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Iwo Jima

The Pacific War, the secondary theater of operations in World War II, was primarily about taking and building airfields.  The vast expanse of the ocean and tremendous distances could only be closed by either aircraft or ships.  Once airfields were built and operational, they could be used to attack enemy ships or jump to the next airfield.  All the while, the noose encircling Japan was tightening.

Japan is an island nation and resources are poor.  It was heavily dependent on shipping resources from its far-flung empire.  This shipping was highly vulnerable to attacks from American aircraft and submarines.  The Pacific War strategy was all about tightening the noose around Japan and choking off the resources it needed to wage war.

Essential to the strategy was an offensive strike weapon being developed in America by the Boeing Corporation – the B-29 bomber.  The B-29 Super Fortress was a huge leap in aviation technology and took years and billions of dollars to develop.  Because it was such a stretch, the program with beset with problems, particularly with the four engines necessary to lift the huge aircraft into the sky.

As the development problems were gradually winnowed, the aircraft was deployed to eastern China in 1944 to attack the Japanese home islands from the west, but the lack of infrastructure (primarily fuel and bombs) caused this strategy to fail.  Air planners next looked to the three main islands that make up the Marianas Group – Guam, Tinian, and Saipan.  After these islands were taken by the Army and Marines in mid-1944, the airfields were strengthened to support the big bombers.

As the newly constituted 20th Air Force began to operate their B-29s from the Marianas, the problems with the aircraft persisted.  Fuel starvation and engine problems were causing too many of the big bombers to ditch at sea, endangering the 11-man crew.  Emergency airfields along the 1,800 mile route of flight were necessary to save the bombers and their crews.

The island of Iwo Jima lies about 900 miles south of the home islands of Japan.  It isn’t very big – about eight square miles.  It’s a volcanic island formed by Mount Suribachi, a 600 foot volcano on the southern tip of the island.  To American strategic planners, the value of Iwo Jima was all about three airfields on the island.  As a halfway point between the 20th Air Force airfields in the Mariana Islands and Japan, the airfields were needed to recover disabled or fuel-starved B-29 bombers.  For Japan, this was their first home territory that they would be called to defend.

In late February 1945, the American Central Pacific Command invaded the island of Iwo Jima.  The Marine plan called for 10 days of preparatory bombardment (the Navy gave them only four) before assault by three reinforced Marine divisions, about 80,000 infantry.

The late Pete Studstill was one of those Marines who invaded Iwo Jima.  Pete’s battalion was assigned to the “Fighting Fourth” Division that began landing on February 19, 1945 on the northern-most assault beaches.  Pete landed by LST on the second day and would spend more than a month in the battle.

Shortly before he died six years ago, I interviewed Pete, “It was February (at 24 degrees north latitude) so I was cold the whole time.  I went for two weeks without a bath or shower,” said Pete. “ For the 32 days I spent on Iwo, I never had a hot meal – just K-rations in a hole with my buddies, trying to survive the battle.  I really never knew the big picture – I just moved when my sergeant told me, dug in and defended my hole.”

When thinking of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the famous image of the squad raising the flag on Mount Suribachi comes to mind.  This was actually the second American flag (they needed a larger, more visible symbol) raised on the mountain.  The first flag-raising was led by a young man from nearby Monticello, Sergeant Earnest “Boots” Thomas.

Finally the battle was over.  Nearly 7,000 Marines (including Boots Thomas) perished in the fighting and another 19,000 were wounded -- about one in three who participated in the battle were casualties.  The Japanese began the battle with about 22,000 troops.  Only a thousand were alive to surrender when the battle concluded.

Was the victory worth the terrible sacrifice?  Over the next six months of operations, nearly 2,400 B-29s recovered on Iwo carrying some 26,000 airmen.  Now, some of these aircraft could have limped back to the Marianas, but many of them would have come up short.  The “bomber boys” were grateful for the sacrifice made by the Marines.   This was all happening 71 years ago this week.

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