The other night I watched a movie that I had not actually intended to see. “Letters from Iwo Jima” was released in December of 2006. The reason I had not intended to watch the movie is mostly due to the fact that I did not want to see a human side to these Japanese soldiers. It was these same Japanese soldiers who had tried to kill my step father, a Marine, fighting this war in the Pacific. The irony of this is not lost on me when I look back on my own life’s journey. It was in Japan where, as a young Marine in 1972, I gave my heart and life to Jesus Christ. God has a sense of humor.
This past week, February 19, was the sixty-third anniversary of the invasion of this small, yet critical island. The island was effectively used as an airfield by the Japanese in launching waves of aircraft against our Navy fleet. After American forces took back the islands of Guam and Saipan, the next target was to be Iwo Jima.
This island would be very costly to both the Japanese and Americans. However, the purpose of capturing this island was critical for American forces as they slowly closed the noose on Japan, forcing the Imperialist forces back to their mainland. When you look at this island your first thought is, “We lost more than six thousand Marines for this?” This is where an understanding of the tactics of war is helpful. You see, because the Japanese were able to attack our fleet with impunity, launching from the three airfields on the island, it became essential that we take it away from them. A secondary reason, which was equal to the primary reason, was for American forces (read: Marines) to take Iwo Jima from the Japanese so we could use the airfield to attack mainland Japan. It was very difficult for our pilots to fly to Japan, drop their bombs, and return without the ever present danger of running out of fuel. Taking Iwo Jima would eliminate this concern.
These Japanese soldiers were sent to Iwo Jima knowing they were going to die there in defense of their homeland. Letters were written to their loved ones, sending their final words of love, as well as expressing the hopelessness of their situation. They knew the Marines were coming. The reputation of the Marines had long been established, so these soldiers of Imperialist Japan understood that this small island located in the middle of the ocean 650 miles south of Tokyo and about the same distance north of Saipan, would be the place they would die. Notably, it would be the first time American forces step on Japanese soil, and also where they would raise the American flag. This is historically recorded through the most famous picture of all time, taken by Joe Rosenthal, and commemorated with a statue depicting the five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. This picture was taken weeks before the outcome of the battle for Iwo Jima would be determined. A book written by James Bradley, son of the Navy corpsman, wrote the now best selling work, “Flags of our Fathers,” in 2001. Movie icon, Clint Eastwood, took this book and produced it into a movie of the same name in late 2006.
The commanding general of Iwo Jima was Lieutenant General Kuribayashi. He was aware that he did not have the resources necessary to prevent the American forces from taking this island of his homeland. He also went against the accepted practice of his fellow generals who believed suicide attacks, what became known as “kamikaze raids,” were effective against the enemy. Instead, Kuribayashi believed such attacks were counter-productive, creating an irretrievable and regrettable loss of life. He also dismissed the tactic of facing the enemy on the beach, fighting to the death an invasion of even one foreign enemy. He instructed his men to dig trenches and caves, allowing his men and weaponry a place of refuge from the artillery shelling inflicted by the American Navy. The general’s overall plan was not so much to defeat the American forces attacking Iwo Jima, but to inflict so much death and destruction on the Marines that America would reconsider attacking mainland Japan. It could safely be said that he was successful. Following the costly losses at Iwo Jima (US and Allied: 6,825 killed in action, 27,909 wounded), our forces prepared for the attack on yet another island belonging to Japan. This would be a far more formidable task. This island was called Okinawa. The United States would suffer more than 72,000 casualties. Of this number, 12, 513 were killed or missing.
American Forces knew they would have to invade mainland Japan at some point. The loss in lives would be very costly. Conservative estimates began at 1.5 million. It was further believed that if we were forced to invade the mainland, we would not only be fighting what remained of Japan’s military forces, but we’d also be fighting a fearful yet motivated Japanese citizenry.
Much debate has been expressed as to the moral/ethical decision to use the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing the Japanese government to capitulate to U.S. demands of surrender. I was stationed in Iwakuni, Japan in 1971-72, I became friends with a Japanese school teacher who lived in Hiroshima, a forty-five minute train ride from Iwakuni. One evening while sitting over a bottle of warm sake, I asked my friend what the Japanese thought of the U.S. using the atomic bomb against his nation. He replied, “If we would have had the bomb, we would have used it on you.”
It’s good to remember the many Americans who have given their lives for our freedom. This is why we honor these patriots every year on the date of the battle for Iwo Jima. Let’s also remember to honor those brave patriots who have given their lives in the War on Terrorism, defending us against an equally determined enemy today.