Operation Detachment was a major World War II battle fought in the Pacific between the United States Armed Forces and the Japanese Empire. The Americans’ goal was to capture the entire island of Iwo Jima, including all three airfields, in an effort to acquire a staging area from which attacks on the main islands of Japan could be launched. Lasting for five weeks, Operation Detachment included some of the bloodiest fighting to take place in the Pacific Theater. When all was said and done, Iwo Jima became the Pacific’s longest and most intense conflict.
During the planning stage of Operation Detachment, intelligence sources fully believed Iwo Jima would fall to the Americans within a week’s time. Unfortunately, the planners had no way of knowing the Japanese had an entirely new defense strategy in mind for this battle. The deep and complex defense strategy the Japanese prepared proved to be a radical departure from anything they used before. So successful were their efforts that despite the hundreds of tons of bombs the Americans dropped and the thousands of rounds of naval gunfire used, the Japanese defenders remained relatively unscathed. When the Marines landed, the Japanese were prepared to inflict a quantity of loss unprecedented in the Pacific up to that point.
On June 15, 1944, bombardments and air raids began against Iwo Jim by US Navy and Army Air Forces which continued for nine months. Marine Corps Major General Harry Schmidt requested 10 days of heavy shelling of Iwo Jima prior to the amphibious assault, but received only three – and those were impaired by the weather.
On June 17th, Underwater Demolition Team 15 from the USS Blessman was fired upon by the Japanese and lost one of the divers. The following night, a Japanese warplane bombed the ship, killing 40 sailors, 15 of which were part of the UDT.
The Americans continued with the bombings and though many bunkers and caves were destroyed, the Japanese had prepared for this attack since March 1944. 450 American ships were now situated off the coast of Iwo Jima. When the Pacific’s version of D-Day commenced on February 19, 1945, 60,000 US Marines and several thousand Navy Seabees were involved.
The first Marines on the scene felt the bombardments of the island had decimated the Japanese troops. A deathly silence, however, began to unnerve the Marine patrols as they continued their advance on the inland areas in search of Japanese. They quickly learned the assumed decimation had not occurred as they suddenly came under intense hostile fire from Japanese machine gunners, resulting in devastating losses to the Marines.
A large concentration of Japanese on Mount Surbachi, located on the southern end of the island, also proved deadly for the Marines. The inhospitable terrain of the volcanic ash served to hinder the Marines’ efforts due to the inability to have secure footing or construct foxholes.
By February 23rd, Mount Surbachi had been cut off from the rest of the island. The Marines knew the Japanese defenders had created an extensive network of defenses underground and anticipated a fierce fight to gain control of the summit. Though expecting an ambush, the Marines encountered only small groups of defenders on their way up Surbachi. The rest remained in the tunnels.
After arriving at Surbachi’s summit, the patrols immediately returned to base and reported to Colonel Chandler Johnson the lack of enemy contact. Johnson then sent a platoon of Marines to scale Suribachi, taking with them a small American flag. If they reached the summit, they were to fly the flag as an announcement of such. The return trip up to the summit was achieved without incident.
Military photographer Joe Rosenthal was on hand that day to record on film the historic event showing five US Marines: Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes, along with Navy Corpsman John H. Bradley raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Three of the Marines involved - Sousley, Strank and Block, would be killed in action within the next few days.
Rosenthal was accompanied by Marine photographers Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust (who was killed in action after the flag-raising) as they climbed the 545 ft Mount Suribachi. The trio reached the summit while the Marines were in the process of attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal placed his Speed Graphic camera on the ground (set to 1/400th of a second shutter speed, with the f-stop between 8 and 16) because he wanted to pile some rocks together so he could obtain a better vantage point. While doing so, he came very close to missing the prize shot. Realizing the special moment was upon him, Rosenthal quickly swung his camera up and snapped the photograph without the aide of the viewfinder. As the Stars and Stripes were hoisted above Mount Suribachi, it became the first foreign flag to ever fly on Japanese soil. The immortalized photograph records the second flag-raising on the mountain. Both it and the first raising occurred on the fifth day of the 35-day battle.
The night prior to the flag hoisting, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal stated he wanted to go ashore and witness the final efforts to claim the mountain’s summit. This would be allowed, only if the secretary agreed to take orders from blunt and earthy General Howlin’ Mad Smith. The boat carrying the general and secretary touched shore just prior to the flag’s raising. As he gazed upwards to witness the placement of the Stars and Stripes, Secretary Forrestal informed General Smith, "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."
In the fervor of the moment, Forrestal told Smith he wanted the Suribachi flag as a souvenir. 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson was irate when the statement reached his ears. Possessing a temperament equal to the fieriness of Howlin Mad's, Johnson exclaimed, "To hell with that!" The way Johnson saw it, that flag was property of the battalion.
In an effort to assure the battalion maintained possession of the flag, Johnson knew it needed to be immediately secured. He quickly dispatched Lt. Ted Tuttle, his assistant operations officer, to the island with orders to obtain a replacement flag. A moment later, he tweaked his instruction to Tuttle by saying, "And make it a bigger one!" According to official Marine Corps history, Lieutenant Tuttle found a larger (96x56 inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship LST 779. Tuttle made his way back to the command post and gave the flag to Johnson, who in turn, gave it to Gagnon, with orders to take it back up Suribachi and raise it.
Joe Rosenthal’s snapshot of the second flag hoisting became the only photograph to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography within the same year it was published. No doubt the most reproduced photo of all times, it is considered to be one of the most significant and recognizable images of World War II.
In 1954, Marine Felix de Weldon used the image to sculpt the Marine Corps War Memorial, located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. The original mold he used is housed on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy located in Harlingen, Texas.
Iwo Jima was the only battle involving the US Marine Corps in which the overall American casualties (either killed or wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese; although the Japanese combat death toll were three-times that of the Americans throughout the battle. In all, 22,060 Japanese soldiers were entrenched on the island. Of these, 18,844 died, either in battle or by ritual suicide. Only 216 were taken prisoner. For the Americans, there were 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 who had died.
With the heavy loss of American lives in the battle, the true value of the island became controversial, due to the fact the Army could not use it as a staging base, nor was it of any value to the Navy as a fleet base.
Following the month-long battle on Iwo Jima, the Medal of Honor was awarded to 27 US military personnel, of which 14 were awarded posthumously. 22 of the medals were presented to Marines and the other five went to US Navy corpsmen. These medals represented 28% of the 82 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the Pacific throughout the entirety of World War II.