Written by: Edward G. Lengel, The National World War II Museum
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the causes and effects of the victory of the United States and its allies over the Axis Powers
Air power dictated the American decision to assault the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima early in 1945. The new B-29 bomber, developed at great cost to replace the standard B-17 used for bombing in Europe, possessed immense potential for altering the strategic balance of the war in the Pacific. The B-29 had a longer range and payload than its predecessor and was more heavily armed. It could soar to 30,000 feet to drop bombs, higher than enemy anti-aircraft weapons and fighters could reach – although the bombers would have trouble hitting their targets from that height.
Still, to reach Japan from the American-held Mariana Islands, aircraft had to detour around the Bonin Island chain, which included Iwo Jima, because of Japanese aircraft stationed there. However, capturing Iwo Jima instead of avoiding it would allow the Americans to use its airfields for refueling bombers on the way to Japan and back. It could also become a base for American fighter aircraft that could escort the bombers and allow them to drop bombs from a lower altitude – within range of enemy fighters, but far more accurately. Planners believed heavy and well-targeted bombing of Japan was a necessary prelude to invading the home islands. In the Pacific, the American armed forces used the strategy of “island hopping,” fighting the Japanese on various Pacific Islands and thus closing in on Japan. Sometimes U.S. forces bypassed heavily fortified Japanese positions and concentrated on islands that were not well defended but were capable of supporting the drive to the Japanese mainland. They decided to fight on Iwo Jima.
The Japanese recognized the importance of the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima a mere two-and-a-half by five miles in size – and intended to defend it to the utmost of their power. Instead of fighting the Americans on the beaches, however, Japanese troops intended to hold out in deep fortifications built far inland, killing thousands of Americans while their kamikaze suicide bombers inflicted terrible losses on the American fleet. The kamikaze, named after the “divine wind” that had scattered a Mongol fleet invading Japan in 1281, were young Japanese fliers who piloted their explosive-laden planes into American ships. Their introduction in October 1944 had been a mark of desperation by the Japanese, but they also shocked the Americans and were initially effective in sinking numerous vessels.
Three U.S. Marine divisions landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, and gradually worked their way inland. They faced heavy resistance that an air and naval bombardment failed to subdue because the Japanese were underground in their fortifications. On February 23, the Marines succeeded in capturing the island’s primary landmark, the peak of Mount Suribachi.
Marines planted and raised a flag to mark their capture of the peak, to the delight of American witnesses, but a Japanese grenade attack interrupted them when the enemy heard the Americans cheer for the flag. Joe Rosenthal, a photographer from the Associated Press, then asked the Marines to repeat the ceremony for his camera. Six men – five Marines and one U.S. Navy Corpsman – obliged for a series of photographs that soon became immortal and won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.
The central photograph of the flag raising was reproduced thousands of times in the media for morale and propaganda purposes. For U.S. service members and the public generally, it symbolized the country’s resolve to continue fighting against formidable odds. Few realized it did not capture the actual event of the initial flag raising or all the soldiers engaged in that event. Nor, in fact, did the flag raising mark the end of the fighting for Iwo Jima, which, in fact, had barely begun. However, the symbol was arguably more important for the United States than the reality.
The capture of Mount Suribachi brought possession only of the southern tip of Iwo Jima. The rest of the island had to be captured before its airfields could be used without hindrance. But fighting continued for another month as the Marines advanced foot by foot, usually having to kill the Japanese soldiers within their entrenchments by the use of flamethrowers, satchel charges, and other heavy weapons. By the time the fighting ended on March 24, all but 200 of the Japanese garrison of approximately 20,000 troops had been killed. The Marines suffered terrible casualties as well; 6,000 were killed and about 25,000 wounded.
The Japanese had succeeded in slowing the inexorable American advance toward the home islands. One group, however, had failed to achieve its anticipated impact: the kamikaze. Thanks to Iwo Jima’s distance from Japan, suicide aircraft had been unable to reach the American fleet in significant numbers. But the Japanese took note, and when American forces invaded the island of Okinawa in April 1945, the kamikaze were ready and inflicted serious losses. For the Americans, the lessons of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were clear: invading Japan would entail total devastation on both sides because Japan would put up a suicidal defense of the islands to the last man. This realization played an important role in the later decision to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
1. American forces launched an assault to capture the island of Iwo Jima in February 1945 because
- the island was an important Japanese naval base
- Iwo Jima was one of the Japanese home islands
- capturing Iwo Jima would convince the Japanese to immediately surrender
- the airfields located on Iwo Jima had strategic importance
2. The most significant lesson Americans learned from the Battle of Iwo Jima was that
- Japan was close to military and political collapse
- the kamikaze were unstoppable
- an invasion of Japan would come at a high cost of lives for both sides
- total victory over Japan was impossible
3. The ultimate success of the Americans during the Battle of Iwo Jima depended on
- the use of atomic weapons
- strategic bombing
- the use of infantry forces to capture key terrain
- the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war
4. By the time the United States attacked the Japanese on Iwo Jima in early 1945, American military planners
- were preparing for a quick end to the war with the use of the atomic bomb
- had rejected the unconditional surrender of Japan
- were celebrating the end of the war in Europe months earlier
- projected heavy casualties and a high cost to invading Japan
5. The event in the photograph depicted
- the end of World War II
- the collapse of Nazi Germany
- a major battle at the halfway point of World War II
- the resolve and tenacity of the American military
6. The scene depicted in the photograph influenced the decision to
- use the atomic bomb on Japan
- accept a conditional surrender from Japan
- use Australia as a staging area to launch an invasion of Japan
- end strategic bombing in the Pacific Theater of Operations
Free Response Questions
- Explain why Iwo Jima was considered of strategic importance in the war against Japan.
- Explain the significance of the provided photograph.
AP Practice QuestionsRefer to the map provided.
1. This map most accurately depicts
- the D-Day invasion
- the policy of containment
- the island-hopping strategy
- the scope of Nazi imperialism
2. What enabled the strategy depicted in the map?
- Successful implementation of the Treaty of Versailles
- Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs
- Economic competition with communist countries
- Allied cooperation fighting against Imperial Japan
Jacobs, Raymond. ” Iwo Jima. Feb. 23, 1945. First Flag Raising. An Eyewitness Account by Radioman Raymond Jacobs.” https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/61/Enclosure%209%20(PFC%20Jacobs%20Statement).pdf?ver=2016-08-24-094525-887
Chambers, John Whiteclay, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hammel, Eric. Iwo Jima, Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006.
Hastings, Max. Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. New York: Vintage, 2009.
Hornfischer, James D. The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. New York: Bantam, 2016.
Newcomb, Richard F. Iwo Jima: The Dramatic Account of the Epic Battle that Turned the Tide of World War II. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.
Ross, Bill D. Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor. New York: Vintage, 1986.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.