“War is an ugly thing” said 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Few would deny his assertion about any battle, but it was especially true of the Battle of Iwo Jima, 76 years ago.
The Battle of Iwo Jima, during more than a month of fighting, claimed nearly 7,000 American lives, and injured more than 20,000. There were more U.S. casualties than Japanese – the only Marine Corps battle in the war where that was the case.
Located about 750 miles south of the Japanese mainland, Iwo Jima was a strategic military installation with three airfields and approximately 21,000 Japanese troops.
While the U.S. forces had taken control of bases in the Mariana and Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima served as an early-warning outpost for the Japanese mainland, and provided a base for launching attacks on U.S. facilities.
A Marine invasion, called Operation Detachment, was planned in order to secure the island as a refueling area for U.S. planes.
For several months before, U.S. forces conducted bombing raids and bombardment from ships.
The first invasion forces landed on February 19, and included 74,000 Marines, Navy Seabees, Army and Coast Guard.
A portion of the beach was secured, but American casualties were high. Frank Matthews, then an 18-year-old private, was part of a team providing relief for a 900-man regiment, the 25th Marines’ 3rd Battalion.
It was practically wiped out on the very first day of fighting.
“They lost 750 in one five-hour stretch,” Matthews told CBS News’ David Martin in 2015. “Every inch of that beach and everything around it had been pinned down and zeroed in by the Japanese guns.”
Fighting continued on the island for more than a month. Japanese soldiers often engaged in charges during the night or would ambush Americans from a complex network of tunnels dug deep in the volcanic ash that made up the island’s soil.
The iconic photo of Marines raising the flag on Mt Suribachi on February 23rd did not mark the end of the battle of Iwo Jima. The U.S. declared Iwo Jima secure on March 16th, the last major engagement wasn’t until March 26th.
During the night, a few hundred Japanese troops moved behind enemy lines near an area designated as Motoyama 1. They killed about 100 Americans in their sleep before being gunned down themselves. With the other pockets of defenders killed or captured, that night attack marked the last major engagement at Iwo Jima.
It was an ugly thing, “but not the ugliest of things.”
As we remember the significance and sacrifice of this battle, it’s useful to review the remainder of Mills’ quote about war, and what is uglier:
“…the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration.
A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”