"Run, run, run. Get off the beach. Get off the beach." These frenzied thoughts flashed through the mind of Pvt. Allen R. Matthews, who was in the first wave of Marines to land on Iwo Jima on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945. ". . . They are sighting in on the beach and they'll get you as sure as hell. . . . Get off the beach and run."
But to Private Matthews' surprise, he couldn't run. His legs sank into brown volcanic ash up to his calves. It was as loose as sugar. Men were staggering and falling all around him, and "the beach sand spouted up like black water from a geyser. . . . A shell had fallen close by. . . ."
Only moments before, 69 armored amtracs, each carrying 20 Marines and medical corpsmen, had waddled out of the Pacific onto the beach and crawled forward behind a barrage from U.S. Navy warships lying offshore.
The vehicles churned through the volcanic ash, but only a few were able to breast a 15-foot-high terrace lying just behind the beach. The others disgorged their men at its base, from where the heavily laden troops struggled upward through the loose sand.
Once the Marines heaved themselves onto the terrace, they were cut down by machine-gun and mortar fire from concealed pillboxes, blockhouses and caves that had withstood three days of intensive bombardment. Automatic fire spat from apertures only a few inches above ground. Land mines, sowed like wheat in a field, exploded in sickening blasts.
"Nowhere in the Pacific war had I seen such badly mangled bodies," reported Robert Sherrod, a Time correspondent. "Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay 50 feet from any body. . . . Only legs were easy to identify; they were Jap if wrapped in khaki puttees, American if covered by canvas leggings. The smell of burning flesh was heavy. . . ."
Shells fell among the landing craft following in the wakes of the amtracs. Troops and equipment piled up on the beach as men inched forward on their stomachs. From Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano that at 556 feet was the highest point on the island, Japanese artillery and mortars blanketed the beaches.
Tanks churned helplessly in the volcanic ash and became easy marks for enemy gunners. Battered boats and burning tanks littered the area and the living and the dead lay side by side on the hellish beach. Wounded men were hit again or killed as they awaited evacuation. Casualties were running as high as 50 percent in some units.
But the Marines moved forward, inspired by their corps' traditions and examples of individual valor. First, one man lunged into the maelstrom of enemy fire, then twos and threes, then fire teams and squads, then larger units. More and more landing craft survived to put additional tanks and artillery on the beach. Men pulled themselves up the terraces onto the plateau and reached the edge of one of the island's two airfields.
Still others rammed across the narrow neck of the island at Suribachi's base and isolated it from the rest of Iwo. "They crept and crawled, dodged and ducked, slithered and staggered -- but they moved forward," wrote Bill Rose, a Marine combat correspondent.
The capture of Iwo Jima was the latest stage in the relentless island-hopping campaign that had carried American forces across the Pacific toward Japan. The island's two airfields, just 700 miles from Tokyo, were deemed necessary to support the B-29 heavy bombers based in the Marianas that were attacking the home islands.
"Without Iwo Jima, I couldn't bomb Japan effectively," said Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.
Sustained B-29 raids on Japanese cities had begun the previous November, with only mixed successes. Japanese fighters based Iwo lay in wait for the bombers, disrupting their formations, while the island's radar station gave early warning to Tokyo.
Seventy-two days of aerial bombardment preceded the invasion -- the longest and most intensive pre-assault aerial bombardment of the Pacific war -- but it only drove the Japanese deeper underground. Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi and his 21,000 troops and sailors had tunneled into Iwo's volcanic rock. "Every man will resist until the end, making his position a tomb," General Kuribayashi declared. "Every man will do his best to kill 10 enemy soldiers."
Sent to the task
Marine divisions totaling 75,000 men -- the veteran 3rd and 4th divisions and the new 5th Division -- were assigned to capture Iwo. The top commands were held by Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner and Gen. Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith.
The full extent of the Japanese defenses was unknown to the American commanders, but aerial photographs of the island made it clear that its capture would be difficult.
Five days were allotted, but General Smith predicted Iwo would be "the toughest place we have had to take."
The use of poison gas was considered but rejected because American policy called for no first use: Gas was to be resorted to only in retaliation if an enemy used it initially.