In 1944 the bleak, insignificant Pacific island of Iwo Jima (sulphur island) suddenly became a top priority to the American war effort. Located 650 miles southeast of Tokyo, the eight-square-mile volcanic island lay near the midpoint of the route American B-29 Superfortress bombers would fly from the Mariana Islands to attack Japan. Iwo Jima was one of the only islands in that part of the Pacific that was large and flat enough to accommodate a runway, and the United States wanted to use it as a base for fighter planes escorting the B-29s and as a haven for planes in trouble. In January 1945 Major General Curtis E. Le May, who took command of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 21st Bomber Command on the Mariana Islands, noted, "Without Iwo Jima I couldn’t bomb Japan effectively."
Once the U.S. took the Marianas in 1944, the Japanese understood that Iwo Jima would be invaded. They dispatched one of their formidable military leaders, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, to Iwo Jima in June 1944 to fortify the island against attack. By early 1945, under the general’s leadership, Iwo Jima’s few residents, mainly farmers and refinery workers who sent sulphur back to Japan, had been evacuated, and some 22,000 Japanese troops were entrenched in an underground network of defensive installations built deep inside the rock. A labor force that included hundreds of Korean conscripts constructed a formidable fortress of more than 750 gun emplacements, blockhouses with concrete walls, 16 miles of tunnels, and 1,000 pillboxes. The island, already employed by the Japanese as a radar warning station and as a base for fighter interceptors, was now ready for an all-out American attack.
In preparation for the amphibious invasion planned for early 1945, U.S. B-24 bombers started pounding Iwo Jima in August 1944. Heavy clouds and swarms of Japanese fighter planes hindered the operation, and U.S. pilots were never sure how much damage they had inflicted on the island’s underground defense systems. The bombing increased in December and January as the B-24s flew 1,836 sorties. The attacks damaged the island’s airfields but didn’t incapacitate them for even a day, and the continuous aerial raids showed no breakdown in the Japanese defensive strongholds.
At 6:40 a.m. on February 19, 1945, U.S. bombers and naval forces bombarded the island in preparation for the invasion. At 9:00 a.m. the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions of the 5th Amphibious Corps, with the 3rd Marine Division in reserve, converged on the beaches. Japanese guns remained silent at first, but then hit the approaching U.S. forces with a hail of firepower in the first of many ferocious encounters. It took the Marines 36 days to capture the island, taking it literally yard by yard. When the fighting ended, almost a third of the Marine force–5,931 killed, 17,372 wounded–had become casualties. Only 216 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders survived to become prisoners of war.
On March 4, 1945, a B-29 on its way back to Guam made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima even as the battle raged. It was the first of 2,251 U.S. bombers that would make emergency landings there before the war ended. The fighting finally ceased on the island on March 26, leaving America with its first base inside the Japanese inner-defense system.
The United States returned control of Iwo Jima to the Japanese government in 1968, although the U.S. Coast Guard continued to operate a station there until 1993. That October the Coast Guard handed the facility over to the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency, and the last American personnel left the island.