Iwo Jima: Conditions During the Battle
The sand on Iwo Jima
Conditions on Iwo Jima
On the one hand, Iwo Jima was a place where both Americans and Japanese did amazing things against incredible odds, so in a way it is an exciting, inspiring battle to remember. It was a great victory for the Marines, and a great, though doomed, defense by the Japanese. On the other hand, what made the odds so incredible was amazingly awful conditions.
Here are some things I learned in trying to write a book for children about the battle. Warning: some of this is the stuff that could not go a book for children. But remember, (due to lying about their age in order to take, not shirk, responsibility) some of those who experienced it were not yet 18 themselves.
Conditions for the Japanese: Heat
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island, in fact it is part of the Volcano Islands. The ground is hot, more in some areas than others, so that in some places foxholes were too hot to stay in. In this ground, the Japanese dug an incredible network of tunnels and caves. American visitors to the island in recent years could not stay in the tunnels because of the heat. That’s partly because many of the ingenious ventilation holes the Japanese made have been covered during or since the war, but ventilation or not, it was hot down there, and that was where the Japanese lived while fighting to the death.
Japanese soldiers surrendering
Conditions for the Japanese: No hope
The Japanese on Iwo Jima had no hope in one sense. The leaders, at least, knew their superiors were sacrificing them to buy time for the defense of the homeland, and they weren’t going to be resupplied. (At lower levels, some believed so fervently that they would be resupplied that it took some weeks, others months, and others years after the battle to give up.) In another sense, they had such hope, or at least faith, in their emperor that it didn’t matter in comparison whether they lived or died, as long as they could be a credit and not a disgrace to their family and their people.
The individual Japanese soldier had to have had little hope of personally living through the battle. Whatever the overall picture, seeing the armada of ships approaching the island, he must have figured there was small chance for any one soldier to survive, especially when surrender was not an option.
The lack of resupply meant lack of water, all the more vital when living in such heat. The Japanese would come out of their holes at night to find water, and if they could kill a Marine and get his canteen too, so much the better.
This abandonment of subordinates by their leadership made sense in that Japan was already losing, and there was no point in giving resources to a defense that could only succeed at best in slowing the enemy (though Kuribayashi slowed them so much, and made the cost so high, one wonders whether if he had been resupplied, could he have made the cost too much for American will to fight? Was that generation really clear that what Japan was doing had to be stopped at any cost?)
Still, the way Iwo Jima was handled on the Japanese side shows a disregard for subordinates. Americans, having a respect for the common man and a disrespect for monarchies, find it hard to imagine how any man would tolerate the situation. It requires extreme discipline, or extreme self-sacrifice, or a combination of both.
Climb a wall of sand
Conditions for the Marines caused by Iwo Jima: Hell, or the next thing to it
For the Marines, anyone who believed Hell was real (and that generation would have mostly grown up going to church) would have had to think Iwo Jima not only was the gateway to hell for most of those who died there, but the island also looked, smelled, and sounded like it. Iwo Jima means Sulfur Island, or Brimstone Island. Especially on D-Day, the place smelled of sulfur, and gunpowder, and death. To go along with the brimstone, there was fire – gunfire, tracer fire, artillery fire, enough to read a book by all night, some said. There were dead men – some unknown, some best friends. Some clearly dead, some in pieces, others literally missing with no remaining parts big enough to identify.
One dead Marine looked like he was alive, just lying in a dangerously exposed area, and the one who ran up to him to tell him that found to his shock the warning wasn’t needed anymore. Another died half in the water, so the water made his arm wave back and forth as if he were still alive. Another, dying, howled unnervingly until another shot finished the job.
These were 19 and 20 year olds, some on their first battlefield, not hardened by violent video games and movies. They were suddenly, and unexpectedly, surrounded by these sights, sounds, and smells. That they went forward instead of back, that they (mostly) did not go crazy right then, is something all of us who were not there, should honor.
Mount Suribachi as the background to Iwo Jima
Conditions for the Marines caused by Iwo Jima: The other 35+ days
D-Day was just the introduction. According to one account, Mount Suribachi was this big black brooding thing that became a more threatening presence than the Japanese. Then the warm air from foxholes condensed into mist at night in the cooler air above, making shapes over foxholes that would have been hard not to see as ghosts. Or, if you refused to believe in ghosts, the mist still looked like a threat nobody could deny: a Japanese soldier coming to slit your throat.
Lack of sleep would have heightened the terror, the unreality, and the inability to process everything they were experiencing. A night in a foxhole meant sleeping for an hour, then staying awake while your buddy slept for an hour. Possibly as much as six hours of sleep a night, interrupted hourly, and only if nothing happened during the night. Daytime did not involve sleeping. This was the schedule for front line troops for several weeks straight.
Then there was the terrain of Iwo Jima. The sand on the beach is often mentioned; it did not pack underfoot, or under tire, or under tank track, resulting in a beach full of traffic jam under fire from the Japanese. It was in steep terraces, so that not only could they not run across the beach, in some areas they were climbing walls of sand. The beaches were the result of wave action that came in with almost full force pounding down on the edge of the land. There was no good harbor at Iwo Jima; ships had to unload into small craft a long way from land.
Inland, the island has a lot of natural caves, canyons, and crevices, and until the last few days, the Marines were mostly moving perpendicular to the island’s drainage. That meant continually climbing up and down ridges, and never knowing which part dug-in Japanese had made a point-blank shooting range out of.
Conditions for the Marines caused by the Japanese: Unseen enemy
The Japanese had many very effective ways of attacking Marine morale. One was that they saw dead Marines all over, but especially the first day, could not see who to shoot at. The Japanese would pick up their dead and bring them inside the caves at night so the Marines would feel all their shooting was having no effect. Their caves and tunnels allowed them to pop up behind Marine lines, and attack from ridges that were already supposed to have been taken. In some of the worst fighting, the Japanese would retreat under the Marine attack during the day, but keep shooting so the Marines could not get far enough to hold the area at night, and at night the Japanese would come back. In some areas, the Marines fought for the same ground back and forth for a week, losing men every day.
One blow to the morale was that the Japanese still existed on the island, after weeks of bombing before the invasion. The tunnels had been well hidden, and while being bombed can’t have been any fun, the Japanese were safe underground.
The Marines were being attacked by an enemy that wasn’t supposed to still be alive, and rarely showed up in the places he was supposed to be, but might show up, shooting, anywhere you didn't expect.
Not on, but in, Iwo Jima
A foxhole and a phone
Conditions for the Marines caused by the Japanese: Dirty tricks
Then there were the “dirty tricks”, demoralizing in a whole different way. Things like imitating the call for a medical corpsman, then shooting the unarmed corpsman. Things like leaving a grenade under dead bodies to hopefully kill whoever came to bury the body, or lying down with dead Marines (sometimes even taking off the Japanese uniform) to wait for the burial detail with a rifle or grenade. Things like jumping into Marine foxholes at night and stabbing at one, then running away so the Marines would kill or wound each other in the confusion.
Conditions for the Marines caused by the Japanese: War criminals present
The Marines on Iwo Jima would not have known what all the Japanese army had done in Manchuria, where General Kuribayashi had previously been stationed, and where some of his men had followed him from. Though he is something of a hero now and has even Americans’ respect for his brilliant defense of Iwo Jima, if he had lived, he might have been hanged as a war criminal for what went on there, which included experiments on civilians to see what tortures the human body could not endure.
In China, whole villages were slaughtered because a Doolittle Raider had passed through the town. In Hong Kong, nurses and nuns were raped and hospital patients bayoneted. In Guadalcanal, according to a Japanese soldier’s diary, two American prisoners were dissected while still alive, and their livers removed. Cannibalism and torture were reported, and prisoners were allowed to drown in excrement. Generally, Japanese troops were encouraged to hurt and humiliate non-Japanese.
However, in Manchuria, the Chinese the Japanese had fought against were poorly trained and equipped. U.S. Marines were a whole different enemy. They won the Battle of Iwo Jima – but only over the dead bodies of 99% of the Japanese.
Iwo Jima: a clash of titans
You could say that at Iwo Jima an unstoppable force (Marines) hit an unbreakable object (Japanese morale). The force was not stopped, and the morale was not broken, but something had to give: 22,000 Japanese and 7,000 Marines died.
Wondering what was worth that sacrifice? You can read more about why Iwo Jima happened here.
Iwo Jima book by author of this article
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