company a commander killed or wounded. Second Lieutenant Richard Reich, who had been with the company since L-Day, remarked, “They [the new commanding officers] came so fast,” he said, “I didn’t even get their names.”

With such fierce fighting it was little wonder that the division’s combat effectiveness was down to 50 percent. Casualties as of March 3 were preliminarily reported as 6,591 Marines killed, wounded, or missing. While this number was about 37 percent of the total division strength, it represented 62 percent of its authorized infantry strength and, as usual, the infantry carried the burden of the battle.

In other words, two of every three infantrymen who came ashore on L-Day were casualties by March 3, 1945, or L+13, after two weeks on Iwo Jima. As just one example, Captain William T. Ketcham’s Company I, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, landed with 133 Marines in the three rifle platoons. Only nine of these men remained when the battle ended.

Although some replacements had arrived and joined the depleted regiments, they were not nearly enough to bring them up to authorized strength.

The First B-29 Lands on Iwo Jima

Although fighting still raged across, below, and above Iwo Jima, a signal moment came on March 4 when the first emergency landing was made by a B-29 bomber on one of the captured airfields. The aircraft was repaired, refueled, and took off to complete its mission. By war’s end, 2,400 B-29 bombers would make unscheduled landings on the island.

Meanwhile, the strong enemy defenses caused the Marine commanders to try new techniques. When two tanks fired directly into an enemy communications blockhouse atop Turkey Knob without result, the 14th Marine Artillery was asked to send up a 75mm pack howitzer. A gun was duly brought forward with its crew and fired 40 rounds directly at the blockhouse and, while it did not destroy it, the fire neutralized the garrison sufficiently for Company F to move forward some 75 yards to a position from which it destroyed the emplacement the next day. A demolitions crew and a flamethrowing tank completed the job.

By March 9, the Marines had outflanked Hill 382 and Turkey Knob, as well as the Amphitheater; the way to Iwo’s east coast lay ahead. Division intelligence reported that the main enemy core of resistance in the 4th Marine Division’s zone had been broken.