Photos from Iwo Jima

The passing of AP photographer Joe Rosenthal prompted me to break out my Iwo Jima footage again, having just used a few seconds of it in a Vent last week.

I went to Iwo Jima twice, in February 1996 and again in February 1997. Iwo Jima is about 1200 miles from Tokyo and not near anything except the other two, smaller and uninhabitable Iwo Jimas (there are three somewhat large islands in the group, and one really small one right off the coast of Iwo Jima proper). I don’t have photos of them, but imagine a couple of very large chocolate drops resting on the surface of the ocean and you get the idea of what they look like. They’re volcanic cones, Kita Iwo Jima to the north and Minami Iwo Jima to the south.

Here’s the Google Earth shot of Iwo Jima. Mt. Suribachi is in the lower left corner. Invasion Beach runs along the southern edge, with Shipwreck Beach running diagonally up from Mt. Suribachi opposite Invasion Beach. That’s a Japanese air base in the middle. The Japanese had several airstrips on Iwo Jima prior to the battle. That’s why we needed the island–to halt their use of it to harrass our ships, and to use it as a way station for damaged planes and to mount attacks of our own from there.

I was in the Air Force when I went to Iwo Jima; I went both times to report on US Navy fighter training flights. F-14s, F-18s and EA-6Bs from the airwing attached to the USS Independence used Iwo Jima to simulate night landings on a carrier at sea. At night they would turn off all the exterior lights on the island save those that were turned on to mimic the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. That made it very, very dark at night–well, other than the full moon during my second trip. Other than the pitch and roll of a ship moving through water, the pilots all said the simulation was good enough to give them the confidence to land on Independence at night. But fighter pilots aren’t known for a lack of confidence in their abilities to defy mortality and land a screaming jet on a gnat in the middle of a typhoon. They would spend the daylight hours either sleeping, attending briefings or taking their aircraft up for short air shows. I’m sure all of that hairpin maneuvering was purely done in the name of training.

On the second trip I toted my Hi-8 Canon L2 along to shoot on the very brief sightseeing tour. It’s a small island, so it doesn’t take long to see the main sights. These photos are vidcaps from the tape I shot, which accounts for their lack of quality. I’d like to go back some day with better gear to explore the caves and take better shots. If you want to see these photos in a little more detail, save them to your hard drive. They’re actually about twice the size shown here.

Here’s Mt. Suribachi, from Invasion Beach.

Standing on Invasion Beach, looking away from Suribachi.

The black sand is pulverized volcanic rock and ash. The Marines couldn’t dig foxholes in it, and they couldn’t get good footing in it. You don’t even leave good footprints in it–they fill in almost as soon as you take a step.

All three Iwo Jimas are volcanos, with Iwo Jima proper being a submerged caldera. It’s still a hopping place if you’re into volcanic activity. I caught this little eruption near Shipwreck Beach. It’s a mudpot, with sulphurous gas steaming out of it. The whole place smells like sulphur, or hot rotten eggs.

On top of Suribachi, there’s a monument on the spot where Rosenthal captured the Marines raising the flag.

There were two flag raisings, but Rosenthal’s photo was not staged. You can read more about that on Wikipedia. As for the flag raisers, three of them never made it off Iwo Jima alive.

Rosenthal’s iconic photo is a recurring theme on the island. Here’s a closeup of the plaque in the center of the monument above.

And here’s an amateur monument near the abandoned Coast Guard LORAN station, which iirc is on the opposite end of the island from Suribachi.

As for the LORAN station, GPS made it obsolete a long time ago. Its empty buildings housed a nasty-looking flock of chickens when I was there. That was the only part of the island that didn’t smell like rotten eggs. It smelled like, well, guess.

The Coasties who had the misfortune of serving on Iwo Jima probably didn’t mind leaving. There isn’t much by way of entertainment there. It’s very hot year round, and the water offshore is full of sharks. Volcanic gases occassionally bubble up, turning the water all kinds of fun colors. We did see whales from the northeastern edge of the island. There is a flock of turkeys on the island, and the tale of their origin is that they were a gift from the US. The story goes that there were wild turkeys on Iwo Jima before the battle, but they were wiped out in the fighting, so at some point we gave them a flock to replace the ones that were killed. But having seen them several times, I can tell you that the turkeys on Iwo Jima today are not wild turkeys. They’re the dumb Thanksgiving variety, and it’s easiest to find them by driving down the road. They’ll walk out into the road and stand there, blocking your drive until they decide to move. Honking the horn does not move them. Getting out of the truck and trying to shoo them away does not move them. They move when they decide to move, and not a minute before. Somebody either had a wicked sense of humor or made a mistake and sent the wrong breed of turkey as a “gift.”

There have been dozens of amateur artists stationed on Iwo Jima over the years, American and Japanese, and they weren’t above leaving behind a little grafitti.

Near a beach not too far from the above monument, an unknown Japanese artist carved the goddess Kanon into a small rock wall.

There are signs all over the island that a very large battle took place there. There are American and Japanese monuments and plaques everywhere, marking mass graves and noting the alliance that in some ways was born out of the violence there. This one marks the resting place of several hundred US Marines.

This is one of the larger monument complexes.

On the plain north of Invasion Beach, there are the remains of a fuselage from a downed airplane. The Marines wrapped it in cinderblock and turned it into a battlefield command bunker, allegedly for Marine General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith. I have no idea whether that’s true or not, but it’s the story they tell you when you visit. You can tell it was a Japanese plane because the metal has peeled away from the cinderblock, leaving a big red dot on the inside of the cinderblock surface. I’ve been kicking myself for 9 years for not getting a shot of that.

Here’s the Japanese gun I mentioned in Vent, with a shot of its decayed breach.

Another sign of the battle is Shipwreck Beach, opposite Invasion Beach. Half a dozen sunken ships stick up out of the water. Either the Navy or the Coast Guard tried to turn this one into a pier after a storm washed it up on the beach. It looks rusty, but having stood on it I can tell you what it’s actually made of — concrete. A concrete ship.

I’ve heard two different stories about its origins. One story is that it’s Japanese, and it’s made of concrete because Japan had run out of steel by 1945. The other is that it’s American, and it and the other ships here were used as decoys before the battle to make the Japanese think that the Marines were coming in via that beach rather than the one on the other side of Suribachi–the one now known as Invasion Beach. They were later sunk by the Navy to create a harbor–an effort that failed. Logically, either could be true I guess. The US did make concrete ships during WWI and WWII. The Japanese did have a steel problem, before, during and after the war. And there was a decoy invasion on Shipwreck Beach (alert–very ugly web page on that link).

Here’s another sign of the battle: A pillbox not too far from Suribachi’s summit. Pillboxes like this one were outposts of a network of tunnels and caves that riddled the entire island.

But here’s evidence of how things are now between the US and Japan. Next to the US monument atop Suribachi is a Japanese monument.

And this is a party of Japanese, probably connected to the Japanese military in some way (that’s a Japan Air Self-Defense Force officer in the middle of the front row, and he may be the commander of the Japanese base on Iwo Jima), posing in front of the monument to the US Marines raising the American flag on the first Japanese home island to fall into our hands during World War II.

American losses on Iwo Jima, according to the BBC:

6821 killed, 19,217 wounded and 2648 suffering from combat fatigue. Of the total 28,686 American casualties, 23,573 were members of the US Marine Corps. Over a third of the total Marines who participated in the invasion ended up being listed as casualties. About a third of all US Marines killed in action during World War II died at Iwo Jima, making that the battle with the highest number of casualties in Marine Corps history.


With the exception of 1083 prisoners, the entire Japanese garrison of 23,000 men had been wiped out. Two of those prisoners did not surrender until 1951.

27 Marines and Navy personnel won the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima.

I should add that the Japanese strategy on Iwo Jima was to inflict so many casualties on the US forces that we would stop the war and sue for peace. The battle was incredibly bloody. If today’s press reported on the battle, from its perspective as part of the anti-war left, the Japanese strategy would probably work. Thank goodness for Joe Rosenthal, whose iconic photograph taken four days into a month-long battle showed not a quagmire as today’s press would show, and not a shipboard “Mission Accomplished” banner spun into a political hit, but an image of certain victory.

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