Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Iwo Jima: Uncommon valor was a common virtue

Iwo Jima: Uncommon valor was a common virtue

My good friend, former colleague, combat correspondent and Trivial Pursuit savant Rob Colenso did all Marines — past and present — a good turn today with a Facebook post that commemorates the Corps’ most famous battle, Iwo Jima.

Eight years ago this month, the nation marked the 60th anniversary of that struggle. Rob and I worked for Army Times Publishing Company then, along with a team of extraordinarily talented reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists.

I got the assignment to travel to Iwo to meet up with some veterans of the battle, some of whom hadn’t been back to the island since they left in 1945. I was accompanied by one of the most talented photographers with whom I’ve ever worked (and there were quite a few), Scott Mahaskey. The trip took us to Okinawa for a few days, then on a flight to the sullen rock that is Iwo Jima. We were there most of a day, interviewing veterans, shooting video and photos — and remarking over and over at the awe we felt standing among these men who, as boys, accomplished the impossible.

When we returned, I wrote my story, and Mahaskey edited his photos and together we finished editing the videos we’d shot. And we knew we still could do more.

Chris Broz & John Bretschneider, Army Times Publishing Co.

Chris Broz & John Bretschneider, Army Times Publishing Co.

Enter the “graphic artist ninjas,” as Rob so aptly described them. Chris Broz and John Bretschneider, whose handiwork you see here, blew us away with what I consider to be the best depiction of the Japanese defenses on Iwo Jima you’ll ever see. Click here to see the full-size image. You don’t want to miss this.

And the story I filed is reprinted below. It first appeared in Marine Corps Times in February 2005, not long after Marines fought their way through another bloody place, Fallujah.


Uncommon valor: 
Iwo Jima was the ultimate test of leathernecks’ mettle

By Phillip Thompson
Marine Corps Times Staff Writer

It’s OK to say 60 years later: Iwo Jima was it. There’s never been anything like it. Hopefully, there never will be again.

No battle says “Marine Corps” like Iwo Jima — not Inchon or Khe Sanh, Hue, Beirut or Fallujah. Not even Tarawa or Guadalcanal. In the bloody chapters of the Marine Corps’ story, Iwo Jima stands alone.

Sure, you’ve seen the picture. You might even remember the quotes you learned to repeat from memory in boot camp or Officer Candidates School, the one about uncommon valor being a common virtue and, if you really paid attention, the one about the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi ensuring the existence of the Marine Corps for the next 500 years (and you’ve still got 440 years to go).

But what exactly was Iwo Jima? And, for today’s Marines, caught in a nasty, smash-mouth throw-down in Iraq and a complicated insurgency in Afghanistan, what difference does it make?

For starters, Iwo Jima and its horrors and glory and élan, are the Corps. As one bumper sticker says: “When we do our job, people shoot at us.”

Iwo Jima is the Corps, and the Corps is Iwo Jima.

Today, in a world of media saturation and short attention spans, the story of Iwo Jima gets lost, or worse, diminished. Television pundits and newspaper columnists call Fallujah the Iwo Jima of today’s generation. 

Granted, it’s meant as a compliment, and nothing can deny the ferocity and valor of the Marines who ripped through that city, proving that the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction just might be a lance corporal with a bad attitude and an M16. But in an era when hyperbole is used to make a point, that same hyperbole also insults.

By way of comparison, look at Fallujah against Iwo Jima.

•Fallujah covers about seven square miles of urban terrain, indisputably the most difficult in warfare; Iwo Jima is eight square miles of barren rock and ash.

•Six battalions of American troops — four Marine, two Army — assaulted Fallujah, roughly 10,000 troops. Three divisions of Marines hit the beach at Iwo — upward of 80,000 troops.

•It took U.S. forces 10 days to “subdue” Fallujah, with less than 40 killed in action. Marines — and a Navy corpsman — raised the flag on Mount Suribachi after four days of fighting and about a thousand killed. It took another four weeks on Iwo to end the fighting. And when it was done, only 212 men from a garrison of 22,000 Japanese soldiers were left alive. American casualties numbered 6,821 killed or missing; 19,217 wounded; and 2,648 lost to combat fatigue.

•Twenty-seven Marines and sailors received the Medal of Honor for heroism on that piece of sulfuric rock, nearly the number of dead suffered during the assault on Fallujah.
Iwo Jima wasn’t just another battle in Marine Corps history. It was the battle.

No worthless rock
Iwo was viewed by the troops as just another amphibious assault, another chance to get your head blown off if you were a salt or a chance to finally see some action if you were a boot. 

The Corps had leapfrogged across the azure Pacific for three years, starting with Guadalcanal in 1942. Along the way, Tarawa proved the fragility of American doctrine, Saipan and Peleliu showed how hard the Japanese would fight, and Roi-Namur proved the Navy and Marine Corps could get it right.

But none of that really mattered on Iwo.

For one, it was the first direct assault on what Japanese considered sovereign territory. They owned Iwo; they didn’t steal it. For another, it was a god-awful place to fight.

Marines are used to drawing the worst hellhole of the world’s hellholes, but Iwo might beat them all. A black chunk of lava and ash thrust out of the ocean like an offending taste in the throat, Iwo stunk of sulfur. With no vegetation and little relief in the terrain, the island was a shooting gallery for Japanese gunners — and they zeroed in on every inch of the gritty black sand.

But the island was an obstacle to Allied forces carving a path toward mainland Japan from the south. Within 1,000 miles of the home islands and halfway between Tokyo and an American airstrip on Saipan, Iwo sat along a critical bomber route. The island served as an outpost for the Imperial Army headquarters, and its numerous radar arrays gave Tokyo two hours’ warning of approaching attacks. Iwo-based Japanese fighters scrambled to intercept our B-29 bombers, either coming or going, or both.

Also, taking the island would put American fighter planes within range to escort bombers to the home islands. 


Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt commanded V Amphibious Corps, the largest force of Marines ever committed to a single battle — more than 80,000. More than half had combat experience.

The assault plan was classic Marine Corps: two up, one back. The 4th and 5th divisions would send ashore two regiments each, abreast of each other — 5th on the left, 4th on the right. 3rd Division held two regiments in corps reserve.

The plan: Cut the island in half across its waist, securing the airfield in the process, then wheel left, or southwest, and subdue Mount Suribachi, the extinct volcano that anchored the island and gave thousands of Japanese a line of fire onto the beaches below.

The assault began at 6:45 a.m., Feb. 19, 1945, after weeks of air and naval bombardment. Following another thunderous barrage courtesy of Navy warships, Marines splashed ashore and encountered their first enemy: the island’s soil.

The crusty black sand clung to seemingly everything. More than 6,000 Marines moved ashore within minutes, and about 30,000 would land the first day. The lead elements cleared the beach itself, but men and equipment lurched to a halt in the deep, loose grit.

Then, the Japanese opened up. What started as light resistance swelled into a steady stream of fire that enveloped the Marines struggling through the sand. Mortar rounds dropped among Marine positions like rain, and machine-gun fire cut down anyone careless or reckless enough to stand up.

Not every unit was pinned down at first. 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, reached the western shore of the island, some 700 yards distant, within an hour and a half of landing. But such gains were the exception, not the rule. On the right flank, Japanese fire chopped up the 25th Marine Regiment as it clawed its way forward, advancing only 300 yards in the first half hour.

And it wasn’t even noon. For all the intensity of their initial response, the Japanese guns hadn’t even warmed up. Sometime around 10 a.m., the Japanese swung into action the heavy guns, hidden and embedded in the labyrinthine face of Suribachi and the island’s countless crags. Huge coastal defense guns, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns and machine-gun fire poured on the Marines. Those who survived remembered it as the bloodiest episode they’d encountered.

Marines fell in numbers too great to count, often too many for corpsmen to handle.

"Manila John" Basilone received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Guadalcanal. He died fighting at Iwo.

“Manila John” Basilone received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Guadalcanal. He died fighting at Iwo.

Commanders screamed for tanks, naval gunfire — anything to quell the murderous barrage. Combat vets kept the boots from panicking and noncommissioned officers worked to get the job done. 

Officers dropped at an appalling rate; no one was immune. A mortar round felled Gunnery Sgt. “Manila John” Basilone, a living legend who’d received the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. Basilone died doing what he did best — leading his machine-gun platoon against the enemy.

Schmidt committed his reserves before noon.

The island was a meat grinder, killing Marines in waves and degenerating the simple, carefully scripted battle plan into chaos. By the end of the first day, 3/25 alone lost 22 officers and 500 troops.

Cyril P. Zurlinden, a salty lieutenant and combat correspondent, described the first night ashore: “At Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, I saw Marines killed and wounded in a shocking manner, but I saw nothing like the ghastliness that hung over the Iwo beachhead. Nothing any of us had ever known could compare with the utter anguish, frustration and constant inner battle to maintain some semblance of sanity.” The first day’s cost: 2,420 men — 501 killed; 1,755 wounded; 47 dead of wounds; 18 missing and 99 lost to combat fatigue.

The first flag

Four days later, as the battle raged on, a group of Marines was assigned a mission that must have made it flinch. Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson ordered a lieutenant to take a 40-man patrol to the top of Suribachi and seize the crest.

Nowhere to hide, every inch covered by Japanese gunners.

Nowhere to hide, every inch covered by Japanese gunners.

Before 1st Lt. Harold Schrier stepped off, Johnson handed him a small flag brought ashore by the battalion adjutant. Johnson instructed Schrier to hoist the flag when he reached the summit. Schrier’s patrol reached the rim of Suribachi’s crater about 10:15 a.m., encountering a group of Japanese. Even as a firefight erupted, a few Marines scrambled to find something with which to raise the flag. They found a length of steel pipe, to which they affixed the tiny flag, then raised it at 10:20 a.m.

Far below, thousands of weary and wounded sailors and Marines broke into cheers. Some wept.

The men who raised that flag often have been overlooked in the shadow of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the second flag raising, which came later that day when Johnson decided the first flag was too small to be seen from a distance.

The men who made it to the top with that small flag were Sgt. Louis Lowery — a Leatherneck magazine photographer, Schrier, Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg, Platoon Sgt. Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, Pfc. Louis C. Charlo and Pfc. James Michels. Lowery photographed the event.

Back to the fight
The flag raisings didn’t signal the end of battle. Marines would fight another month through some of the war’s most savage combat. In fact, after the flags were raised, nearly 4,000 Marines were killed in action. The island wasn’t declared secure until March 26.

On April 7, 1945, American fighters based on Iwo Jima took off from the runway, refurbished by Seabees. The fighters accompanied B-29s as they made their bombing run to Japan. For the remainder of the war, the island was a place of salvation for crippled and shot-up bombers limping home from Japan. By the end of the war, some 2,200 B-29s — 27,000 crewmen — used the island’s runway.

Phillip Thompson is Lifelines editor.

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