Much has been written about the invasion and ultimate victory taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese occupation forces during World War II.
Feb. 19, 1945, is the day that most of us who survived that 36-day battle often wonder why, and how, we walked off that island with nothing more than superficial wounds, cuts, bruises, still standing tall. Over 25,000 casualties to U.S. troops and more than 6,800 Marines, Navy, and Arm were killed and buried in that hot, volcanic sand.
Leaving that island after the battle was over was anything but a joyous feeling of victory. Looking over the thousands of white crosses in the cemeteries of the third, fourth and fifth division Marines, you saw the only touch of white in the absolute wilderness and wasteland of rock and volcanic sand. Boarding ships and leaving them on that desolate island left us all filled with trepidation. The only positive thoughts were that, after the war, they would be returned to their homes by the military and, in the meantime, those beautiful 48 stars and broad stripes of white and red would be waving over their resting place from high on top of Mt. Suribachi.
My brother joined the Marine Corps just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a scout and a sniper at Guadalcanal. He was hit with machine gun bullets up his leg all the way to the hip. When I heard about, I got mad, really mad, and that’s when I marched down to the Marine Corps recruiting office. After what happened to my brother, I was ready to even the score.
Boot camp went well since I had trained with the national guard in my hometown of New Ulm, MN, and I studied Morse code in high school.
Iwo Jima was a fighter base for Japanese aircraft and, since it was located halfway between Saipan and the main island of Japan, they would meet our B-29 bombers as they proceeded to Japan and shot down as many as they could. Our bombers had little to no fighter support because none of our fighters had enough fuel to escort them the 700-miles to Iwo and safely return to Saipan.
“Iwo” is “Sulphur” in Japanese and “jima” is “island.” It is an island formed by volcanic action and Suribachi’s559-foot elevation is an extinct volcano that still had some activity. Portions of the island had steaming hot water flowing and you could, in some areas, dig down a foot or two and find the ground hotter than you could stand.
The Japanese officer, Lt. Gen Kuribayshi, knew the island could not be defended in the conventional manner, so he undertook a major project of digging tunnels that interconnected all over the island. They went down two and three levels and his troops survived the initial shelling of the island and bombs in this manner. When we hit the island, nearly all 23,000 of his troops were waiting for us.
Our combat group was 2nd Armored Amphibian Tank Battalion. We were made up of 76 (LVT-4A) floating tanks. The tanks were noisy, smelly, and the hot transmission made it even hotter. It was over 100 degrees in there. These tanks had tracks like any other land tank. However, the tracks were designed to propel the machine forward in the water at about seven or eight knots, and on land up to 25 miles per hour. They were a bit over 13-feet tall on land and at sea, only three feet out of the water. I was a bow machine gunner and radio operator, and one of the seven-man crew. We were trained in every position so, when needed, each man could perform in any capacity. Each tank was equipped with a 75mm (three-inch) cannon, one 50-caliber and two 30-caliver machine guns. Our weight was well over 20 tons, fully loaded.
The mission was to line up 4,000 yards from shore and head directly at the island, firing at targets of opportunity, providing fire power all the way to the beach. We were the first wave, ahead of the infantry vehicles.
Two out of the five tanks in my platoon were sunk, including the tank with my best friend on board. I tried to contact the tank next to us on the radio but I couldn’t get through. I looked and that tank had taken a direct hit. There was fire coming out of every hatch. It was a bad scene. I went from being age 18 to 38 in a hurry. The entire journey from the LST to the beach probably only look a half an hour, but it seemed much longer. The tanks that made it to shore were supposed to go inland 100 yards and hold. Our clutch was burning, and once we got to the beach we had to let it cool off.
Our crew left the tank and went to fight a Japanese bunker on the beach. Another Marine and I got to the far side of the bunker and surrounded the entry. We turned into the doorway and opened fired. There was a Japanese soldier there playing possum with his head down. I fired at him and hit him twice in the helmet. He screamed and rolled over.
Once on the beach, we were ordered to go back into the water and fire at targets on Mt. Suribachi. The targets were mostly the big guns they had implanted on the mountain.
As nightfall came, we stayed offshore all night. We would look for muzzle blasts out of the caves and, at that sighting, I would fire machine guns’ tracers at the location until our gunner could get sighted in and then fire our big gun repeatedly, until he took it out. It was extremely difficult to hit anything with any degree of accuracy because of the heavy seas and bobbing around like cork.
We would take heavy fire from the shore machine guns’ nests of Suribachi. Once on shore, our riddled tank was replaced and for 26 more days, our mission was to support infantry, destroy caves and bunkers, and the rest is history.
Marine losses were over 6,800 dead. In the following months, over 2,000 B29 bombers made emergency landing on Iwo, with 22,000 crewmen, many of whom would have crashed into the Pacific.
Marshall Harris, Survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima, United States Marine Corps