Thanks for Iwo Jima

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. John Grutzmacher
  • 96th Airlift Squadron
Unfortunately, I can't recall his name. But I clearly remember the historical anniversary when he knocked on my door. He was a Treasury Department Security Investigator doing a security background interview on a friend of mine. We exchanged pleasantries and I invited him into my living room where he noticed I was watching the movie "Saving Private Ryan". I told him that I was watching the movie because it was June 6th, D-Day. He said simply, "those boys did a great job". After more conversation, I discovered that he fought in a fierce battle in World War II on a small island in the Pacific called Iwo Jima.

The battle for Iwo Jima commenced on 19 February 1945 with the first wave of Marines hitting the beach one minute ahead of schedule at 0859. The landing was preceded by an enormous aerial and artillery bombardment that was largely ineffective due to the vast tunnel complex the Japanese defenders constructed. The thirty-five day battle was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded the Japanese. However, Japanese combat deaths outnumbered American deaths three to one.

The defenders knew there would be no reinforcements and no retreat available therefore their goal was simply to inflict massive American casualties and fight to the death. Instead of fighting the Americans on the beach, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi decided to build a network of hidden firing positions dug into the island with over eleven miles of tunnels. Of the 18,000 Japanese defenders, only 216 were captured alive. The reason for so few survivors was Iwo Jima being considered a home island of Japan, the Japanese bushido code of honor, coupled with effective propaganda which portrayed American G.I.s as ruthless animals, prevented surrender for many Japanese soldiers.

What was so important about Iwo Jima to have 70,000 Marines charge into this human meat grinder? In one word...airfields. Iwo Jima is located 560 miles from Japan and had three airfields. At the time, the closest American airfield was at Saipan in the Mariana Islands, more than 1,200 miles from Japan. Until the capture of Iwo Jima, American B-29s had to fly without fighter escort on bombing missions over Japan. The bomber's only defense was to attack from very high altitude which severely diminished their accuracy and effectiveness. The bombers needed a fighter escort base and emergency landing field in order for the air war against Japan to break their will to fight. In addition, America was developing her first atomic weapons for possible use. If the A-bomb was to be deployed in the Pacific Theater, a series of suitable island emergency landing fields would have to be established to ensure that the Bomb wouldn't be lost at sea due to weather or aircraft mechanical problems.

The Marine Corps' hard fought victory at Iwo Jima greatly improved the Army Air Force's strategic air campaign. Almost 300 P-51 fighters were based there to escort B-29s to Japan. On March 4, 1945, twenty-two days before the island was declared "secured", the fighting Marines saw the purpose of their efforts as the first damaged B-29 landed at Iwo Jima's North Field. During the course of the war another 2,450 B-29s would make emergency landings on Iwo Jima's airfields saving nearly 27,000 aircrew men. The Marines' sacrifice at the Battle of Iwo Jima was truly a gift to the Army Air Force.

Although it was D-Day, I thanked my visitor for his service, sacrifice and the gift he helped deliver to the Army Air Force. My friend never did get that Treasury Department job.