U.S. Military History: The Importance of Iwo Jima

U.S. Marines raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima, 1945. Photo credit: Joe Rosenthal/AP

It all began on February 19, 1945. Over the course of five weeks, some of World War II’s bloodiest fighting unfolded 750 miles off the coast of Japan. Known in Japan as Iwo To, Iwo Jima (which means ‘Sulfur Island’ in Japanese) is an eight-square-mile active volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. So how did this little island in the middle of the ocean become the scene of such a significant moment in U.S. military history, punctuated by an unmistakable flag raising?

Iwo Jima presented American forces with both a challenge and an opportunity. The Japanese built airstrips on Iwo Jima, which was unoccupied up to that point. Originally, American forces set their sites on the island of the Republic of Formosa (now Taiwan), but the distance was still too great for bombing runs. Enter Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was also a thorn in the side of American forces, since fighter interceptors were frequently launched from the airstrips built on the island. Taking Iwo Jima would not only remove the threat of Japanese interceptions, but also create an opportunity for fighter escorts and a base for American forces. Thus, on October 3, 1944 the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered preparations for the seizure of Iwo Jima.

Though the American invasion of Iwo Jima was likely unknown by the Japanese, they had taken precautions anyway, setting up camouflaged artillery positions amongst the island’s jungle-filled mountainous terrain. When American forces’ amphibious invasion took place on February 19, they immediately faced challenges unforseen during the planning stages. The moment forces stepped foot on the beaches, they were met with steep dunes composed of soft volcanic ash. The consistency of the soft black sand created a difficult ground to maintain firm footing. The deep water near shore and small, but steep beaches created significant difficulties for unloading and mobilizing the Marines’ vehicles.

Prior to the landing, Allied forces bombed the island, and assumed that their attacks crippled much of the Japanese forces. Yet, due to the varied positions taken by the Japanese on the island, the attacks were far less effective than expected. As a result, while American forces struggled to get their footing, Japanese forces in the mountains began their attack. In the days that followed, more than 70,000 Marines surged onto Iwo Jima, outnumbering Japanese forces more than three-to-one. 

After four days of fighting, American forces captured Mount Suribachi, and raised the American flag in what has now become the iconic image associated with the Battle of Iwo Jima. Yet, the battle was still far from over. In fact, fighting on the northern end of Iwo Jima continued for four more weeks with the Japanese mounting a final attack on March 25, 1945. In the weeks following, American forces sought out holdouts who refused to surrender. Surprisingly, two holdouts continued to elude capture, and managed to survive without surrender until 1949, nearly four years after the conclusion of World War II.

The events and losses that occurred at Iwo Jima have never been forgotten. The image of the flag raising has gone down in history as one of the most recognizable images in U.S. military history.  In 1954, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial was built near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia immortalizing the now famous flag-raising. 








Posted on February 10 2020 in Blog

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