To the Finish: A Letter From Iwo Jima


Our ampty transport vessel with its deck-load of beaten-up landing craft is rolling heavily on the long voyage home from Iwo Jima. To provide quarters for casualties, the sick bay has been expanded until half the bunks, built in tiers of four, are now occupied by the wounded remnants of the Fourth Marines who rode the ship into battle.
The doctors aboard this particular ship are specialists in eye surgery and mental cases, so that in bed after bed one passes men who have lost their eyesight or their sanity. The same small boats which headed valiantly for the beach on D Day returned again and again on succeeding days with litter-loads of paincrazed bodies; not really men, just bodies, which were salted down as the heavy seas broke over the bows of the lurching landing craft, jarred into sickening consciousness as the waves hurled the boats against the high walls of the transport, and finally lifted, two stretchers to a crane-load, onto the flat, steady decks of the ship which was to take them home.
Some of the more fortunate ones died during the night, and in. the morning the bodies, so tightly wrapped in gray blankets that they seemed Pygmy size, were lined up on deck, waiting for the same small boats to take them ashore for burial. Among the less fortunate are one man who is faceless from the end of his nose to his hairline, and another whose right side is paralyzed, whose left arm is gone, and whose one remaining eye stares out of a pulpy mass of flesh. The doctors, who with such skill and untiring attention have kept these bodies alive, come into the wardroom, remove their rubber gloves and face masks, and sit over their coffee in brooding silence.
The brig contains the only Japanese prisoners, nine of them, to be captured prior to our departure on D plus ten. There were two others, but they died aboard ship, and two of the remaining are unconscious most of the time. The same small boats which took the first waves of Marines ashore, and brought the endless waves of wounded back again, also transported to the safety of the ship’s brig those of the enemy who still had a breath of life.
In many ways the crews of those small boats were the heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, because, tough as the Japanese were, the heavy seas were tougher. The prevailing winds reversed themselves during the first ten days, so that instead of being on the leeward side of the island, the beachhead was exposed to the sullen fury of the Pacific Ocean. Because Iwo Jima is a volcano rising straight out of the sea, there is no shallow water. The box-shaped landing craft were tossed about like egg crates caught on the crest of a spring flood. Unprotected by breakwaters or coral reefs, the boats were swamped by six-foot breakers as soon as their bows rammed into the volcanic sand. The boats floundered, sank, and were spewn along the shore to form twisted barricades of debris.
Despite their losses, the boat crews continued to shuttle men and materials. The men rarely slept, and depended for food upon having someone aboard a transport pass down K rations and an occasional sandwich. The crew of one small boat from this ship, manned like so many others by Coast Guard personnel, went four days and nights without relief. The men could barely walk when they finally came aboard to sleep.
The waves hit the beach at an angle, swinging the boats sidewise and overturning them before the ramps could be let down. The Marine beach parties and Seabees had to resort to bulldozers and stern lines to keep the craft at right angles to the shore long enough to roll the matériel onto the sand. While a bulldozer with a tow chain kept the ramp anchored in the sand, a small tug with a stout line on the stern strained against the current to prevent the landing craft from being swept broadside against the shoreline. As the men rushed to unload vehicles, ammunition, and food, the breakers swarmed over the sterns of the landing craft, swamping some and leaving the rest half filled with water. The crews were never dry.
As if the seas were not enough to contend with, the Japanese had the entire beach under mortar and shell fire, so that the men never knew when a shell would explode in their midst. Our transport was lying close offshore, enabling the correspondents to go onto the beach each morning and return at night to such luxuries as a hot shower, warm meals, and a dry bed. Even when we reached the beach on the morning of the seventh day, a flurry of mortar shells hit the landing craft to our left and right. We were free to scramble through the deep sand to the nearest hole, but the crew of the boat was left to manhandle the cargo with no more protection than a steel helmet.
Each of the half-dozen beaches had a beachmaster who stood on high ground with a microphone and directed unloading operations. A powerful battery of loud-speakers carried his commands to landing craft waiting to come in, to bulldozer crews, and to Marine working parties. Though shells burst around him, the beachmaster stood his ground and with a caustic voice of assurance kept the traffic moving with invectives interlarded with: “You there in boat number 457, whatja got ‘board? All right, ride in on the next breaker. Hey, you cat drivers, get the hell down here with your tails in the water. Clear that truck out of there. You Marines start moving or well bury you under. Drop the hawser! Drop the hawser! Swing her starboard.” And so on.
Working with the beachmasters were the floating traffic cops, the men in control boats who remained a few hundred yards offshore and regulated the successive waves of landing craft. Beyond them were the destroyers, blasting away with their five-inch guns whenever the Marines struck an enemy strong point; and still farther out, riding at anchor, were the transports, tankers, LCT’s, cargo vessels, and floating drydocks. On the horizon one could see the small, fast ships in the anti-submarine patrol, and somewhere out of sight were the aircraft carriers which sent forth fighters and fighter bombers whenever enemy tanks or pillboxes were discovered. The larger units of the fleet, the battleships and cruisers, stood by, after having finished their three-day bombardment prior to the invasion, and fired their heavy guns only when a specific target required a salvo of eightor sixteeninch shells for permanent liquidation.
Two years ago, and possibly even one year ago, American forces would have lost the battle of Iwo Jima. The island was more heavily fortified than any previous one captured. The knee-deep volcanic sand stopped all vehicles in their tracks, and the heavy seas littered the two-mile beach with the shredded remains of boats, tanks, half-tracks, amphibious trucks, and jeeps. Yet the bulldozers were brought ashore to open lanes through the deep sand. Steel tracks were laid to enable tanks and trucks to reach more solid terrain; cranes were set up along the beach; heavy artillery was hauled ashore, along with steam rollers, roadgraders, and prime movers. The entire operation followed a tested pattern which neither the Japs nor the weather could stop.


THE war correspondents found Iwo Jima a poor spot for startling news. Iwo was another Tarawa, only worse. For caves and hidden pillboxes, it was another Saipan, only worse. For poor weather and soggy terrain, it was another Guam, only worse. There was little new to write about; only an old story with stronger superlatives.

Those reporters who got ashore early were unable to get their copy back to the ships. The prearranged schedule for press boats broke down when heavy swells swamped the boats. Those who remained aboard transports knew less of what was going on than did the correspondents who stayed safely on Guam and read the latest communiqués issued by Admiral Nimitz. Most of us felt that even if our copy reached civilization, it would fall flat. Iwo was a dirty, painful, horrible struggle with none of the glamour which makes good reading.

American tacticians had learned much between Tarawa and Iwo Jima about island-to-island fighting, but so had the Japanese. The landing followed a pattern which in three years has become a tradition: a long period of bombing from the air, a shorter flurry of concentrated naval gunfire, a final assault at close range which utilized every type of weapon that floats or flies, and then the Marines landed. The Japanese knew what to expect, and had planned accordingly. The bombings they could not stop, so they went underground where the bombs could not reach them. The rocky cliffs of Iwo were so soft that a man with a pick and shovel could dig himself a comfortable cave in a day.

For sixty-eight consecutive days the Army bombed Iwo. The Japanese lost all their planes and most of their surface installations, but they and their guns survived. On the sixty-ninth day, at dawn, the American Navy began its bombardment; the Japanese remained in hiding during the three days that the Navy poured a record tonnage of explosives on the island. They could not stop the Fleet any more than they could the Army bombers, so they did not try.

Their defense was based on not giving away their positions or revealing their strength until an actual landing was attempted. They had only a handful of coastal batteries; and the only time I saw one of them in action, it hit a ship. The Japanese policy was not to fire unless they were sure they could not miss. They allowed endless waves of carrier planes to make their bombing runs unmolested, but they practically threw the island at observation planes which served as the eyes of the Fleet.

Their defense plan was a simple one; they dug their guns into the high ground in such a way that they had the beaches in a cross fire. Because they did not intend to fire back at the Fleet, it was unnecessary to have their guns facing the sea. The advantages of such a plan are obvious. They could mount their guns in reinforced caves which had only small openings facing inland. The Fleet could have circled the island for weeks and still not have been able to bring direct fire to bear on the entrances of the caves. The guns dug into Mount Suribachi pointed to the north, while those in the cliffs overlooking the northern end of the beach faced to the south. The Fleet was firing from the east and west.

Had the Navy known the exact location of the caves, they might have had some success in firing over Suribachi into the cliffs on the northern part of the island, and vice versa; the Japanese, however, shrewdly avoided revealing their positions. Had the Japanese elected to return the Fleet’s fire, they would have had to have their gun mounts exposed so that they could traverse the barrels at least forty-five degrees to the left or right. Instead they pulled their guns back under cover until only the muzzles were exposed. This meant that the fire from any one gun could cover only a small segment of the beach, but by coördinating the fire from all guns, they had the beach completely covered, and the beach was all they were interested in.

I go into this at length to counteract any notion that the Fleet did not give adequate support to the landing parties. For three days prior to D Day I was on a light cruiser. No fleet ever moved in closer and unloaded so many high explosives on so small a stretch of land. For two of those three days a heavy mist obscured the island, so that even the observation planes hovering overhead could not tell with certainty where the shells were landing or how much damage they were doing. The Japanese camouflaged the entrances of their caves. Once the camouflage was torn away, succeeding salvos found their mark. In other places, however, the caves had armor-plated doors as protection, and luck was as essential as accuracy in knocking them out. The entire faces of hills tumbled down, but it was still anyone’s guess whether the right caves had been sealed off in the process.

In walking around Iwo later, I saw cement blockhouses which the Navy had pulverized into pieces so small that I could have picked up and carried away what was left as a souvenir. The face of Suribachi had been pushed back fifteen feet. Remains of some Japanese showed the effect of eightand sixteen-inch shells exploding at close range, and there were others dead without a scratch on them. Their heads were grotesquely misshapen by concussion, however, just as though someone had taken a ball of putty and squeezed it. When the Navy had a definite target to aim at, it left no doubt of its firepower.

Whether Iwo will have any lasting military significance is something which men out here argue about. In the midst of mobile warfare, Iwo nearly proved that a stationary defense was invulnerable, but there were too many flukes working against the invaders to make any generalization possible. Probably the most significant thing about the battle for Iwo was its inevitableness. No American operation was less secret. Everyone in the Pacific, including the Japanese, knew that the island had to be taken, knew approximately when it would be taken, and how it would be taken. This does not imply faulty security. It simply means that Iwo was next on the list of steppingstones to Tokyo, and there was only one way to capture it.

The island could not be knocked out from the air or sea. It had to be stormed when the typhoon season had passed, and when the prevailing winds were such that the eastern beaches were on the leeward side of the island. The master stroke of American strategy was having a task force at large between Iwo and Japan. This left the Japanese on Iwo without air or naval support.

The Japanese, under the command of an artillery officer, fought a smarter battle with better weapons than in any previous engagement. With an abrupt change of tactics, they fought with the skill of the German Army. Yet 20,000 Japanese did not stop 40,000 Marines from landing in small boats from the open sea. Any evaluation of opposing tactics must, I suppose, be based on which side won, unless future historians prove that the Japanese made the United States pay more for Iwo than the island was worth.

There never should be another Iwo; that is, there never should be an occasion again in the Pacific when American forces are confined to fighting without benefit of heavy tanks, fast-moving artillery, and the other components of large-scale mobile operations. Iwo was the last time that the odds were in favor of the Japanese. Usually they line their beaches with pillboxes and fight a showdown battle on the shores of their islands. On Iwo, they left the actual beach comparatively undefended. They had a few pillboxes scattered between the shore and the first airfield, a quarter of a mile inland, but not nearly the number they had at Tarawa. Instead of fighting it out with the Marines at close hand, the Japanese sat back on their high ground and poured shells on the Marines, who were prepared to fight with rifles, machine guns, and grenades.


THE first time I went onto the beach was D Day plus four. I went in with a large group of Fourth Division Marines. The beach was another Anzio. The Japanese were lobbing shells into supply dumps, ammunition depots, communication centers, and every other place where they saw men or machinery concentrated. No man on the beach felt secure. The Americans held about one square mile of low ground at that point, most of which I toured. Everywhere men were struggling: to keep landing craft from submerging, to dig roads in the deep sand, to push mired trucks onto solid ground, to haul equipment to sheltered locations, and to fight nature for the chance to get on with the battle. And all the time the Japanese shells whined down and tore into sand and flesh with indiscriminate fury.

Trying as the volcanic sand of Iwo proved to be, it was also a blessing. The Japanese shells buried themselves, and the sand absorbed most of the shrapnel. Usually a man was killed instantly by having a shell land beside him in the foxhole, or he escaped without injury. This did not hold true when a shell landed in a boat, or when one dropped in the midst of a beach party. What impressed me most, however, was the absence of dead Japanese. Some had been buried, of course, and others had died underground, but it was unnatural to find so few bodies after so much fighting. There were American bodies — more than 3000 of them buried or not yet buried — but where were the Japanese? Everyone I questioned simply pointed to the hills on the left and right and swore fervently.

On the top of his underground command post, rather like a woodchuck sunning himself close to the entrance of a hole, Major General Clifton B. Cates was sitting quietly when I came by. As Command Officer of the Fourth Marines, General Cates was a busy and worried man, but just at that point he seemed to be the only man in the American sector with nothing to do and with a desire to make conversation. Through binoculars he could see everything that was going on; his orders had been given, his troops knew what they had to do. He was “sweating it out.”

I talked with General Cates for nearly thirty minutes. The loss of his men was a personal loss. It hurt him deeply. But he was cheered because the sun was out. All the day before it had rained, and rained hard. His men had been downcast, wet, tired, and many of them sick. The sun had boosted morale, which is the secret weapon of the Marines. The General talked a lot about the new Japanese tactics. He spoke of how much he and the other officers had learned on Iwo, and how they would have to change their own tactics. Variations in bombing and shelling techniques would make the next operation easier.

The General passed me his binoculars so that I could see two of his tanks burning on a hill. He issued a command to a subordinate and continued to talk about battles to come. Never did he doubt that Iwo would be won, or that he would lose many personal friends in the process; but always in his voice there was a strong note of confidence that there would never be another Iwo. As at Tarawa nearly a year and a half before, American forces had learned much.

One thing was apparent at Iwo: the Japanese had heavy weapons in large quantities. They possessed innumerable five-inch dual-purpose guns, equally good against planes or troops. The Japanese reserved their fire until the Marines were within their sights. They had a bountiful collection of mortars, many of them larger than anything in use by the Allies. A mortar, actually, is only a reinforced stovepipe with a base plate and standard attached. Its value lies in the fact that it can be moved at will and can be fired as rapidly as a man can drop shells down the barrel. The Japanese were using some mortars which were as large as sevenor eight-inch guns. They were too large to be either mobile or rapid-firing, but from positions on high ground, they were deadly.

Also unleashed for the first time at Iwo were large Japanese rockets and five-foot robombs. A forward observer one day was astonished to see doors swing open in a cave; in less time than he took to tell it, two Japanese wheeled out an eight-inch rocket-launcher, fired two projectiles, and disappeared into the cave, closing the doors behind them. The rocket fire was inaccurate, but with so many Marines crowded into a small area, accuracy was not essential. Yet here the robombs, dubbed “ flying ashcans,” were of little value, since most of them landed in the ocean. One robomb traveled the length of the island and cleared the top of Suribachi, the highest point on Iwo.

No one who was at Iwo can analyze the battle objectively. The carnage was so horrifying that the blood and agony of the struggle saturated one’s mind, dismally coloring all thought. Iwo was unlike any war I had ever seen. It was a fight to the finish, with no man asking for quarter until he was dead. Of the nearly 20,000 American casualties, approximately two thirds were wounded, but all except a few score of the 20,000 Japanese died where they fell. There is such a thing as dying decently, but not on Iwo. I do not believe anything practical can be achieved by describing men blown apart. Veterans of two and three years of war in the Pacific were sickened. An estimated 26,000 men died in eight square miles of fighting. There were 5000 dead and wounded American and Japanese soldiers for every square mile.

I returned to Iwo on D Day plus six, seven, and eight. By that time the Marines had captured territory where Japanese had lain dead in the hot sun for more than a week. I crawled into pillboxes burned out by flame-throwers, and into deep caves where the Japanese had been burning their own dead to conceal the extent of their losses. I was torturing myself to look at the results of war, because I think it is essential for civilians occasionally to hold their noses and see what is going on.

Somehow the sight and smell of the Japanese dead were bearable; mostly I think, because a dead Japanese does not look quite human. The yellow skin darkens and the bodies seem unusually small and characterless, like figures in a wax museum. One cannot look at them and be unmoved, but they lack the personal quality which grips the soul of an observer.

The sight on Iwo which I could not force myself to see again was the section of the beach allotted for an American cemetery. The chaplains were endeavoring to identify each body and hold a brief, individual service for each man to be buried in the black sands of the barren island. Naturally the chaplains and the burial parties were far behind in their work. The dead were brought in faster than they could be buried.

On the afternoon I walked by, there was half an acre of dead Marines stretched out so close together that they blanketed the beach for two hundred yards. The stench was overpowering. There, in mangled lots, not laid in neat rows, was part of the price paid for Iwo. All I could think of as I hurried by was the old priest who died in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov and shocked his followers by decomposing before the burial service. The smell of one’s countrymen rotting in the sun is a lasting impression.

Perhaps one becomes accustomed to it. To me it was an experience which made it impossible for me to return to Iwo. Undoubtedly I shirked my duty, but I never could have been an impartial observer after that. I still have not attempted an article on Iwo. While that smell remains in my conscieousness, I cannot evaluate the battle for Iwo objectively. The Marines fought with courage and determination seemingly beyond human capabilities. They died the hard way.
As ever,