“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.
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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.