"Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."
- Chester W Nimitz.
Iwo Jima, an eight-mile square island 660 miles south of Tokyo, was an important strategic objective for the Allies in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Bombing raids on the bulk of the Japanese mainland were proving unsuccessful because the Americans lacked an airfield close enough - fighters were unable to make the 2,800 mile round trip with the B-29 bombers, so the planes were going without escort. Iwo Jima had two airfields, one of which was large enough to immediately take B-29 bombers, and the close proximity to the other Japanese home islands would make it an excellent place to mount raids from.
The other reason Iwo Jima was a tempting target was because it was part of the traditional Japanese homelands, and if it fell it would be a significant morale blow to the Japanese people. But this fact also meant that the Japanese soldiers on the island - some 20,000 - would defend it to the very death. The Japanese soldiers and their commanding officer - General Kuribayashi - were further encourged to succeed when it was made clear to them that they would not see their families or homeland again should they fail.
Japanese preparations began long before the invasion - the General arrived in June 1944 and began supervising the construction of defences. Lines were drawn across the island and the northern part of it was turned into a maze of tunnels.
In November 1944, the United States Air Force and United States Navy began bombardment of the island. This would continue for 72 days before the amphibious landings. The 5th Marine Amphibious Corps were the infantry involved in the invasion.
On 19 Febuary, at 900 hours, the first Marines went ashore. At first it seemed the aerial bombardment had been a success as the Marines met minimal resistance. Then, as they rounded over a small sandy ridge, concealed machine gun posts and mortars opened up, and small arms fire swept down onto the beach. The first wave of Marines, realising it would die if it stayed put and under intense pressure from the next waves arriving behind it, began to move forward. The first Marine Corps target was Mount Suribachi, the only decent cover on the entire island.
The nature of the Japanese defences made the battle very difficult for the Americans. By the end of the first day 30,000 Marines were ashore, and over 6,000 would die in the coming weeks. The Japanese would wait until Marines were surrounded and then man their concealed defensive positions before escaping through the tunnel network. When the Americans finally drove a wedge through the island from shore to shore they could begin to partition it into small segments and methodically take them out - before that, advancement was slow, hard and fatality-ridden. 36 days of bitter fighting were required to take the island - how long and how many men would it take to take the rest of the Japanese islands?
During the assault on Iwo Jima, 22 Marines and 5 Sailors received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Bombers and fighters arrived at the airfields shortly after victory to begin their bombing raids on the Japanese homelands.