In the 1989 film ‘Born on the Fourth of July‘ by Oliver Stone, there is a scene in which the Marine Corps. recruiter (Tom Berenger) is speaking to high school student Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) and his high school class. To boost interest, Berenger calls out the names of the battles that defined the United States Marine Corps. The list is extensive and impressive but to this day, the deadliest battle in the history of the Marines is Iwo Jima. Between February 19, 1945, and March 26, 1945, the Marines suffered thousands of casualties as they secured the island which translates into “sulfur island” in English. The battle is also famous for the image captured of Marines and Corpsman raising the American flag as they pushed forward against Japanese resistance. Despite the high casualty rate, thousands of Marines survived Iwo Jima and returned home. But they never forgot the sights, sounds and smells from the fierce battles being fought as the world was at war. Larry Smith talked to veterans of Iwo Jima and has compiled those interviews into this book that provided the retired Marines with a platform to tell readers what they remember from the battle that claimed lives and left others with dark and haunting memories.
Sadly, the Marines in the book who fought on Iwo Jima are deceased and the number of surviving World War II veterans decreases each year. Their voices are silent, but their stories are powerful and will leave readers with a sense of gratitude and shock. The battlefield and injury descriptions are graphic in nature, and discretion is advised. Further, the scenes that are relived are nothing short of hell on earth and highlight the deadly environment waiting for arriving Marines. I also found myself shocked at the age of the young Marines at Iwo Jima. More than one in the book was not old enough to buy alcohol but found himself shipped off to the Pacific where the Japanese were waiting. Military commanders knew that it would be costly to take Iwo Jima, but the number of casualties suffered is staggering and the author specifies that
“On the first day alone the Marines suffered 2,420 casualties, including more than 500 killed.”
The number of casualties increased exponentially on both sides of the conflict as the battle raged. Eventually the Marines began to gain ground and reached the top of Mt. Suribachi. It was there that the American flag was raised more than once. The emotional scenes were captured on camera and the second image of the Marines hoisting the stars and stripes remains one of the most popular images in American history. But there is more to the story of the flag than one might suspect. In the book, Marines who were there speak on the matter, clearing up any confusion or misinformation that has persisted over time. Readers who are interested in a more thorough discussion of the event will appreciate ‘Flags of Our Fathers‘, by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Bradley’s father John “Doc” Bradley (1923-1994) was a Navy Corpsman and one of the soldiers captured in the iconic second photo taken on February 23, 1945. As we learn in the book, seeing the American flag being raised was a tremendous boost to morale. The pride felt by Marines tasked with taking the island is best captured by former soldier Chuck Lindberg who reminisced:
“It was a great patriotic feeling, this chill that runs through you. . . . My proudest moment of my time in the Marines was raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. My feeling of being a Marine is I served with the finest, and I feel proud every day that I can tell somebody that.”
That sentiment is echoed by others who survived combat on Iwo Jima. On the Japanese side of the conflict, losses were equally devastating, and it became clear that Japan could not win against the Allies. Reasons for the Japanese defeat are not discussed here but the speakers do recall how they felt when they learned that the atomic bombs had been dropped resulting in Japan’s surrender. Unbelievably, it would take four more years to remove the last Japanese soldiers from the island. Every war has its mysteries and World War II is no different. The biggest unsolved mystery in this book is the fate of Japanese Imperial Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1891-1945). I previously was not aware of his demise but am inclined to believe that the Japanese troops knew what happened to their fallen commander. A surprising discovery explained in the book provides information that explains the general’s thoughts that were almost lost to history. While researching the book, Smith made the acquaintance of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC (Ret.) who did not serve in World War II but did serve in the Vietnam War and became a military historian of Iwo Jima. The issue of the general’s last known location was a source of interest during and after the war but as Ripley explains,
“ The thing which is the most irrefutable evidence of all is that Kuribayashi’s body , which was a hot item , was never found . Every single body involved in that last attack was not necessarily identified , but they knew it wasn’t Kuribayashi . Every single one . Because they were looking for him . And he wasn’t there . Period . So that is the premier fact that refutes his involvement in that battle .”
As I read the book, I thought of my great-grandfather who served in Europe during the war. As a black infantry soldier, I am sure he had his share of unfortunate experiences. But he served his country and never spoke negatively of America, nor did he discuss what he saw in combat. In the story at hand, black Marines do play a role as the speakers explained but at the time, segregation existed in the armed forces and on Iwo Jima that also applied. However, as we learn from the Marines in the book, blacks played pivotal roles in the American victory and the burial of deceased Marines whose remains were later retrieved from the island after Japan’s defeat. Smith even had a discussion with Thomas McPhatter, a black Marine who provides a needed perspective on the black experience in the Pacific. I personally learned for the first time from the author that regarding the African American experience,
“Between fifteen hundred and two thousand blacks served on Iwo. Each Marine division had a regimental service battalion or field depot staffed by black marines, not to be confused with the Army DUKW drivers.“
I thought to myself that had more black Marines been accepted and deployed, the battle on Iwo Jima might have ended sooner and very differently. De-segregation of the military continued in the years following World War II, but its existence placed America in a difficult position of attempting to deliver freedom around the world whiles struggling to enforce it at home. Despite resistance and discrimination, blacks continued to serve in the military and do so today. This is in no way detracts from the heroic efforts of the Marines of all backgrounds who fought on the island. Their experiences and success in turning the tide of the Pacific war remains firmly entrenched in the annals of military history.
Readers might ask themselves why Iwo Jima was important. That question is answered in the book as the speakers and the author explain its significance. to success in the Pacific. The number of casualties was undoubtedly high, but without occupation of Iwo Jima, the Allied effort to force Japan’s surrender might have taken longer and the full-scale invasion of Japan on November 1, 1945, could have become a reality. President Harry S. Truman‘s decision to drop the bomb ended the war in the Pacific and brought feelings of relief to the Marines and other military personnel who remained at their posts in the Pacific. V-J Day brought World War II to a close, but history cannot forget mankind’s deadliest conflict. These are the stories of the Marines who served on Iwo Jima in the battle that further defined the Marine Corps. and sealed Japan’s fate.