The Price of Courage: The Battle of Iwo Jima – Part Two: Hit the Beach!
As the Marines waited on the ships off the coast of Iwo Jima to board landing craft they thought of much more than the upcoming invasion. Corporal Ed Paxson spoke of the “million and one thoughts [that] ran through my mind, thinking of Mom and Dad, my girlfriend, Bette, and all the well folks back home, wondering whether or not we would ever see them again.”
The weather was clear; there was no need to activate the task force’s plans for delay in case of inclement conditions. As the Marines awakened early that morning many were tense but some felt a sense of eagerness. To E.B. Judge:
I felt just as I would on a Saturday morning before going to a big football game, not excited exactly, certainly not afraid, but a certain anticipation of conflict filling my veins.
After the intensive training and many previous landings the Marines were able to find the routine in this extraordinary activity.
Morale was high among the landing force but Corporal Johnny Tiesling believed that “we did not realize what was ahead of us. We found out the hard way.”
Soon the troops put on their packs, which weighed over 100 pounds, and boarded the landing craft. At 8:30 A.M. The first wave of LVTs, a type of floating jeep, and LCVPs, a boat with a ramp for a bow known as Higgins boats, left with their payload of Marines for Iwo. These waves of craft moved with such precision that a Japanese soldier watching from a cave thought “How systematic and beautiful.”
The target beaches for this force were previously established by Allied planners. They lay to the immediate right of Suribachi on Iwo’s southwestern coast. From left to right they were Green Beach; Red Beach 1 and 2; Yellow Beach 1 and 2; and Blue Beach 1 and 2.
Each of the divisions had been assigned specific beaches on which to land. On the extreme left at Green Beach the 28th Regiment of the 5th Division landed, which meant this unit would have the honor of taking Suribachi itself. At the two Red Beaches the 5th’s 27th Regiment landed. There were many experienced veterans in the 5th but this was their first battle as a unit.
On the other hand, the 4th Division was about to fight its fourth campaign together. Its 23rd Regiment would hit the Yellow Beaches while its 25th would disembark on the Blue Beaches. For the time being the 3rd Division was being held in reserve for later use.
Although every regiment’s task was difficult, that of the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Regiment looked especially hard. On the far right of the beachhead this group had to take a hill which consisted of a rock quarry with many pillboxes and blockhouses. Since this hill faced a large number of Iwo’s defenders to the east, the fight there promised to be bloody. The division commander, General Cates, said as he watched from a ship that “if I knew the name of the man on the extreme right of the right-hand squad of the right-hand company of 3/25 I’d recommend him for a medal before we go in.”
The first LVTs hit the beach on schedule at 9 A.M. To E.B. Judge, “things were calm and we were receiving no counter fire from the enemy, a bit too calm.” His detachment learned that the infantry support troops had already crossed the island. This left them in an excited mood. They hoped that the battle could be won in a day or two with few casualties.
The landing craft stopped short of the beaches. Their tracks could not bite into the soft volcanic ash which rose at steep angles. The Marines jumped off and ran ashore. In these opening stages the troops dropped as much of their packs as they could (such as unnecessary items like gas masks). Soon most of the equipment lay abandoned.
This early calm proved deceptive as Judge feared: “as we hit the beach, we were greeted wholeheartedly by a barrage of Hip mortar fire. We knew then that we were in for a tough time.”
Kuribayashi’s defensive strategy caused this feeling. He would not let his men be slaughtered at the beaches where they could not kill many Americans so he positioned them where could mow down their enemy from the flanks. Suddenly the Marines faced a deadly hail of bullets, grenades and mortars.
Presently a new cry filled the air around the beach: “Corpsman! Corpsman!” Many wounded men fell around the landing site. Navy corpsmen risked their own lives to carry casualties back to the makeshift field hospitals and aid stations at the beach.
These stations were set up by Navy doctors who were part of the landing. The medical personnel also put their lives in jeopardy, for the Japanese shelled the beaches. The doctors had one other responsibility: getting the wounded back to the hospital ships for more advanced treatment and recuperation.
Sergeant Kenneth V. Stockburger, waiting to be sent ashore, spent the first three days of the battle on board a ship which received steadily increasing numbers of casualties. He helped unload the wounded men from LVTs. Writing of his experience, he told of “some [who] came in armless, legless, and very badly shot up. Others seemed to be hopeless cases, and many turned out that way. Due to some of these sights, I was very anxious to go ashore.”
The Marines had endured several tough battles in the Pacific campaign before 1945. Iwo turned out to be the toughest yet. By now the troops knew of the wiliness of the Japanese and that the enemy “used anything they could to their advantage.”
Milo Fisher recorded one such example:
On the beach mortar fire was causing many casualties but no one seemed to know where it was coming from. As they (scouts) were passing a large space covered with dead Japs one of them was seen to move… a mortar was found under him. The Japs were everywhere but you could not see them until you were right up next to them.
The truth of his statement became painfully obvious during the first night on the beaches not far from where the Marines had just landed. On that night, and every other one of the battle, some Japanese soldiers sneaked into the American lines to blow up supply dumps and vehicles or to kill Marines. Much shelling also occurred. To the troops this made that first night “a nightmare in hell.”
The Marines on Iwo Jima were not just infantry units. There were many tanks involved in the fighting as well. These weapons were crucial to their efforts but also had a bad side. Since tanks attracted much enemy fire it was dangerous to stand near them. Thus, it was difficult to get infantry support for the tanks.
Since there were few cleared paths for these vehicles the tanks always traveled with armored bulldozers. Their task was to cut paths for the Shermans. The crews of disabled tanks were sent back to the beaches where they worked as maintenance crews for other tanks. These men also stripped other disabled tanks for spare parts while running fuel and ammunition dumps for the still-operating tanks and other vehicles.
Corporal Johnny Tiesling recorded the scene of D-Day from the tank crew’s point of view:
We hit the beach and the tank in front of ours was hit and knocked out, and my mind was working faster, and my heart faster… Things were pretty fouled up that first day, and I guess that’s why we found ourselves all alone, a few hundred yards in front of our front lines with no infantry to support us…
Our tank commander spotted a Jap lying across the road supposedly dead, but very much alive. We moved toward him, and I guess he was waiting to put a charge under our tank. One mistake, though; he moved and our gunner got him. Guess he wounded one of our infantry officers because we spotted him lying in a ditch, the only infantryman around there. When I went out the escape hatch to get him, I never heard a shot. Either I was so scared I was deaf or the Japs secured for a smoke. We picked him up, and although he was shot up bad, he lived. We got back to our lines and company all right and I confess I never slept a wink all night. Just wasn’t tired or what?
Tiesling went on retrieval duty after his tank was disabled on D+2, winning the Silver Star for his actions. Of his medal, he said, “I didn’t do anymore than anyone else. I just did my job.”
Like Tiesling’s unit, Earl Wentworth’s tank unit encountered a Japanese soldier lying directly in their path. “I fired about ten rounds of 30-caliber into him to make sure he was not playing opossum.” At this point the crew decided to stop because the two big enemies of tanks awaited them. There were the large antitank guns and the land mines planted all over Iwo Jima.
Soon eight infantrymen to the tank’s right were pinned down by a machine gun so the tank fired on it. The crew then backed up the tank to find the source of the fire. Four infantrymen were trying to carry a wounded man back on a poncho (a common field substitute for a stretcher) but they too were fired upon and placed the wounded man on the back of the tank. Sitting in a ditch, the vehicle could not move.
Wentworth recalled that:
we called on the bulldozer to come help us out and I was appointed to get out and hook our cable to it. I worked as fast as I could and stayed close to the ground. When I reached the other tank the cable wasn’t long enough, so I motioned to the crew to back it up so it would reach; as the tank moved, I crawled along under it using it as a shield from the Jap fire. He ran back to his tank. The hatch closed on his legs, scratching them up.
The bulldozer could not pull this tank out so Wentworth was forced to got outside again. This time the hatch was left open for his return. At that point the dozer was ordered elsewhere and, according to Wentworth:
we all thought it was curtains for us. Mortar fire began hitting around us and one hit the front slope of our tank, throwing sparks inside all around us. After about three hours that seemed like three months, we sighted the infantry moving up toward us and I began to feel like a new man. The tank retriever showed up and it couldn’t get us out. Two other tanks hooked on to us but it was no use… We had to evacuate our tank because we couldn’t pull it out before night, but before we left… we took all our guns out of our tank and loaded them on the tank retriever and rode it back to the beach and dug in under the tanks for the night.
The tanks had much trouble negotiating the landscape and the Japanese defenses were taking a toll on the infantrymen. Still, the American task force had secured a foothold on Iwo Jima and could expand outward.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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