SPOTLIGHT ON MARINE HEROES #4
The fighting on Iwo Jima came to symbolize the role that Marines played in World War II. Further, this epic campaign became a touchstone battle that forcefully demonstrated the sacrifice that Leathernecks were prepared to make in pursuit of victory. In military history, Iwo Jima ranks among the most demanding and costly battles ever. Expressed as a math equation, to conquer each one of Iwo Jima's eight square miles of volcanic slag, 3,255 American servicemen were killed or wounded. The vast majority of these heroes were Marines, but men of every branch became casualties in the fight to capture Iwo Jima.
And of course, not only Americans died on Iwo Jima. The Japanese garrison on the island was utterly destroyed with a horrendous casualty rate of nearly 100%. US intelligence estimates placed a best guess at between 20,530 to 21,060 enemy defenders. Taken as a whole, more then 46,000 men died or were wounded during the 36 days of this indescribable battle. There is no question that Iwo Jima was beyond human comprehension in terms of the slaughter. In fact, although the Japanese were ultimately defeated and the island fell into U.S. hands, more Americans became casualties than did their enemies. For whatever it is worth, this was the only time in World War II that this was the case.
And still, the Marines prevailed.
In the strategic picture in early 1945, the assault on Iwo Jima, epic though it was, served as only one of numerous sledgehammer blows against the Axis powers. As Marines fought and died yard by bloody yard on Iwo's black sands, other American fighting men were locked in battle against fanatical Japanese troops in the Philippine Islands. And on the other side of the globe, although the Nazi reich was dying in its Gotterdammerung, German troops still fought on with skill and determination. All these campaigns led to the fact that America's fighting forces were dying and being wounded at the highest rates of the war. This surge in casualties began with the invasions at Normandy and Saipan in the summer of 1944 and continued through the war's final year.
For many Americans, the flag raising on Mount Suribachi became the ultimate symbol of World War II. The picture, snapped by Joe Rosenthal, captured not only Marines putting up a flag, but it reinforced the ethos of the Marine Corps. But lost in the publicity was the grim fact that only three of the six Marines in the photo survived the battle, and only one lived to old age, and he was haunted by post traumatic stress for the rest of his life.
Although the flag raising is an iconic image instantly familiar, even to people with no knowledge of World War II, the true symbol of Iwo Jima, at least in my opinion, are much quieter places. They are not on the top of Mount Suribachi, but down below, not far from the black sand beaches where American fighting men first set foot on this piece of hell on a morning like no other in February 1945. The cemeteries that sprung up even as the fighting raged, served not just as collecting spots for the dead, but as powerful and sobering reminders to the Marines who were left behind. Each of the thousands of graves was not just a marker, but a life cut short, with buddies left behind, and families who would never really share in the joy of homecoming and victory.
As more and more men died and were laid to rest, the divisional cemeteries grew and grew, each like a small town with chaplains, graves registration personnel, Navy corpsmen, supply Marines, truck drivers, engineers, cooks, all there to render the final honors to fallen warriors. And in the center, row after row of white crosses with an occasional Star of David. As weary survivors of battle were pulled off the line, they made their way alone and in groups to visit their friends. Standing at the graves of their friends and comrades, many must have been awe-struck that so many other graves surrounded those of men they knew.
Iwo Jima was an equal opportunity killer of Marines. Among the dead were high-ranking officers, Medal of Honor Marines, buck privates, Navy Corpsmen and Seabees, infantrymen, tankers, cooks, runners, staff officers, and clerks. They were a cross section of the best America had to offer in 1945. Although almost all wanted to live, many ultimately had no say in the matter. They died from shellfire, sniper bullets, antitanks rounds, machinegun fire, edged weapon attacks, and a thousand other ways. This was not just death in an individual sense, but on a machine-age scale that took advantage of every bit of technology to kill.
There was little glory to be found on the hellish wastes of Iwo Jima, but honor could be found everywhere one chose to risk a look under the rain of fire that fell there in 1945. It was the quiet honor of a Marine who strapped on his pack and loaded his rifle, even though all his buddies were dead and he knew he would soon join them. It was the honor of a runner with a critical message to get back across a piece of fire-swept ground where two guys had already got hit trying to cross it. It was the rifleman with a fusillade of machinegun fire ahead and no one else to do the job.
That honor still echoes across time, if you listen closely for it. Staunch and determined, not wanting to die, but ready nonetheless, the Marines wrote their own place in history. Each paragraph was the inscription on a cross of Star of David. So many stories, so many chapters. Can you hear them?
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