Seventy-eight years ago, U.S. Marines hit the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima, beginning one of the most famous battles in the history of the Marine Corps.
From Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, U.S. Marines from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions battled to wrest control of the island from the Imperial Army of Japan.
The eight square mile island made up of volcanic rock and sand housed two airstrips in the middle of the island and a third unfished airstrip in the north. By controlling the island, U.S. forces would have a strategic staging facility for a potential invasion of mainland Japan, which was located just 750 miles away.
Following days of heavy bombardment from the sky and from ships at seas, U.S. Marines conducted an amphibious landing on Iwo Jima, Feb. 19. The Japanese defenders waited until the beaches were crowded with Marines, vehicles and supplies before shelling the attackers with mortars, machine guns and heavy artillery. For the next five weeks, approximately 70,000 Marines participated in one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.
During the intense fighting, 27 service members were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery – the highest number of Medals of Honor ever received for one battle in U.S. history. Among those recognized for their heroism was 21-year-old Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, a veteran of previous battles on Guam and Guadalcanal. Williams went ashore on Feb. 21, 1945, manning one of the flamethrowers that would prove essential in dislodging the defenders from their reinforced bunkers and dugouts. Aided by two automatic riflemen and two riflemen to provide covering fire, Williams engaged in fierce combat.
“I got my flame thrower on and started to work. I didn’t know it because things were chaotic, but two of those Marines gave their lives that day; they were there protecting me,” said Williams, recalling his arrival on the island in an interview with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Much of that day it was absolutely blank,” Williams said. “Now there are other things that are so vivid. I’ve never been able to get them out of my mind.”
Just two days after landing on Iwo Jima, Williams volunteered to push forward alone in an attempt to reduce the devastating machine-gun fire from enemy positions. Under terrific enemy small-arms fire, Williams fought desperately for four hours, repeatedly returning to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain freshly serviced flamethrowers. Through his personal bravery and fearless actions, he personally destroyed multiple enemy defensive positions.
Through Williams’ efforts and those of the thousands of other Marines engaged in brutal combat that lasted day and night and was often hand-to-hand, the Marines made steady progress to secure the island. On Feb. 23, 1945, Marines from Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment raised the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi – the first of two flag raisings that day. Colonel Chandler Johnson ordered the raising of a second, larger flag that would be visible across the island. The second flag raising was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, and his iconic photo of six Marines raising the flag remains one of the most enduring images in the Second World War.
Due to the confusion of combat and casualties, the process of correctly identifying the flag-raisers of Iwo Jima lasted more than sixty years. Pfc. Harold Keller, Pfc. Harold Schultz and Pfc. Ira Hayes would survive the war; Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block and Pfc. Franklin Sousley were all killed in action in the subsequent fighting to secure Iwo Jima.
The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted another four weeks. When the battle concluded, nearly 7,000 Marines had lost their lives and another 20,000 were wounded. Iwo Jima was finally declared secured on March 26, 1945. The strategic importance of the island, and the enduring image of Marines raising the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi, cemented the Battle of Iwo Jima as one of the great victories in the history of the Marine Corps. The Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, who watched the flag-raising from the beach, famously remarked “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”