The Pacific island of Iwo Jima is only about seven kilometers long and three kilometers wide; the only major elevation is Suribachi Mountain at 169 meters. There is nothing there to fight for. Nevertheless, one of the bloodiest battles of the war between the United States and Japan began here on February 19, 1945. The reason for this was the geostrategic importance of the island.
The war had begun on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese air raid on the U.S. Navy base Pearl Harbor, which knocked out most of the U.S. battleships, but not the most important class of ships, the aircraft carriers. This half-success allowed Japan to expand enormously to the east and southeast in the following months. Much of the Pacific island world came under Japanese control. In the south, Japanese troops advanced to Indonesia and far into British-colonized Burma. With this, Japan had secured the war-essential raw material supply, but at the price of great fragmentation of forces.
In June 1942, the Japanese advance on the Pacific island of Midway failed. The Empire lost not only four aircraft carriers, but also hundreds of naval aircraft with the best trained pilots. It was now clear that Japan could no longer attack the US mainland. In the medium term, regardless of the outcome of this or that battle, the strength of the US industry had to lead to an overwhelming majority of ships and aircraft.
The US offensive was based on an "island jumping" strategy. While the Japanese side secured all of their conquests, the US could choose where to attack and bypass less rewarding targets. (On individual islands, Japanese soldiers who knew nothing of the end of the war persisted until the 1970s.) The defender had to divide his forces, the attacker was concentrated – this was how the Mariana Archipelago in the US got between June and August 1944 – American hand.
This facilitated the bombing of the main Japanese islands. During the course of 1944, the United States carried out air strikes against industrial plants and airfields. This affected Japanese war production and air defense, but did not eliminate it. At the end of 1944 the decision was made to switch to area bombing. And with that, Iwo Jima came into focus.
The distance from the Mariana Islands to Tokyo is approximately 2,500 kilometers. Halfway there is the Iwo Jima, which is equipped with trajectories. The base offered the Japanese Air Force an opportunity to disrupt the bombers' entry; in the event of a conquest, however, the United States would be able to protect the bombers with fighter planes from there.
The Japanese leadership recognized the strategic importance of the island early on and had extensive fortifications built, including 18 kilometers of tunnels. About 21,000 soldiers were stationed there. You should fight as long as possible to gain time for defense preparations in the main Japanese islands. Surrender was not planned even in a hopeless situation. This order was followed, so the US's assessment of bringing the island under its control within a week was too optimistic.
The landing on February 19 was preceded by a three-day bombardment of the island by battleships, which, however, did not decisively affect the Japanese bunker systems that were buried deep underground. The first US soldiers who wanted to land found out how poorly the reconnaissance had worked: they found themselves in ash fields where their vehicles got stuck. The Japanese defenders waited until a certain density of attackers had gathered on this unfavorable terrain and only then fired, sometimes with devastating effects: In some landing sectors, over 80 percent of the US soldiers fell.
Nevertheless, two main goals were achieved by evening. About 30,000 Marines had landed on the island, and Iwo Jima was at its narrowest point under the control of U.S. forces. In fact, the Japanese defense was not divided into two sectors, as the tunnels continued to connect the two parts of the island. The Japanese could hardly be fought in their positions with firearms. Hand grenades and flamethrowers killed the front lines of the defenders, but more Japanese soldiers moved in from lower positions.
Under these circumstances, US troops advanced slowly, despite superior numbers and air dominance. After all, on February 23, they took a symbolically important place with the Suribachi mountain in the south of the island. After a small flag was first hoisted at the summit, the same day they decided to replace it with a larger one.
The photo of it, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," was used not only as an advertisement for the 7th US war bond from May 1945, but later for the United States' iconic victory in the Pacific War. For Iwo Jima, however, conquering the mountain meant little. The larger northern part of the island had to be fought for meter by meter. The main battles lasted until March 26, with isolated resistance only going out weeks later.
The area bombing of Japan was intensified during the battle for Iwo Jima. The air raid on Tokyo on the night of March 10 hit incendiary bombs, including Napalm, the port area, which was crammed with wooden houses. With around 100,000 deaths, it was the most victimized bombing raid in the entire world war that was carried out with "conventional" weapons.
But Iwo Jima – like the even more lossy conquest of Okinawa between April and June 1945 – served to justify using nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the islands, the Japanese soldiers continued to fight as commanded even in hopeless situations. Only around 1,100 Japanese surrendered to Iwo Jima, and more than 20,000 resisted until the end. Extrapolating this to the main Japanese islands would actually have resulted in a terrible balance. However, the rapid succession of the two atomic bombings, which left the Japanese side no time to draw conclusions from Hiroshima, shows that August 1945 was not only about the Japanese surrender, but also about a warning to the Soviet Union.
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