Sands of Iwo Jima

by Josh Flores

On February 19, 1945, the campaign for control of the small Japanese held island of Iwo Jima began when US forces landed, led by the 4th and 5th divisions of the US Marines. An armada of eight hundred eighty ships, over a period of forty days, sailed from Hawaii to Iwo Jima, in what became the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific war. What resulted was one of the bloodiest and most costly battles in the history of the United States military. The United States launched this major offensive for the purpose of securing a base that would be close enough to Japan to provide an emergency landing site for military aircraft. More importantly, occupation of Iwo Jima would allow the launching of smaller fighter planes, which served as escorts and defenders for the large B-29s that made bombing runs to the Japan mainland.

Iwo Jima, just under five miles long and two and one-half miles wide, was located between the Marianas Islands and Okinawa, six hundred sixty miles from Tokyo. Securing the tiny island became an important step in the Allied plans to move the war closer to Japan. The island had been fortified with a network of underground tunnels and bunkers, putting Marines in a precarious position where Japanese soldiers appeared to be literally rising out of the ground. The first objective of the assault was to capture Mount Suribachi on the southern end of the island. Until this goal was realized, the Japanese could fire on any position the Marines established. On February 23, the first units of Marines arrived at the top of Suribachi. Signifying victory, a patrol led by Lieutenant Harold Schrier raised a small American flag at 10:20 a.m. Later in the day, this flag was subsequently replaced by a larger, more visible one. It was this later flag raising that photographer Joe Rosenthal captured on film, creating one of the most identifiable and patriotic images of the war.

The battle for Iwo Jima did not end with the successful capture of Mount Suribachi. It took thirty-six days of fighting before the Marines completely secured the tiny, but strategically vital island. The number of casualties were staggering for both the Americans and the Japanese. Of the seventy thousand Marines present at Iwo Jima, over six thousand were killed, while another nineteen thousand were wounded, or suffered from battle fatigue. In turn, the Japanese suffered losses estimated at twenty thousand.

In 1949, Sands of Iwo Jima featuring John Wayne was released by Republic Pictures. Wayne stars as Sergeant John M. Stryker, who is responsible for the training of unseasoned recruits at a New Zealand base in 1943. The familiar plot of an overbearing and disliked leader whose methods gradually become understood by those under his command is apparent, but it does not overwhelm the film, which is reinforced with strong performances by supporting cast members, John Agar and Forrest Tucker. Wayne's performance as the roughhewn sergeant resulted in the actor's first nomination for an academy award. The film has several subplots, which present a more complex picture of what life was like for a young soldier facing imminent battle. For example, Agar's character receives his orders for combat only hours after his marriage ceremony. This was not an uncommon occurrence during World War II, or any war for that matter. The lives of soldiers and their families were frequently disrupted and delayed by the call to military duty. The film also incorporates graphic World War II battle footage, which serves to balance any loss of realism, resulting from dramatic interpretation.

SUGGESTED READINGS:

Kessler, Lynn S. and Edmond B. Bart. Never In Doubt: Remembering Iwo Jima. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Ross, Bill D. Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor. New York: Vanguard Press, 1986.

Thomey, Tedd. Immortal Images: A Personal History of Two Photographers and the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Wheeler, Richard. Bloody Battle For Mount Suribachi. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994.