December 7, 2016, marked the first in a string of 75-year anniversaries for America’s Pacific War with Japan. Among the most unforgettable—certainly for the U.S. Marine Corps—will fall on February 19, 2020: the 75th anniversary of the assault on Iwo Jima.
Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima focuses on Iwo’s 22 Marine and five navy Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients. The struggle for “Sulphur Island” proved the most highly decorated single engagement in U.S. history. Small wonder: it was the only major Pacific battle where a U.S. landing force suffered more casualties than it inflicted. More surprising, 16 of the 27 MOH recipients lived to bask in plaudits.
For readers unfamiliar with the details of the month-long struggle for Iwo, Uncommon Valor is not the account to begin with. Although Hallas provides narrative transitions between individual accounts, these are cursory.
Each of the 27 stories—which combine backstory with action—are clear, compact, and compelling. One good way to page through Uncommon Valor might be to consider one or two heroes per sitting. I wished that Hallas had paused at certain junctures, not only to recap battle flow, but also to reflect on heroes’ backgrounds and the collective impact of what they achieved. Instead, each man’s biography stands mostly alone.
I found myself looking for patterns among the heroics, but was hard-pressed to discern them. As anticipated, most recipients were either in their late teens or early 20s (the youngest was a 17-year-old private first class; the oldest a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel). Some, but by no means most, displayed special urgency to get into combat—Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, for instance, who during the first days of the struggle for Guadalcanal manned machine-gun positions that repelled eight separate Japanese attacks. His daring heroics, for which he received a Medal of Honor in October 1942, could easily have exempted him from subsequent combat. Instead, Basilone braved his way onto Iwo, where he directed the destruction of two concrete blockhouses before being killed by enemy mortar fire; he posthumously received the Navy Cross.
In some cases, battle heroism offered no guar-antee of postwar achievement or contentment. Consider for example, Marine Private Wilson D. Watson, who single-handedly dispatched dozens of Japanese, allowing his platoon to seize a vital hill. Eighteen years later, after enlisting in the army, he was charged and jailed for desertion. Then there was Marine Sergeant William Harrell, whose bravery cost him both hands while defending his command post against grenade-hurling Japanese. He lived an exemplary postwar life only to die violently in 1964, killing two neighbors with his M1 carbine before turning the weapon on himself.
It is a shame there is no thoroughly documented way to recognize the outsized valor of the Japanese on Iwo. As usual, the Iwo garrison died nearly to a man. Many of the Japanese soldiers’ sacrifices were last-ditch and mindless, leaving winners, losers, and posterity with little accounting of those who gave all for their nearby homeland.
—New Jersey-based writer David Sears is a historian and frequent contributor to World War II.
This review was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.