Comfortably bedded down for the night, VII Fighter Command personnel on Iwo Jima were rudely awakened by the sudden appearance of hundreds of Japanese soldiers bent on their destruction.
Almost again standing at ease, Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, the commander of the Fleet Marine Force, boarded a launch that took him to a waiting ship and away from Iwo Jima. The miserable 10-square-mile island of volcanic ash had been taken at terrible cost by the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions. The leathernecks who landed in the initial assault as soon as Old Glory was fixed to the cleat on the flagstaff and the circled Marines were waves on February 19, 1945, had been promised that the operation would take no more than 10 days, after which harassing raids on U.S. airfields and attacks on bomber formations heading to Tokyo would cease. The island’s three airfields could then be used by the Army Air Forces for fighter aircraft supporting the Boeing B-29 bomber offensive against the Japanese Home Islands and as an emergency landing strip for stricken bombers. Despite the extensive preparations and the skill and bravery of the personnel involved, it was March 14 before our higher echelons felt comfortable pronouncing the island “secure.”
Although I was on the island, I had not participated in the initial bloody battles to secure it. My arrival was a little less auspicious. In November 1944, I was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the base photo lab for the 375th Headquarters and Air Base Squadron, which was located on Nandi, in the Fiji Islands. I was contentedly working away at my lab developing aerial reconnaissance and bomb damage photographs when, through the whims of the military replacement system, I found myself being flown to Hickam Field, Hawaii, along with Army Air Forces personnel from other bases throughout the Pacific. My comrades all had some sort of specialty, be it telephone lines, switchboard operations, etc.
Once at Hickam, our polyglot force was reorganized into the 1st Provisional Station Complement Squadron. We were also taken to the range to requalify on the rifle and carbine. As was typical of the Army, why we were going through all this remained a mystery to us.
Eventually our unit boarded troopships and sailed from Hawaii on February 5, 1945, part of a convoy that stopped at Saipan and Tinian before heading north. I was now just one of 60,000 men carried in the bellies of 860 ships, the largest military convoy ever assembled in the Pacific. Approximately one week before reaching our destination, we were gathered on the deck of our transport, and an officer pointed to a large map of what we were told was Iwo Jima. He informed us that a landing force from the 4th and 5th Marine divisions would go ashore and quickly seize the island’s three airstrips. Given the pounding that Iwo had been taking since the previous August, opposition was expected to be light, but just in case, the 3rd Division was to be kept on the transports and could be used as a mobile reserve if necessary.
It was believed that the landing beaches and initial objectives would be secured within 72 hours, and once this was done, we would land to support Marine operations and then do what was necessary to get Airfield No. 1 ready to receive our own planes. The airfield was located in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, the commanding volcano that was labeled “Hot Rock” on our briefing map of Iwo Jima.
At 5:30 on the morning of February 19, we were greeted by the spectacle of some of the Navy’s largest ships blasting the island. First Lieutenant Martin Zipin, the special services officer in the 386th Air Service Group, recalled that Suribachi “seemed to be afire with all the pounding the big guns and naval aircraft were giving her.” At 9 the shelling stopped, and the Marines went in. We were now spectators to the operation, watching smoke rise from the island. Later that afternoon we had some idea that things were not progressing as smoothly as hoped; landing craft brought a steady stream of wounded Marines back to the ships. This continued for some days, until on the 24th it was our turn.
Along with my comrades, I climbed down the cargo nets and dropped into the landing craft that would take us to shore. As we approached the beach, the dead were floating face down in the water. On the beach, the bodies piled up as Marines returning for ammunition brought their dead back from the front line. Despite that awful sight, we got on with our first job, which was to make the airfield operational for the Northrop P-61s of the 549th Night Fighter Squadron (NFS) and North American P-51s of the 15th Fighter Group (FG). We worked on this airfield until the second field was secured in early March.
After the Marines had secured most of Airfield No. 2, we were relieved by the cadre that would operate Airfield No. 1 and moved up to prepare the next airstrip. My task during this time was to operate a small field switchboard. As we worked, we scratched out our improvised camp on the Motoyama Plateau between the western beaches and the plateau on which the airfields were situated. Conditions were crowded, with all the Army Air Forces personnel clumped together in a very small area near Airfield No. 2.
Though cramped, our living conditions were vastly superior to those of the Marines still fighting to secure Iwo. As we worked away at our various tasks, the sounds of fighting elsewhere on the island continued with unabated fury. We were a little surprised when, on March 14, we were told that the island was secure. We were alarmed, however, when this announcement was followed by an order from Colonel Kenneth R. Powell, the 21st Fighter Group commander, to turn over all live ammunition.
Everyone knew that the Japanese were still resisting, but orders were orders, so we obeyed. Most of us were armed with M1 carbines for which loose ammo was not likely to be found on the debris-strewn battlefield. However, M1 Garand rifles, whole and broken, left by Marine casualties, were everywhere, plus their ammunition and hand grenades. After obeying the order to turn in our ammunition, our carbines were now useless, so we quickly set about rearming ourselves with those relics of the battle. After assuring that we had taken care of ourselves— my M1 was reconstituted from two wrecked pieces picked up near our tent area—many of the guys in my unit scrounged others to sell to late-arriving airmen. Ten dollars was the standard price for a good M1.
As the battle continued, we toiled away day after day with little interruption. On March 4, however, the Boeing B-29 Dinah Might had landed on the island. It was the first of many bombers that found refuge on the airstrips we were working on. It had provided some affirmation, at least, that all the suffering the Marine, Army and Navy personnel had endured was somehow worth the cost. Even with this, however, the fighting was never far away. Our first camp was located immediately in front of the line of the Marines’ heaviest guns as they shelled Japanese positions. The 10 days following the pronouncement that the island was secure had seen little change in the sights and sounds we had become accustomed to. Some of the most intense combat had taken place in a heavily fortified draw southwest of Kitano Point. Part of the 5th Marine Division had suffered terribly in what became a battle of attrition. This piece of real estate, dubbed “the Gorge,” had just been captured on the 23rd at terrible cost.
While the fighting raged, the dead and wounded were brought back through our area. At first they came back in bullet-punctured jeeps and weasels, the latter being tracked vehicles that could negotiate the porous black volcanic sand that covered the island. Later, trucks were used to haul larger cargos. As the casualties increased in number, and the graves registration teams could not keep up with the burials, bulldozers were used. At one time there were 400 to 500 dead Americans stacked up like cordwood nearby. A chaplain made a count twice a day. He was only able to stand the smell by chain-smoking. Shrouded in tobacco smoke, he would look on as a bulldozer scooped a long trench and the bodies were laid out 50 in a row. Meanwhile, empty wooden crates that had earlier carried ammunition were broken apart and crafted into wooden crosses.
The burials were not intended to be so impersonal, and many did what they could to put a more human face on the loss. I often saw Marines who, on a break from the fighting, would drop by to see a buddy’s grave. They would stop in front of the wooden crosses and use their Ka-Bar fighting knives to carve small monuments from the soft volcanic rock before returning to the fight.
Since the fighting was never far away, we regularly pulled guard duty along the northern perimeter of our camp. Each air or Seabee unit had guard posts placed around its area. Usually this consisted of a sandbagged foxhole. Since these guards were technicians trained in some skill other than combat, they often responded to any unrecognized sound by releasing a fusillade of bullets into the darkness.
On March 26, following my time on duty, which ran from dusk to dawn, I left the communications tent near Airfield No. 2 and was on my way back to my quarters when a star shell exploded to the north. It was still dark, and as the flare floated to the earth, the shadow of the parachute shroud lines rotated against the dark like giant wheel spokes revolving against the sky. When the flare’s glow began to fade, I could hear a straining jeep engine racing south, from the beach area below. “It must be hell,” I thought, “trying to drive that fast in the dark. It must be an ambulance jeep trying to rush a casualty to the hospital.”
Standing there in the dark listening to the customary guard-post small-arms fire and pondering the fate of the casualty on the jeep, I suddenly heard heavier explosions—the concussion of bursting mortar shells and hand grenades from the beach below. Although my duty had come to an end, I returned to my switchboard to keep communications open. It was 4 a.m., and the last spasm of Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima was underway.
Unfolding below me in the dark was not the typical sake-crazed last charge that had ended other Pacific campaigns. Instead, it seemed to be a carefully planned and coordinated attack carried out by well-organized Japanese troops, and its suddenness and ferocity threatened to significantly disrupt our aerial operations on the island.
Aware of the fate that would befall the Home Islands once the Americans were able to make use of Iwo’s airfields, the Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had hoped to make one final significant attack that would slow the strategic bombing offensive for as long as possible. To accomplish this, he had infiltrated 300 to 600 men down the length of the island under cover of darkness and ordered them to “attack the enemy on the Western Beach, parallel to Motoyama Airfield and fight courageously to the end, sacrificing your lives for your country.” The last known message from Kuribayashi had come on March 22. The Japanese later claimed that, with organized resistance in his vicinity completely broken, Kuribayashi committed ritual suicide on the 23rd. His body was never found, however, and in any case the unit he left behind had its orders and patiently waited for the prescribed date to carry them out.
Kuribayashi, who General Smith described as “the most redoubtable” opponent the Marines had faced in the Pacific, had picked the perfect time to launch his multipronged attack. Americans exhausted by months of combat had begun to think that, perhaps, the fighting was nearing its end once and for all. Army Air Forces pilots were flying to Tokyo safe in the knowledge that they had an emergency landing strip on Iwo. At the same time, stalwart Japanese soldiers lurking hidden in caves could peer out and see the island’s western shore crowded with American ships unloading men and supplies onto packed beaches. They could also see thousands of Army Air Forces personnel— pilots for the P-51s and P-61s and the supporting ground crew—going about their routine. The veteran Japanese troops no doubt noted that these airmen did not settle into sandbagged foxholes for living quarters as the Marines had done, but brazenly erected tents with streets looking much like a small city. Some pilots and officers slept in two-man house-shaped tents, while the enlisted men slept in six-man squad tents or the larger shelters an angry Marine colonel called “circus tents.”
In addition to the relative unpreparedness of the Army personnel, the moon set early on the evening of March 25-26, which gave Kuribayashi’s force the ability to assemble and move without attracting the attention and overwhelming firepower of waiting American ships. To make matters worse, the Japanese began their attack at the very moment that the Marines’ 5th Pioneer Battalion was preparing to evacuate the area, and just before the arrival of the Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment. This meant that the initial assault would fall on ill-prepared airmen, many of whom were asleep in their tents and most of whom had never seen ground combat of any sort.
The attack got underway with a heavy shelling of the command tent occupied by Colonel Powell and several of his staff. Many of the officers were wounded, including the colonel. To further confuse the Americans, one echelon of Japanese took advantage of the pending departure of the 5th Pioneer Battalion to move a column quickly down the road from north to south. They marched right down the road in a military manner with English-speaking officers shouting commands, much as one of our Marine units might have done. Members of this group wore Marine uniforms and helmets that they had removed from American dead. Only when a star shell’s light revealed the telltale leather cartridge boxes worn on their belts did an alert guard post discover the ruse and open fire.
The initial blow fell first on a guard post of Battery C, 506th Anti-aircraft Battalion. As the startled guards were fighting for their lives, Major Lloyd E. Whitley, the operations officer of the 531st Fighter Squadron, together with Captain William Benton, were caught in the open as they walked toward the jeep they were going to drive to the flight line. Taking cover behind the parked jeeps of the squadron motor pool, the pair exchanged fire with the enemy until Whitley was fatally shot through the neck.
Elsewhere, the enemy column was able to quickly get in among the American tents. The battle was very one-sided. Accustomed to hearing firing during the night, the GIs had become complacent. Rather than stay on the alert, many Army personnel had tightly laced the flaps of their tents and gone to sleep. In the 549th NFS, for example, the battle caused little disruption until nearby grenade explosions and small-arms fire tearing through canvas awakened the slumbering pilots. Almost immediately the Japanese slit open the walls of the first four tents, threw in hand grenades and emptied their rifles and pistols into the startled occupants. Six Americans were killed, and another 19 were wounded before most of the men had a chance to wipe the sleep from their eyes.
After passing through the 549th, the Japanese next came upon the adjoining Seabee camp, where they tried to set fire to stored fuel-oil drums with hand grenades. They left a blaze in their wake.
When the attack struck the bivouac of the 21st Fighter Group, runners were dispatched to the headquarters tent to alert the officer of the day, Captain Timothy Foohey. One of the runners was an unfortunate victim of our inexperience and the confusion of combat. As he ran to headquarters, Private John F. Wilson was challenged by a Captain Manning. Not recognizing the private in the dark, Manning fired and wounded Wilson. Seeing what he had done, the captain immediately woke Captain Hart, the flight surgeon of the 46th Squadron, but it was too late. Wilson’s wounds proved fatal.
Manning’s hurried request for assistance, however, had alerted Hart that there was an attack underway, and the surgeon immediately set up a first-aid and emergency dressing station in a large refuse pit, where he worked throughout the battle.
As the Japanese swept through the bivouac area, I remained at my switchboard, unsure of exactly what was happening but alarmed by the numbers of calls for help I was receiving from Army units in the bivouac below. Following the battle, I had an opportunity to review the after-action reports and learned the stories behind those frenzied messages I had heard early that morning.
Prisoners later asserted that Kuribayashi himself led one of the assault columns during the attack. Many of the Japanese appeared to be officers and carried samurai swords, which seemed to be everywhere. One wounded GI crawled from a tent and was quickly grabbed by two Japanese enlisted men who held him up while one of their officers brought his sword down on his victim like an ax, splitting him in two.
Nearby, a pilot running from his tent met another sword-waving officer, grabbed him and strangled him before he could use his blade. A Lieutenant Miller watched aghast as his two tent mates, Lieutenants Cheney and Wailes, were killed by having their throats slashed with those swords. The occupants of the tent had scrambled when a hand grenade was thrown into their midst. Lieutenants Woods and Mattill were killed instantly in the blast. Cheney, Wailes and Miller were badly wounded. Enemy officers rushed into the tent behind the blast. Miller was able to feign death, but Cheney and Wailes were killed. The Japanese officers then used the tent as a command post and remained there throughout the engagement.
The Japanese must have felt very confident. Almost effortlessly they had overrun the 549th NFS, 49th Signal Construction Battalion, 21st FG, 465th Aviation Squadron and the 726th Signal Air Warning Battalion. Two Seabee battalions were also hit and the attackers penetrated all the way to the Army’s 38th Field Hospital.
Early in the engagement, the force attacking from the northwest had worked along the northern perimeter of the 21st FG and reoccupied a pillbox, slit trench and nearby foxholes that had been lost earlier in the battle. They now established a defensive line and reestablished contact with another portion of their force that had attacked from the east and had established their own defensive line in a cluster of shell holes.
It was a confusing, terrifying night for the airmen and was met in different ways by different individuals. Some enlisted men had no weapons or ammunition and instead spent the duration of the fight lying as flat as possible in the volcanic ash floor of their tents. The pilots, who generally carried loaded .45 automatics as a sidearm, were better prepared. In the tent occupied by Lieutenants Schurr, Galbraith, Fenker, Smith and Bettie those pistols became vital. The lieutenants were preparing to go to the flight line when a Japanese grenade landed in their tent. Lieutenants Galbraith and Smith were wounded but immediately jumped behind some sandbags piled near the tent’s entrance. Smith and Bettie cut loopholes in the rear tent wall so they could protect against attack from behind. Schurr and Fenker took positions in a foxhole outside the right front corner of the tent.
Galbraith fired at the enemy as they moved between two large shell holes in the northeast area of the bivouac. During the battle, he accounted for 11 of the attackers, including at least three officers. Meanwhile, Schurr and Fenker simultaneously fired on and killed a Japanese officer who was trying to slash his way into the neighboring tent occupied by Captains Brown, Robinson and Coplin, and Lieutenant Mahaney. Captain Robinson had killed another Japanese officer only a moment before as he tried to rush in the door. A few moments later, Mahaney was killed by grenades as he stood up to fire at another Japanese approaching his tent. Schurr and Fenker were able to kill two more enemy soldiers, and Smith, firing his automatic from the loophole at the rear of the tent, killed a third.
As the battle raged, Hart’s aid station continued to function. Wounded men crawled in or were dragged in by friends. Although he was badly wounded, a Lieutenant Koke attempted to drag his tent mate, Lieutenant Kimmich, unconscious from grenade wounds, to safety. Koke had almost reached the first-aid station under an intense barrage of mortar shells when he collapsed. Both officers, however, were ultimately rescued.
Captain Frederick Gibson was one of the rescuers. During the course of the battle, he worked tirelessly to bring the wounded to Hart’s first-aid station. Captains Crim and Foohey helped out by searching for the wounded and providing covering fire when necessary to Gibson.
While his men fought for their lives, Major Sam Hudson, commanding officer of the 21st FG’s 531st Squadron, was badly wounded, two of his fingers being blown away. Despite those wounds, the major refused to be evacuated and instead worked with a Captain Cochrane to organize a counterattack to reach those men now cut off behind the Japanese.
As the Army Air Forces units tried to sort themselves out, the Japanese drove into the Marine’s 5th Pioneer Battalion. This unit was composed of black Marines commanded by white officers. Trained to fight, up to this point these Marines had instead been used primarily as stevedores, helping to unload the tons of supplies being landed on Iwo and other mundane tasks. Now in their first real battle and anxious to prove their worth, their response was extraordinary.
The line was held in large measure by the efforts of Company C’s 1st Lt. Harry Martin and the men immediately around him. As the Japanese approached, Martin was able to form a firing line that stopped the initial Japanese attack. He then crawled into no man’s land and, though wounded twice by enemy fire, he worked his way through the Japanese to reach his surrounded men and begin directing them back to their own lines. As the Marines made their way back, four Japanese took control of an abandoned machine gun pit and began showering them with hand grenades.
Martin’s few remaining men could do little to stop a concerted enemy attack. But to disrupt the Japanese long enough for other Americans to establish a more firm position, he called on those around him to follow as he charged into the mass of the enemy and continued firing until he was killed by a grenade. Unable to maintain the momentum of their attack, the remaining Japanese fell back and busied themselves attacking isolated pockets of airmen bypassed during the initial rush. Although it cost him his life, Martin’s attack prevented the Japanese from continuing their main assault and doomed them to destruction. The posthumous Medal of Honor subsequently awarded to Martin was the last of 27 earned by Marine and Navy personnel during the campaign.
The sun was now beginning to rise, and Marine Captains George Ellis and Robert J. Munro took advantage of the time gained by Martin’s sacrifice to organize the 5th Battalion’s A and B companies and launch an attack of their own. In what the 5th Marine Division history described as “bitter hand-to-hand fighting,” the black Marines waded into the enemy with a vengeance. They soon arrived near Captain Hart’s first-aid station. A firing line was now set up, and the Marines were joined by members of the 465th NFS, miscellaneous Army Air Forces personnel, Seabees and even hospital personnel who armed themselves with any weapon they could find. Under Munro’s guidance, this group drove north, sweeping the Army bivouac area of remaining Japanese troops and rescuing trapped GIs and Seabees.
At approximately the same time that Munro’s force was attacking, members of the 49th Signal Battalion and 549th NFS began their own organized push from the west. This two-pronged attack forced the Japanese onto a plateau between the airfield and the bivouac area. Here in the open they were exposed to crossfire from the two converging American forces, and destroyed. Essentially the battle was over.
By 8 a.m., four hours after being called, elements of the 137th Infantry Regiment arrived with two flame-thrower tanks in support. Within the hour all that remained were 262 Japanese bodies and 18 prisoners. Any others had returned to their caves.
I had been lucky. Busy with my duties in the communication tent, which was away from the main bivouac area, I had survived the attack. When the sun was fully up I had a chance to survey the wreckage and, like many others, search for souvenirs. The sword I was able to retrieve that morning bore the markings of a field-grade officer, and further investigation revealed that the blade had been crafted in 1550; it probably had been in its owner’s family for many generations.
Swords recovered by others had similar stories. Even now there is some confusion in regard to the number of Japanese involved in this last attack. The lower figures are based, in part, on the number of swords recovered on the battlefield. Ultimately 40 were officially recovered and, for intelligence purposes, this translated into roughly 300 enemy troops present during the attack. I believe this may be a low estimate.
A samurai sword was the most valuable souvenir a GI could obtain in the Pacific. We all knew that if we did not want it for ourselves that there was always some sailor or aircrewman who would be more than happy to purchase it. By that point in the war the going rate was around $200.
Given the sword’s value, any enlisted man who came across a sword quickly hid it, burying it in Iwo’s black volcanic ash if need be. It was too easy for an officer to seize such a valuable souvenir for “intelligence purposes.” Because of that, many swords were hidden. Based on what I know, more than 90 swords were picked up that morning, 50 or more of which were buried in the sand or otherwise unaccounted for, indicating a much larger attacking force than is generally reported.
Such debates about numbers, however, are largely irrelevant to the 55 Army, Marine and Navy personnel killed and the additional 119 wounded during the final spasm on Sulfur Island.
Ivan E. Prall left Iwo Jima in October and returned to the United States in November 1945. Still in possession of his trophy samurai sword, today he lives in Malta, Ill. For further reading, see Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic, by Historical Branch, Marine Corps.
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.