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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945

The picture which saved the Marine Corps

Today is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

When my father was stationed in Okinawa in the mid-50's as a Marine, he went to Iwo Jima, which is still a restricted area and controlled by the Japanese self-defense forces. He told me that he was amazed that people got off the beach, as he sat on top of Mount Suribachi. Most of the men in his unit had fought in Korea, but some of the older men had fought on Iwo Jima or Okinawa. I was stunned by his reaction, because he had never told me that story before, and he was still amazed, decades later, that anyone survived the beach, much less the battle.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was fought between the United States and Japan during February and March of 1945, during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. As a result of the battle, the United States gained control of the island of Iwo Jima and the airfields located there. The battle is famous for the raising of the US flag by U.S. Marines during the battle.

In the opening days of 1945, Japan faced the prospect of invasion by the Allied forces. Daily bomber raids from the Marianas hit the mainland in an operation called Scavenger. Iwo Jima served as an early warning station, which would radio reports of incoming bombers back to mainland Japan. When Allied bombers arrived over Japanese cities, the Japanese air defenses would be ready and waiting for them.

At the end of the battle of Leyte in the Philippines, the Allies were left with a 2-month lull in their operations prior to the planned invasion of Okinawa, which was considered unacceptable. Thus, the decision was made to invade Iwo Jima. The landing was designated Operation Detachment.

The defenders were ready. The island was garrisoned by 22,000 soldiers and fortified with a network of underground bunkers. The aim of the defense of Iwo Jima was to inflict severe casualties on the Allied forces and discourage invasion of the mainland. Each defender was expected to die in defense of the homeland, taking 10 enemy soldiers in the process without engaging in wasteful suicide attacks.

The Allies wanted Iwo Jima not only to neutralize threats to its bombers and shipping, but to use its airfields for fighter escort and emergency bomber landings. On February 16, 1945, they commenced a massive three-day air and naval bombardment of the island.

At 02:00 on the morning of February 19, battleship guns signaled the commencement of D-Day. Soon 100 bombers attacked the island, followed by another volley from the naval guns. At 08:30, the first of an eventual 30,000 marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, under V Amphibious Corps, landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima and a battle for the island commenced.

The Marines faced heavy fire from Mount Suribachi at the south of the island, and fought over inhospitable terrain: rough volcanic ash which allowed neither secure footing or the digging of foxholes. Nevertheless, by that evening the mountain had been surrounded and 30,000 Marines had landed. About 40,000 more would follow.

The climb up Suribachi was fought by the yard. Gunfire was ineffective against the Japanese, but flame throwers and grenades cleared the bunkers. Finally, on February 23, the summit was reached. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the famous photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" of the United States flag being planted on the mountain's summit.

With the landing area secure, more Marines and heavy equipment came ashore and the invasion proceeded north to capture the airfields and the remainder of the island. With their customary bravery, most Japanese soldiers fought to the death. Of over 21,800 defenders, only 200 were taken prisoner.

The Allied forces suffered 26,000 casualties, with nearly 7,000 dead. Over a quarter of the Medals of Honor awarded to marines in World War II were given for conduct in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

The island of Iwo Jima was declared secure on March 26, 1945.

Bill Gallo, the legendary NY Daily News sports cartoonist (he's the one who depicted Steinbrenner as a Prussian general) fought on Iwo Jima as a Marine.

Struggle for a piece of dirt

Iwo Jima: 60 years later

Today marks the 60th anniversary or our landing on that little black sandy island known as Iwo Jima and it is still an indelible picture in my mind.

It was a bleak and eerie island of 7-1/2 square miles, that looked very much like a charred pork chop. We had to capture this godforsaken land, made up of black dirt and little vegetation, which lay only 758 miles from Tokyo and 3,791 miles from Pearl Harbor. We had been successfully island hopping and now we desperately needed this hunk of dreariness as a fighter base from which escort planes could join our B-29s on their way to bomb Japan. It was a vital acquisition.

This wasn't going to be easy, because we learned from three previous landings that the enemy was a formidable foe, not easily prone to giving up their tightly held islands.

The tenacity of the Japanese was no surprise since we had felt their fight in the landing of Roi-Namur, part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. And in the battle of Saipan.

I remember it today, 60 years later. I remember the hell of it and I remember the guys. We were all part of the 4th Marine Division and we were kids carrying rifles and who very soon would grow older.

The names were like any from the neighborhood. There was Ozzie, an affable guy from Brooklyn; Eddie Killian out of Detroit; Joe Landers from Massachusetts; Joe Bruni and Stan Lacey from New York, and Elmer Grant Murphy, a guy with a big Southern drawl from Huntington, W.Va. I remember them all well. You just don't forget people you go to war with.

And I remember Popernack. He was Cpl. George Popernack (I forget where he was from) and he was the man left aboard ship while the rest of us clambered over the side, climbed down the rope ladders and got into the Higgins boats that would take us to the black shores of Iwo.

It's still vivid in my mind how Popernack died all those years ago on Iwo.

We landed on Beach Yellow 1 and 2 and Beach Blue. This, of course means nothing to the new generations, but I recall it automatically.

We landed on this lump of volcanic ash and did not leave until the island was secured in late March. At least the lucky ones did.

Popernack was not one of the lucky ones.

Fighting on Iwo was inch by inch. The entire island was the front line. The enemy didn't stop clobbering the beach with mortar fire for about 14 days.

It was dark when the enemy was starting their mortar fire again. That afternoon, Popernack landed on the beach, days after the rest of us. We kidded him, calling him Bob Hope because he came in so many days after us. That night he died.

A small group of us, members of a demolition team, had hoped somehow the Japanese mortar positions could be located so they might be quieted with 20-pound satchel charges. Also, there was one weapon the enemy surprised us with in this campaign - 1,000-pound rockets, or "buzz bombs" - and they played hell with us. The rockets were launched from well behind the enemy's lines against our installations on the beach and near one of the airfields. There were two finished airfields and one under construction and all three were vital.

The Japanese fire became a steady pattern. They were marksmen and were good at forming perfect squares of craters.

All of us from the demolition team and Popernack jumped into one of the craters as one of those big ones landed. Popernack took it all. And, by some miracle the rest of us, with our ears ringing from the blast, discovered we only had small scratches from sand kicking up. "Pop," as we called him, never knew what hit him.

By the time Iwo was called "ours," 6,820 Marines from three divisions had given their lives.

Why was Iwo fought? Because it was a perfect landing strip for wounded bombers and fighters flying from Saipan to Japan. Having a place to land other than the ocean would save countless lives. And before the battle was over, it did. As soon as a runway was secured, airplanes used it.

This battle was not the bloodiest, Tarawa was, or the most tactically brilliant, that was Saipan, or the most traumatic, that was Okinawa. But it was the battle which saved the Marine Corps.

In 1947, as the services were reorganized, the Army wanted to get rid of the Marine Corps. Tension between the two services had always been high, exploding in 1944 during the Battle of Saipan, when Army General Ralph Smith, commander of the 27th ID, was relieved by Marine General Holland M. Smith

On 25 June, H. Smith decided that the poor performance of the 27th Infantry Division was due to its lack of command and he decided to ask that R. Smith be relived of his command. After he talked this over with Turner the two of them approached Spruance. H. Smith stated that R. Smith had issued orders to units not under his command and contravened H. Smith's orders. H. Smith also stated that the 27th Infantry Division was late in conducting its attack on Mount Tapotchau and therefore it slowed the movement of its flanking marine divisions, causing them to suffer unnecessary losses.

The relief of R. Smith probably did not make any real difference in the aggressiveness of the 27th Infantry Division. However, it did stir up a Marine Corps / Army controversy. On Saipan itself, marines began to look down on the 27th Infantry Division soldiers and the army soldiers resented H. Smith for relieving their commander and the implications made on the fighting capability of the division. Off of the island the controversy grew much greater, with several Army generals going so far as to recommending to Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson, commander of all Army forces in the Pacific, that H. Smith was extremely prejudiced against army forces and that no Army forces should ever be put under his command again!

Major General Sanderford Jarman, who was on Saipan to take charge of the garrison operation after the Japanese were defeated, assumed temporary command of the 27th Infantry Division from 24 to 28 June. On 28 June, Major General George W. Griner, Jr. assumed command of the 27th Infantry Division. However, when he assumed command of the division, he was surprised to find out that he only had control of four infantry battalions, the rest of the division was under Corps command. Griner was told by H. Smith that he would have to "earn" the rest of the division back. By 5 July, the 27th Infantry Division and the 4th Marine Division had captured Mount Tapotchau and had pushed northward up the narrowing island. Due to this narrowing of the front, the 2nd Marine Division was pulled into reserve. By 6 July, Griner regained the control of all of the 27th Infantry Division's units. On 7 July, three thousand Japanese soldiers conducted a bonzai charge against the 27th Infantry Division. The Japanese soldiers were armed with only grenades and bayonets, yet they broke through the 27th Infantry Division on the western flank near the coast. The Japanese soldiers destroyed two infantry battalions and were only stopped by marines of the 2nd Marine Division after the Japanese had passed through the 27th Infantry Division's sector. By this time, H. Smith had had enough of the 27th infantry Division and various reports state that he ordered the entire division withdrawn from Saipan. In reality, only the decimated battalions were withdrawn from Saipan by destroyers. However, H. Smith did order the 27th Infantry Division into reserve and vowed that he would never use the division again.

The bitterness over Holland Smith's treatment of the 27th Division lasted long beyond World War II and echoes of it can be heard today. The difference between the two services is tactical and philsophical. Army units believe in using massed fire to win objectives, while Marines believe in aggressive action against the enemy. Bradley's move to reduce the size and power of the Marines comes from a variety of factors, but this was clearly one of them.

“I predict that large-scale amphibious operations will never occur again.” General Omar N. Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff House Armed Services Committee testimony, October 1949

The period from 1946 to early 1950 was marked by strategic uncertainty, the development of new thinking about how future wars would be fought, drastic defense budget reductions, and fierce interservice rivalry. All of this threatened to reduce the Marine Corps - and U.S. amphibious power - to a mere shadow of its World War II capability.

General Bradley's opinion quoted above mirrored that that of the Army's leadership, who argued that America's next military opponent was likely to be the Soviet Union. A conflict with that empire would mainly involve nuclear weapons. Additionally, if any ground operations occurred in such a conflict, they would take place in Europe. Thus, they argued, in the nuclear age the Army and the Army Air Force would do most of the fighting (the leaders of newly independent U.S. Air Force, established in 1947, would concur with this analysis). There would be no naval campaigns, leaving the Navy itself with a greatly reduced national defense role.

With no serious wartime mission, the argument continued, the Marine Corps should be organized into smaller, more lightly armed regiments useful for minor operations in foreign countries. The Army's leadership also saw no need for the Marines to operate fixed-wing combat aircraft, or to conduct integrated air-ground operations that had been the hallmark of the later amphibious assaults during the late war.

This conceptual onslaught, combined with post-war demobilization, made it difficult for the Marine Corps to maintain a strong, sustainable amphibious assault capability. Service planners wanted to maintain a Fleet Marine Force of at least two divisions and two aircraft wings, requiring in all approximately 8,000 officers and 100,000 enlisted. Ideally, one Marine division and Marine air wing would be available for duty in the Mediterranean, while another division, an air wing, a brigade, and an air group would be maintained for Pacific operations. However, by June 1950, the Corps' strength was approximately 75,000 officers and men, down from a wartime high of 485,000.

The Navy's leadership supported Marine Corps force level requests during the period immediately after the war. However, they also had to deal with a massive demobilization of ships and men and fierce interservice attacks. Indeed, in 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Denfield told one admiral that the Navy itself was "on its way out." Elaborating, Denfield observed: General Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We'll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.

The Navy's preoccupation with its own survival led some Marines to believe that the Corps was on its own in the pitched inter-service battles that marked the early postwar period.

The Marine Corps did win a major legislative victory with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which codified its existence, its combined-arms nature, and its ability to expand in wartime. It also gave the Corps primary responsibility for developing amphibious doctrine. But continuing budget cuts threatened to make the service completely ineffective as a war-fighting force. This effort to gut Marine Corps force structure culminated in the fiscal year 1951 budget, which called for reductions that would leave the service with a peacetime strength of just six battalions and 12 aircraft squadrons.

Before these plans could be implemented, however, the Korean War intervened. By July 1950, North Korean troops, fighting an "old-fashioned" conventional war, threatened to entirely overrun pro-Western South Korea, eject U.S. and allied forces from the peninsula, and inflict a major strategic defeat on the United States. Fortunately, this course of events was averted by a yet another "anachronistic" operation - the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious assault at Inchon.

What is often lacking from this discussion is the Army's successful history of amphibious invasions during WWII. Repeatedly, soldiers landed in the Solomons, New Guinea and the Philippines with no Marines around. While the Marines needed the support of the Army in most of their battles in the Central Pacific. While the Marine story of WWII is legendary, the Army's story has been overshadowed by both Europe and Burma.

However, what saved the Marines was the loyalty of it's former members. How loyal? One day, Ted Williams spotted Mike Barnicle's kid wearing an Army training shirt. He said "you ought to get one that says Marines, best team I was ever on." Williams flew in combat in both WWII and Korea.

But is was the AP picture of Joe Rosenthal, of the flag waving at Mount Suribachi, which influenced many people, People just didn't feel that way about the Army. They may have felt that way about thet 101 ABN or 4th Armored, but not the Army as whole. Marines have a very difference sense of loyalty. A Marine is a Marine, not just a member of the 3rd Division or 5th Regiment. Abolshing the Marine Corps or diminishing it, was downright unamerican. After all, the D-Day memorial is in New Orleans, not Washington DC.

posted by Steve @ 5:38:00 PM

5:38:00 PM

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