Blood and Ash

September 3, 2013

Iwo Jima bandiera  americana sul  Suribachi


The Johnny Cash’s unmistakable  voice is singing a story: the story of a young Pima Indian. He lives in a reservation, in Arizona, USA. And in this reservation the plenty of water allows the crops to grow. But one day the white men arrive and the water of the reservation is theirs. No more crops, no more money for the Indians. The young Pima Indian leaves his reservation and enlists in the Marines Corp.
His name is Ira Hamilton Hayes.   

“The heretic”.

Beyond  the exits of the landing’s shores, on a deceitful and friable ground, many Marines companies are under the Japanese crossfire. Wrapped by the explosions’  smoke and by the pungent smell of the sulphur and of the  cordite, immobilized behind precarious and makeshift shelters, without the cover of the armoured tanks blocked by the volcanic ash, the young Marines are falling in their hundreds. Nobody had imagined such a situation; nobody had imagined to find at Iwo-Jima– the “Island of the brimstone”, for the Japanese; “a grey pork chop”, for the Americans– a real inferno, an obstacle after another obstacle, a bunker after another bunker. General Holland Smith, Commander of the Amphibian Force, says: ” I don’t know who he is,  but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard”.
The smart bastard’ s name is  Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is at Iwo-Jima since May 1944. He is a sensitive and cultured person, he writes poems, he likes drawing. He has travelled abroad, he has served for some time as military attaché in the United States– “the last country in the world that Japan should fight” as he wrote to his wife—he has admired their culture and understood their potentialities  .
But he is a soldier. A Japanese soldier at war. New Leonidas, he is aware he will be defeated at Iwo Jima, but his honour entails to him to fight until the end. Because Iwo Jima is Japanese soil. And the Japanese motherland is sacred. If someone invade her, every metre, every inch of her sacred soil will be defended till the last man. The Americans  must be aware of it. For them , Iwo Jima must be an appalling warning. If they lose one thousand men to conquer that small island, how many men will they lose once set foot on the sacred soil of Honshu and Hokkaido? Ten thousand? One hundred thousands? One million?
Kuribayashi is not at Iwo Jima for winning the battle: he is at Iwo Jima for causing to the Americans as many casualties as possible; he is not at Iwo Jima for defeating the foe, he is here for discouraging him to invade Japan. His duty obliges him to defend the island, his honour obliges him to defend it until the final, inevitable sacrifice. Fanatic soldier or a new Samurai?
Anyway, Kuribayashi knows what he must do. Once arrived on the island and evacuated the civilian population, he adopts original, almost “ heretical” solutions: no defence close to the shores, but  a network of fortified positions linked one another and able to support each other: no bayonet attacks ( the so called Banzai attacks), but crossfire from bunkers and from dug-in  blockhouses. At Iwo Jima, twenty-one thousand Japanese soldiers disappear underground. Literally. 

And underground,  kilometres and kilometres of tunnels are interlaced; underground,  field hospitals, food and ammunitions  storages , headquarters are prepared. The American aerial reconnaissance individuates only the superficial part of this complex defensive system, feeding the illusion that an easy victory will be won: in four days according to the expectation of the optimists, in ten  days according to the expectation  of the pessimists.
As we know, thirty-six days will be necessary.


But why such interest in Iwo Jima? Why so much interest in those twenty square kilometres of hard and dusty rock, where the potable water lacks completely? Why so much interest in that tiny grain of volcanic pumice always wrapped by the fetid smell of the brimstone? In that tiny  out-of-the way dot  in the Ocean?
Because the island is on the route of the B29 which take off from the Marianas to hit Japan, this is the reason why. From the Iwo Jima’s airports, in fact, the bombers and the Zeros take off to strike the close Saipan; from the observation centres of the island many messages are sent to the motherland and to the coastal  AA batteries. Alerted by the messages, the  Japanese artillerymen can prepare countermeasures against the bombers.
If Iwo Jima were in American hands, the B29 bombers could be escorted by the  long-range fighters; the Saipan’s runways would not  be constantly under threat; the Americans would have a new base to bomb Japan; the airports of the island could allow the damaged aircraft returning from raids to land in safety. Why do not try it? Time and resources are available: the Philippines campaign, resolutely wanted by general MacArthur has lasted less than expected, making available men and equipment. Yes, it can be made; or rather, it must be made. Okinawa and Formosa, in fact—the alternatives—seem hardest nuts than Iwo-Jima.
The Operation Detachment, however, starts badly. Two months of continuous  aerial  bombardments have caused few damage to the island’s defensive system. The Americans, however, unaware of the underground extension of the Japanese fortifications, are convinced of the opposite. They are optimistic. Even  because, after having exploited the sole tactical Kuribayashi’s blunder, they had been able to neutralize the guns situated on a fortified height , the Stone Quarry on the right flank of the deployment and able to threat the shores. [1]

But the ineffective aerial  bombardment is not the sole problem.

On the eve of the landing, planned for February 19th , the Marines commanders ask ten days of naval fire, obtaining three days only.  And, because of a poor weather, the bombardment is not very effective. For their part, the frogmen sent to spot the terrain report:  the waves beat on the shores directly, the backwash is strong, the ground is deceitful and friable.
This won’t stop us, the leaders’ assessment  is. We can land ninety thousand men. How many men could the Japanese have? Ten thousand? Twelve thousand. Sure, perhaps there will be some difficulties at the beginning, but with a 
superiority nine to one in soldiers and with the complete control of the aerial space, we will overcome them in a short time .

The landing zones, lastly.  The choice is almost obliged. Seen the island’s conformation, only in the south-eastern part there are relatively  easy landing beaches . And there, in the south-eastern part of the island, Kuribayashi has made mine all the exits of the beaches, he has filled the Suribachi— a height around hundred metres  high overhanging the landings beaches — with tunnels and with bunkers, with pillboxes and blockhouses; he has made dig three buried defensive lines around the airports, he has ordered that the AA guns be used against the infantry.

Everything  is ready.

Two Flags

February 19th , D-Day, is a serene and clear day. Covered by an awesome  barrage, the American landing crafts approach the shores of Iwo Jima. On board there is who is making witty remarks , there is who is praying and who is waiting, tense and silent, the moment of the landing.[2]
Every unit knows its own targets. The 28
th  Marines Regiment is to advance on the left flank of the deployment for securing  the Suribachi; the 25th  is to operate on the right flank to neutralize the Stone Quarry; the other regiments, the 27th and 23rd , are to advance straight towards the centre of the island for occupying the two Japanese airports( Motoiama 1 and 2).(See the map below).
The shores are not mined, there is a weak resistance. Around 9 a.m. , the Marines land  without firing a shot. They are young boys, aged 18, 19 years, perhaps inexperienced, but well armed, trained and equipped. The vanguards move towards the exits of the beaches, while, behind them, wave after wave, other Marines are landing.

But the troubles begin at once. Ashore, there are embankments of soft volcanic ash . They are four, five metres high  and they hamper  the movements of men and military means. The Seabees [3], then, put on the ground some iron nets to allow the armoured tanks and the artillery to move quickly. But this does not work and the tanks are blocked. The mined fields put by Kuribayashi’s engineers at the exits of the beaches are a further obstacle.
The mess and the crowding increase, the landings are temporarily interrupted, the  first bulldozers come into action. But also Kuribayashi comes into action. He had said: we are to wait for the enemy at the exits of the shores. But now, on this  excessively crowded beaches, the Japanese general sees the chance to cause heavy casualties to the enemy. And he orders to open fire. And the fire is so heavy that “you could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by”, as an American officer reported.
At Green Beach the terrain conditions are better and the 28th  regiment can begin the manoeuvre for isolating the Suribachi. The resistance, however, is harsh, the weather is bad, the volcanic ash turns into a sticky slush, the advance is slow, the casualties are heavy. As close to the Stone Quarry, moreover. Here the third battalion of the 25th regiment has went down into a hell. Only the first day, it suffers  five hundred twenty two casualties (twenty two officers and five hundred soldiers).

The first tanks Sherman and the first units equipped with artillery are able, with difficulty, to leave the shores and to head inland. But theirs is a slow advance, hindered by the mined fields and by the enemy crossfire. The underground tunnels allow the Japanese to move from a position to another position. They come out from the bunkers  just cleared and attack the Marines  from behind.  It is as to live “ a nightmare in hell”. Everywhere explosions, smoke, dust, legs and arms  detached from the bodies. And corpses. They are appallingly maimed, disfigured, unrecognizable and identifiable as Japanese or Americans only by the cloth of the trousers of their uniforms.
Despite the aerial attacks , despite the naval bombardments, the Japanese withstand fiercely. By night they come out from their shelters and attack behind the enemy lines; by day they disappear underground. Two days are necessary to the Marines for reaching the first targets, three for securing the Suribachi.
At 10 a.m. of February 23rd , the Marines of a platoon of scouts  hoist the star and stripes banner on the top of Suribachi. On board of an unit of the fleet  a special guest, the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, hears of it.
He wants to have that flag. But the commander of the battalion  does not want give it to him. And thus he sends to the top of the Suribachi another group of soldiers with a second flag , in order to repeat the event for the Secretary’s use. The Associated Press’ reporter, John Rosenthal is with them. On the top, he  frames in the viewfinder of his camera the men when they are hoisting the Old Glory taking  the picture destined to become very celebrated in the world.
The first one on the left side is the Pima Indian Ira Hayes, the sixth hero.   

The last assault.

The flag on the Suribachi raises the morale of the troops, but the battle is not still over. The Americans have more than a difficulty  to find the key of the problem. Trained to face Banzai attacks, they do not know how to attack the bunkers and the pillboxes if not with frontal  attacks . They have a formidable power fire  but it is  partially ineffective against a well-trenched, elusive, firm and determined  enemy. The tanks flamethrowers would be necessary, but they are few; the aerial support  is not always effective( Spruance, for instance, sends his warplanes to attack Japan instead of increasing the support to the Marines ashore); the enemy positions  should be outflanked by landing troops on the western side of the island, but nobody does it. Thus, the Marines continue to launch frontal assaults, the casualties increase, the gains are very insignificant. For reinforcing the attack, General Smith orders the Seventh  Marines Division to land. Also at sea the things are going wrong. On February 21st , some kamikaze aircraft attack the fleet sinking the carrier Bismark Sea and damaging the carrier Saratoga and other ships.  

Around two low heights, height 360 ( Hill Peter) and height 382 ( the Meatgrinder) heavy fights are fought. Those heights are the pivots of the defensive system prepared by Kuribayashi. And from that line, the Japanese have no intention to withdraw. Only at cost of superhuman efforts, the Marines are able, slowly, to make progresses, occupying those  bloody hills and cutting the island in two parts.  On March 16, a little bit rashly , Admiral Nimitz declares Iwo Jima “secure”. But the fights are continuing. On March 25, Kuribayashi take away the insignia from his own uniform and, soldiers among soldiers, he leads the last Banzai attack close to airport Motoyama 2. His corpse will never be found.

On March 26 the island is declared secure. Two Japanese soldiers, Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, will hide into the tunnels ,  “surrendering” six years after, in 1951. 

In the aftermath of the battle, Admiral Nimitz said that at Iwo Jima an uncommon valour had become a common virtue. However, the blood poured at Iwo Jima( almost seven thousand Marines died and fourteen thousand  were wounded) provoked many questions. Were the results worth of a so high price? Why three days of naval bombardment and not ten days as the Marines had required? Why frontal assaults only? Why were the Japanese lines not outflanked? And so on.

Surely Iwo Jima and later  Okinawa  were a real shock for the American public opinion and perhaps for the high commands, too. Was this the reason why Japan was not invaded and two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Someone answers affirmatively.


On January 25th  1955—  a cold and grey day– a man was found  on his back into a ditch. Blind drunk, he had drowned in few inches of water. The coroner wrote of “accident”.

That man was Ira Hayes. Celebrated as a hero, he had travelled America to promote the subscription of war bonds. At the end of the conflict, he had returned to his reservation in Arizona, surlier and more taciturn than before. He had begun drinking.
Hero is who has died for conquering the Suribachi, not I, he  always repeated.

He is buried in the Arlington Cemetery.


Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war



 Battle of Iwo Jima: A Select Bibliography

Flags of our fathers, by Clint Eastwood, 2006
Letters from Iwo Jima, by Clint Eastwood, 2006

The landing beaches ( Source: pacificwaranimated )

Iwo Jima le spiagge dello sbarco

The landing beaches at Iwo Jima.

[1] On the Stone Quarry, the aerial reconnaissance had spotted one 150 mm gun only. However, the guns were four. They had been silent during the American aerial raids and bombardments and, thus, they had not been individuated. But they were ready to come into action when the time had come. Two day before D-Day, some  American landing crafts which were covering the missions of the frogmen, had headed resolutely towards the beach close the Quarry. Kuribayashi had thought of an attack and he had ordered to open fire with all the four guns. Individuated because of this accidental episode, the Americans had neutralized them.

[2]The landing beaches were seven. From west to east: Green Beach ( Fifth Division, 28th  Marines, first and second battalion) , Red Beach 1 ( 27th  Marines, second battalion), Red Beach 2( 27th  Marines, first battalion), Yellow Beach 1( 23rd . Marines, first battalion), Yellow Beach 2 (23rd  Marines, second battalion), Blue Beach 1( 25th  Marines, first battalion), Blue Beach 2 (25th  Marines, third battalion). The third battalion destined to land at Blue 2, will land at Blue 1, son after the first battalion.

[3] From CB, shortening of Construct Battalion.

Automatic translation from Italian. Excuse the mistakes.