Signs that the Japanese were suffering were becoming clear. The one and only major counterattack against the 4th Marine Division came on the morning of March 9, when enemy troops were discovered infiltrating the lines of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines and 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines.
This infiltration quickly turned into a major counterattack but was by no means a wild banzai charge for which the Japanese were known. The enemy troops worked their way as close as possible to the American lines before revealing themselves. Several managed to advance to the battalion command post of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, before being killed. Others carried stretchers and shouted, “Corpsman!” in English to disguise themselves while penetrating the Marine lines. Most of the fighting fell to Company E, 23rd Marines, and Company L, 24th Marines.
Daylight found some 850 enemy dead in and around the friendly lines; many more were thought to have been carried back to Japanese lines.
General Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division also encountered extremely stubborn defenses during its frontal assault to take Airfield Number 2, but take it they did. By nightfall on March 9, the 3rd had reached Iwo’s northeastern beach, cutting the enemy defenses in two.
Hard fighting was by no means over, however. When the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, moved into rough terrain north of Turkey Knob, the unit went quietly, with no pre-assault bombardment. For a few minutes all seemed well, but then a barrage of rocket and mortar fire hit the battalion; close fire from enemy machine guns soon joined in the battle.
Friendly tanks and artillery answered. A thousand gallons of flamethrower fuel (jellied gasoline) and thousands of rounds of 75mm fire were hurled against the concrete communications blockhouse, which was again active. The battalion was nevertheless forced to withdraw; it spent the night absorbing replacements for the many casualties it had suffered.
Indeed, so short of men was the division that a “4th Provisional Battalion” was organized from supporting troops and placed under the command of Lt. Col. Melvin L. Krulewitch, who had been the 4th Division support group commander.
It had become common practice for companies to be shifted from one battalion to another simply to bring the assault battalion for that day up to near normal strength. The 24th Marines were forced to disband one rifle company in both the 1st and 2nd Battalions, using those men to strengthen the remaining companies.
The 4th Marine Division’s Last Major Attack
The 4th Marine Division continued to clear its zone on Iwo Jima. Patrols sent out by the 23rd Marines on March 10 reported that they had reached the coast. The 25th Marines continued to advance on the right against strong but not determined resistance; the 3rd and 5th Marine Divisions would join them there. Clearly Japanese resistance had been broken.
A two-regiment attack on March 11 pushed forward against moderate resistance. Combat engineers followed and destroyed any enemy positions found. The 23rd Marines settled down for the night about 400 yards from the coast, the best position from which to cover their front.
The 25th Marines, facing more opposition, including rocket, mortar, and small-arms fire, continued forward. A prisoner captured during the day reported that about 300 enemy troops remained hidden in caves and tunnels in the small area left under Japanese control. He also reported that a Japanese major general commanded the group.
The remaining Japanese had good terrain from which to continue their resistance. Once again crevices, caves, and ridges covered the area. To avoid more casualties, a surrender appeal was broadcast to these defenders and the enemy general, thought to be Maj. Gen. Sadasue Senda, commanding the 2nd Mixed Brigade.
When the appeal failed, the attack began. Three battalions––2nd and 3rd, 25th Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines––launched the 4th Marine Division’s last major attack on Iwo Jima. For the next four days the battle raged, too close for air support or artillery. It became a battle of small arms, mortars, and flamethrowers against Japanese hidden deep in caves and crevices. Tanks could only operate with caution, so close were the fighters.
Finally, Marines with flamethrowers, bazookas, rifles, grenades, and satchel charges decided the issue. Despite numerous attempts to convince the Japanese to surrender, they fought to the end. Some 1,500 Japanese dead were later counted in this area. Maj. Gen. Senda’s body was never identified, nor was Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi’s body ever found.
On March 14, 1945, the 4th Marine Division, or what was left of it, began departing Iwo Jima for Maui, Territory of Hawaii, and some well-deserved R&R. Fighting still raged on the island, but the division had accomplished its mission. Plans for the invasion of the Japanese home islands were already in progress, and the 4th Marine Division was included. Behind them, 9,098 of the 4th’s members were killed or wounded.
Indeed, for the 4th Marine Division the war was over. The division had spent a total of 63 days in combat during four major amphibious operations. The 4th’s casualties totaled 16,323, or 260 casualties per combat day. Only the 1st Marine Division suffered more casualties during the war, but it spent far more time in combat. Only the 1st and 4th Marine Divisions made four opposed amphibious landings during the war. The 4th Marine Division also suffered more combat fatalities than any other Marine division except the 1st.
It had been a short but a very difficult war for the 4th Division, a unit that did not even exist until after Guadalcanal. But they had performed magnificently.
Twenty-Seven Medals of Honor on Iwo Jima
Total casualties for all three Marine divisions and the Navy offshore during the 36-day battle were over 26,000 with 6,821 killed; the Japanese lost 20,000 men killed. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors, many posthumously, the most ever awarded for a single operation during the war, and one third of the 80 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during World War II.
After the battle, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, wrote, “The battle of Iwo Island has been won. The United States Marines by their individual and collective courage have conquered a base which is as necessary to us in our continuing forward movement toward final victory as it was vital to the enemy in staving off ultimate defeat.
“By their victory, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and other units of the Fifth Amphibious Corps have made an accounting to their country which only history will be able to value fully. Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
This article by Nathan N. Prefer originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons