Across black volcanic sand, U.S. Marines crawled, ran, and slipped towards the entrenched Japanese on Iwo Jima. Starting on the 16th of February, the U.S. Navy had engaged in a “softening up” operation and of the 30,000 men who were to wade ashore on the first day, it was predicted that reinforcements would not be needed. The island, although only a little over 4 miles long, was key to General Curtis Lemay’s bomber offensive on Japan’s home islands. On February 19, Marines were met by 21,000 Japanese soldiers and a dizzying network of caves, tunnels, and concrete pillboxes that a determined enemy used to deadly effect. The tenacious defense at Iwo forced Admiral Raymond Spruance to commit approximately 40,000 more men to the campaign. 

Despite the iconic flag raising atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, the bloody battle would continue for nearly another month. However, the James V. Forrestal, the secretary of the Navy, observing the flag raising from a ship offshore, famously remarked to Major General Holland Smith that “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” One Marine noted that because of the taking heavy casualties no one knew if they were winning or losing. The flag raising created hope and, to him, signaled that the Japanese were going to have to kill every last American if they wanted the island. 

The 36-day slog horrified military planners and American citizens alike. In the end, 6,821 Marines were killed with another 19,217 wounded. And of the Japanese, 212 defenders – only 1 percent of the original garrison – were still alive to surrender.

 

 

  • The third and fourth wave moving onto the beach on February 19, 1945. (Defense Department)
  • Amphibious tractors, jammed with Fourth Division Marines, churn toward Iwo Jima at H-hour. These troops were the initial assault force. (Defense Department)
  • With shells and shrapnel screaming overhead, Marines crawl along the beach at Iwo and dig into the soft volcanic sand for protection from the terrific hail of enemy fire.
  • The first rounds take flight as Marine rocketeers launch pyramids of projectiles toward Japanese emplacements.
  • Two Marine privates hit the deck to throw a scorching inferno at the mighty defenses, which blocked the way to Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.
  • Battle at the foot of Mount Suribachi on D-Day plus three. (Defense Department)
  • A wave of charging Fourth Division Marines begin an attack from the beach at Iwo Jima, on D-Day as another boatload of battle-tested veterans is disgorged on the beach by an invasion craft. (Defense Department)
  • Marine artillerymen assume various poses as they stop up their ears against the concussion from a 155mm howitzer. Leatherneck cannoneers paving the way for a three division drive laid a terrific barrage on intricately fortified enemy positions in the rocky ridges of northern Iwo.
  • Tail assembly of a Japanese rocket bomb.
  • A Marine examines an entrance to a Japanese underground shelter.
  • Once used as a warehouse and pillbox by the enemy, the photo shows scarring by direct artillery hits. (Defense Department)
  • A Marine examines a cave on Iwo in which the enemy had hidden cached supplies. (Defense Department)
  • A bedding roll serves as a chess table for Marine airmen between flights at the Motoyama Airfield.
  • Tracer bullets from antiaircraft guns ashore and on ships, stab the black night as American forces send up a barrage to repel Japanese air attacks.
  • In the stiff breeze atop Mount Suribachi, volcano mountain on Iwo Jima Island, “Old Glory” whips against the sky as cheering Marines raise their voices and weapons in the historic moment for posterity.
  • A wounded Marine receives blood plasma in a shell hole when an aid station had been established.
  • This concrete Japanese shelter on Iwo suffered a direct artillery hit, but the standing portions were used as aid stations for wounded Marines.
  • The Third Marine Division's cemetery on the island's eastern beach.

*Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are courtesy of the USMC Archives.