Remembering Iwo Jima and its importance to strategic airpower

  • Published
  • By Capt. Timothy Lundberg
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
From March 1 through March 4, more than 120 retirees, veterans and their families visited Andersen Air Force Base as part of their trip to Iwo Jima in remembrance of the 65th anniversary of the battle there.

While on Andersen Air Force Base these visitors learned about the history of Andersen AFB and received briefings on the aircraft deployed here that are part of U.S. Pacific Command's Continuous Bomber Presence and Theatre Security Package.

These veterans of Iwo Jima also visited Naval Base Guam and other historic sites on Guam prior to travelling to Iwo Jima on March 3.

On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines splashed ashore on the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima in the central Pacific as part of Operation Detachment. After four days of fighting, a patrol reached the peak of Mount Suribachi, where it planted a U.S. flag in an iconic scene captured by photographers. However, these images hardly reflected the end of the battle. Iwo Jima would not be secure until March 26. Almost all of the 21,000 Japanese defenders elected to die rather than surrender. Rooting them out cost more than 6,800 American dead and 20,000 wounded, making this the costliest battle in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Located slightly northwest of the aerial midpoint between Tokyo and Saipan, Iwo Jima's airfields in Japanese hands constituted a serious annoyance to the newly launched long range bombardment of Japan by the 20th Air Force from the Mariana Islands in late 1944 and early 1945. Japanese interceptors from Iwo Jima and Pagan Island forced the B-29 Superfortresses to make long detours on their way to the Japanese islands as well as on their return trip to Saipan Island and the other recently won bomber bases in the Northern Mariana Islands. Superfortresses enroute to Japan routinely flew a dogleg-course around the island increasing the already extended distances they were forced to cover. Despite the dogleg, there were no hiding the giant aircraft formations of very heavy bombers from radar surveillance and Iwo Jima gave the home Japanese Islands time to prepare for the bomber stream.

In addition, the island served as a staging point for Japanese bombers and fighter-bombers, which flew down from their home islands to attack various B-29 bases between October 1944 and January 1945. Despite the fact that the 11th and 30th Bomber Groups flew 48 separate missions against Iwo Jima from August to October 1944, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the Japanese Iwo Jima garrison, had enough resources to build a formidable defense complex. By the time of Operation Detachment, the island's strength had quadrupled and its defense fortifications had been completely reworked.

Meanwhile, aircraft staging through Iwo Jima began to harass the mounting B-29 fleet in the Mariana Islands. Army Air Forces Pacific Ocean Area took this threat to the B-29's seriously. The small Japanese raids on the Mariana Islands were costly to the Superfortress force. From two operational airfields on Iwo Jima, Ki-45 Nicks, A6M Zeros, and other sundry small and medium bombers staged operations to annoy the U.S. bomber force, especially on Saipan. For example, in strikes from Nov. 2, 1944 to Jan. 2, 1945, Japanese aircraft destroyed 11 B-29s outright and damaged another 47 seriously on Isley Field, Saipan. Though losing as many as half the approximately 80 aircraft that staged the raids, the Japanese had hit upon a valuable tactic - destroy the bombers before they arrived over Japan!

The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided Iwo Jima must be captured and a U.S. air base built there.  This would eliminate Japanese bombing raids and the early warning interceptions, provide fighter escorts throughout the most dangerous portion of the long B-29 missions, and enable greater payloads at longer ranges. Iwo Jima in American hands would also provide a welcome emergency field for crippled B-29s returning from Tokyo. In October 1944 the Joint Chiefs directed Fleet Adm. C. W. Nimitz, to seize and develop Iwo Jima within the ensuing three months. This launched Operation Detachment.

The U.S. sent more Marines to Iwo Jima than to any other battle. In 40 days, 110,000 Marines in 880 ships sailed from Hawaii to Iwo Jima. Including the sailors from the Navy, the entire force for Iwo Jima was nearly 250,000. The pre-landing bombardment had little effect as hardly any of the Japanese underground fortresses were touched. Twenty-one thousand defenders of Japanese soil, burrowed in the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima, anxiously awaited the Americans.

On Feb. 19, 1945, U.S. Marines stormed ashore. Heavily laden, they found their mobility severely restricted. In the words of Marine Cpl E. Hartman, "The sand was so soft it was like trying to run in loose coffee grounds." From the 28th Marines came this early, laconic report: "Resistance moderate, terrain awful."

Under Kuribayashi's direction, Japanese engineers had planted irregular rows of antitank mines and anti-boat mines along all possible exits from both beaches to hinder the Marines' advance. The Japanese supplemented these weapons by rigging enormous makeshift explosives from 500-pound aerial bombs, depth charges and torpedo heads, each triggered by an accompanying pressure mine. Worse, Iwo Jima's loose soil retained enough metallic characteristics to render the standard mine detectors unreliable. Marines were reduced to using their own engineers on their hands and knees out in front of the tanks, probing for mines with bayonets and wooden sticks.

Over the days and weeks and seconds that followed Iwo Jima became the deadliest battle of World War II for the Marines. It was the first time in nearly 2000 years that an invading army had landed on Japanese soil. More U.S. Marines earned the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima than in any other battle in U.S. history. In 36 days of fighting, there were 25,851 casualties. Of these, 6,825 Americans were killed. All but 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese died in the battle.

Iwo Jima became a symbol of the hardship of war at its bloodiest, of the hope of victory for the American cause, and of the character and the purpose of the United States Marines. The victory had huge strategic significance for the war effort as by the end of the war, more than 2,400 B-29 bombers made emergency landings on Iwo Jima.

On March 4, 1945 the fighting men of both sides witnessed the reason for all of their struggle and sacrifice. Through the overcast skies appeared a silver bomber, the largest aircraft anyone had ever seen. It was the Boeing B-29 Dinah Might, crippled in a raid over Tokyo, seeking an emergency landing on the island's scruffy main airstrip. As the Americans in the vicinity held their breaths, the big bomber swooped in from the south, landed heavily, clipped a field telephone pole with a wing, and shuddered to a stop less than 50 feet from the end of the strip. Lt. F. Malo and his 10-man crew were extremely glad to be alive, but they did not stay long. Every Japanese gunner within range wanted to bag this prize. Mechanics made field repairs within a half-hour. Then the 65-ton Superfortress lumbered aloft through a hail of enemy fire and headed back to its base in Tinian Island. The Marines cheered.

Most Marines were exhausted at this point in the battle. Occasional hot food delivered close behind the front lines, or more frequently fresh fruit and milk from the nearby ships, helped morale some. So did watching more and more crippled B-29s soar in for emergency landings, often two or three a day.

"It felt good to see them land," said Sgt. J. Lindsey, a Marine squad leader, "you knew they'd just come from Tokyo."

Iwo Jima in American hands produced immediate and highly visible benefits to the strategic bombing campaign. Marines fighting on the island were reminded of this mission time and again as crippled B-29 Superfortresses landed after bombing Japan. The capture of Iwo Jima served to increase the operating range, payload, and survival rate of the big bombers. The monthly tonnage of high explosives dropped on Imperial Japan by B-29s based in the Mariana Islands increased eleven-fold in March alone.

Nearly every day until the end of World War II, crippled bombers landed on Iwo Jima's airfields. The importance of the island hit its peak on June 7, 1945, when 102 B-29s landed on Iwo Jima and then again when 186 bombers landed on the island on July 24, 1945.

By war's end, a total of 2,451 B-29s made forced landings on the island. This figure represented an estimated 26,961 flight crewmen, many of whom would have perished at sea without the availability of Iwo Jima as a safe landing strip. One B-29 pilot said, "Whenever I land on this island I thank God for the men who fought for it."

The island wasn't important to just bombers though, as early as April 7, a force of 80 P-51 Mustangs of VII Fighter Command took off from Iwo Jima to escort B-29s striking the Nakajima aircraft engine plant in Tokyo.

Between March and August 1945, the nearly 300 P-51s stationed on Iwo Jima flew 1,700 sorties. On the first mission, P-51 fighters shot down 21 enemy aircraft while losing only one of their own. The bomber crews witnessed America's revenge against Japanese fighters as they witnessed the difference that an escort of Mustangs could make. After completing their escort mission when opponent aircraft had been swept from the skies, the P-51s focused on destroying Japanese fighters on the ground. By July 1945 the P-51s had destroyed more planes on the ground than in the air.

Descriptions of the battle of Iwo Jima are provided by the 36th Wing Historian, Dr. Andreas Fischer.