SPOTLIGHT ON MARINE HEROES #4

Iwo Jima – The Cost

"In the final analysis battles are won not by machines but by men trained to fight, wanting to live, but unafraid to die. Iwo Jima has come to symbolize the courage and offensive spirit that brought victory to the Armed Forces of the United States in World War II."

Iwo Jima–Amphibious Epic
LtCol Whitman Barkley

 

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.

(left) Grave of GySgt John Basilone in the 5th MarDiv Cemetery on Iwo Jima–1945. He was a Medal of Honor recipient with the 1st MarDiv on Guadalcanal in 1942. Gunny Basilone volunteered for duty with the 5th MarDiv and was killed by a Japanese mortar round on 19 Feb 1945. He was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his heroism on D-Day.

USMC Photo

 

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?

 

Iwo Jima casualties 19 February–26 March 1945
 
KIA
DOW
MIA
WIA
Total
Marines
4,554
1,331
46
17,272
23,203
Naval FMF Medical Personnel
178
19
0
541
738
Naval Construction Bns
42
7
2
218
269
Naval Ships, craft and air units
143
44
446
1,158
1,791
Army
9
0
0
28
37
 
4,926
1,401
494
19,217
26,038

Divisional cemeteries on Iwo Jima

3rd Bn, 25th Marines on Iwo Jima–
casualty statistics and the men behind the numbers

The 26th Marines on Iwo Jima–
a regiment's fight to sustain its strength

(left) Entrance to the 5th MarDiv cemetery on Iwo Jima with Mount Suribachi in the background.

USMC Photo


Condolence letter to the family of Sgt Wyatt Percell, killed on Iwo Jima


Headquarters Third Battalion
27th Marines 5th Marine Division
F.P.O. San Francisco, Calif.

14 May 1945

Dear Mrs. Percell,

There is little that can be said to help relieve the mental anguish of losing someone so dear as a husband. However, I'd like to express my sincerest regrets in this dark hour. Your husband was a fine example of American manhood. He was liked by all that knew him and his personal courage was an inspiration. May it be a consolation that he died serving his country.

Your husband was killed in action on February 20th, 1945 on Iwo Jima. The company to which he belonged was advancing across one of the airfields on the island. He was instantly killed by an enemy artillery shell. He was buried in Plot 2, Row 3, Grave 343, 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima.

Please accept the heartfelt sympathies of all the officers and men of this organization. If I may be able to assist you in any way please do not fail to contact me.

Donn J. Robertson
Lt Col   USMC
Commanding

Mrs. Luella E. Percell
Junction City, Oregon

LtCol Robertson wrote 177 letters like this to to the families of Marines killed in his battalion on Iwo Jima. The original was written in pencil on a simple sheet of lined paper. Sgt. Percell's daughter, Vivian, was a young girl at the time of his death. She still lives in Junction City, Oregon. Wyatt's son, Gene, also honors his dad each day.

The photo at left shows Sgt Wyatt H. Percell as he appeared when serving with 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines. Prior to his service with the Fifth Marine Division, he saw combat service in the Solomon Islands with the 2nd Raider Bn. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart on Guadalcanal. After his death on Iwo Jima, Sgt Percell was buried in the Fifth Marine Division cemetery. In 1949, his remains were returned to the United States, and today, he rests for eternity in a beautiful spot at Rest Haven Cemetery, Eugene, Oregon. Photo of Sgt Percell courtesy of Gene Percell. Photo of Sgt Percell's grave by the author.


Remarks by MajGen Graves Erskine at the dedication of the
3rd MarDiv Cemetery on Iwo Jima –March 1945

"Only the accumulated praise of time will pay proper tribute to our valiant dead. Long after those who lament their immediate loss are themselves dead, these men will be mourned by the Nation. They are the Nation's loss! There is talk of great history, of the greatest fight in our history, of unheard-of sacrifice and unheard-of courage. These phrases are correct, but they are prematurely employed. Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was. The enemy could have displaced every cubic inch of volcanic ash on this fortress with concrete pillboxes and blockhouses, which he nearly did, and still victory would not have been in doubt. What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate this cemetery at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner. Let the world count our crosses! Let them count over and over. Then when they understand the significance of the fighting for Iwo Jima, let them wonder how few they are. We understand and we wonder-we who are separated from our dead by a few feet of earth; from death by inches and fractions of an inch. The cost to us in quality, one who did not fight side by side with those who fell, can never understand."


The price of victory– A fallen Marine is laid to rest in Iwo Jima's black sand–1945. Navy Chaplain E. Gage Hotaling (standing at right) officiates at this solemn event. He served as a Protestant chaplain in the Fourth Marine Division and passed away on 16 May 2010 in Agawam, Mass. USMC Photo

 

NEXT

SPOTLIGHT ON IWO JIMA INDEX

 

 

 

This site is owned & maintained by Mark Flowers, copyright 2004, all rights reserved.