The American amphibious invasion of Iwo Jima during World War II stemmed from the need for a base near the Japanese coast. Following elaborate preparatory air and naval bombardment, three U.S. marine divisions landed on the island in February 1945. Iwo Jima was defended by roughly 23,000 Japanese army and navy troops, who fought from an elaborate network of caves, dugouts, tunnels and underground installations. Despite the difficulty of the conditions, the marines wiped out the defending forces after a month of fighting, and the battle earned a place in American lore with the publication of a photograph showing the U.S. flag being raised in victory.
The American amphibious invasion of Iwo Jima, a key island in the Bonin chain roughly 575 miles from the Japanese coast, was sparked by the desire for a place where B-29 bombers damaged over Japan could land without returning all the way to the Marianas, and for a base for escort fighters that would assist in the bombing campaign. Iwo Jima was defended by roughly 23,000 Japanese army and navy troops, and it was attacked by three marine divisions after elaborate preparatory air and naval bombardment (sixty-eight hundred tons of bombs, twenty-two thousand shells). The battle was marked by changes in Japanese defense tactics–troops no longer defended at the beach line but rather concentrated inland; consequently, the marines experienced initial success but then got bogged down in costly attritional warfare. The Japanese fought from an elaborate network of caves, dugouts, tunnels, and underground installations that were difficult to find and destroy. Except for 1,083 prisoners (two of whom did not surrender until 1951) the entire garrison was wiped out. American losses included 5,900 dead and 17,400 wounded.
Photographer Joe Rosenthal provided the U.S. Marine Corps with one of its most enduring images with his picture (restaged for the purpose) of Americans raising the flag over Mount Suribachi at the southwest corner of Iwo, an image replicated on postage stamps as well as on the memorial statue at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
The last and biggest of the Pacific island battles of World War II, the Okinawa campaign (April 1—June 22, 1945) involved the 287,000 troops of the U.S. Tenth Army against 130,000 soldiers of the Japanese Thirty-second Army. At stake were air bases vital to the projected invasion of Japan. By the end of the 82-day campaign, Japan had lost more than 77,000 soldiers and the Allies had suffered more than 65,000 casualties—including 14,000 dead.
Japanese forces changed their typical tactics of resisting at the water’s edge to a defense in depth, designed to gain time. In conjunction with this, the Japanese navy and army mounted mass air attacks by planes on one-way “suicide” missions; the Japanese also sent their last big battleship, the Yamato, on a similar mission with a few escorts. The “special attack” kamikaze tactics the Japanese used on these missions, although not especially sophisticated, were so determined that Allied forces perhaps faced their most difficult Pacific campaign. The net result made Okinawa a mass bloodletting both on land and at sea, and among both the island’s civilian population and the military.
A series of defense lines across the island, both north and south of the American landing beaches, enabled the Japanese to conduct a fierce defense of Okinawa over many weeks. Using pillboxes and strongpoints, caves, and even some ancient castles, the Japanese defense positions supported one another and often resisted even the most determined artillery fire or air strikes. Mounting few attacks themselves, the Japanese conserved their strength for this defense. Caves or pillboxes often had to be destroyed individually with dynamite charges. This battle took place in an environment much more heavily populated than most Pacific islands, with civilian casualties of almost 100,000 and equally heavy losses for the Japanese army. “It was a scene straight out of hell. There is no other way to describe it,” recalls Higa Tomiko, then a seven-year-old girl, who survived the battle.
The commanding generals on both sides died in the course of this battle: American general Simon B. Buckner by artillery fire, Japanese general Ushijima Mitsuru by suicide. Other U.S. losses in ground combat included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action. The navy suffered 4,907 killed or missing aboard 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged; 763 aircraft were lost. At sea and in the air, the Japanese expended roughly 2,800 aircraft, plus a battleship, a light cruiser, and four destroyers, with losses that can be estimated at upwards of 10,000.