Marine Corps still honors its gallantry at Iwo Jima
“You could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by,” said Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Col. Justus Chambers on Feb. 19, 1945, D-Day on the island of Iwo Jima.
The Marines that Chambers commanded were part of a 74,000-man force that stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima just over 75 years ago. The 36-day battle that followed will echo throughout the centuries of American history, and will remain a testament to the courage and discipline of America’s men and women in uniform.
The small island 750 miles south of Tokyo exists today as a picturesque volcanic island set among an empty sea. A visitor would see forgotten bunkers and caved-in machine gun nests. These remnants of the past are the scars of the battle this island bore. The stories of thousands of Americans and Japanese are written in these concrete outposts. Their stories are written in the very earth of Iwo Jima.
For many Americans, and for every Marine, Iwo Jima exists as a memorial to duty and sacrifice — a hallowed, consecrated ground not unlike Gettysburg. The battle that produced these feelings was the culmination of years of education under fire.
As three Marine divisions landed under the watchful eye of Adm. Raymond Spruance aboard his flagship USS Indianapolis, they were also within view of the island’s defenders on Mount Suribachi. Remembering lessons learned in previous battles, the Japanese waited until the Marines were bogged down by the black sand beaches before unleashing withering fire. This was the bombardment into which Chambers led his men, and on D-Day alone his battalion sustained over 80% casualties.
Through sheer determination and with the assistance of brave commanders at sea who brought their ship’s guns within close range of the island, the Marines eventually fought their way off the beach.
Over the next five weeks, 110,000 Americans fought tooth and nail to wrest control of the eight-square-mile island from 21,000 determined Japanese defenders. Even after the Marines successfully crossed the island and began to isolate pockets of resistance, many Japanese defenders continued fighting to their death.
On D-Day+4, Feb. 23, the 28th Marine Regiment captured Mount Suribachi. This action was immortalized in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of six Marines raising the American flag at the summit. This photograph of Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, and Pfcs. Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Harold Schultz and Harold Keller galvanized the Americans on Iwo Jima, and the U.S. as a whole. It did not, unfortunately, portend an end to the battle. Strank, Block and Sousley were killed during the remaining days of the battle, and it would not be until March 26 that northern Iwo Jima would be captured and the island declared secured.
Over the course of the battle, 6,800 Marines were killed and another 19,200 were wounded in Iwo Jima’s unyielding exchange of fire. The Japanese garrison of roughly 21,000 defenders sustained at least 18,500 deaths from combat. Iwo Jima was the only battle the Marines fought in World War II in which they sustained more total casualties than the Japanese. The price of victory was high, and the courage and sacrifice required to achieve that victory is evident in the 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines and sailors for gallantry during the battle. No battle in the history of the Marine Corps resulted in more medals.
The courage of those men was something taught to me as a Naval Academy midshipman and Marine officer, and the lessons of their struggle are ones I carry with me today.
Last year, I organized a delegation of Members of Congress who would travel to Iwo Jima to participate in a joint memorial service with the Japanese government, and this spring I introduced a Senate Resolution honoring the 75th anniversary of the battle. I am proud of the strides our nations have made to come together as partners and allies in the years since this battle.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic required the cancellation of the trip. While not being able to travel to honor their bravery on the island is disappointing, I took the opportunity to reflect on the tenacity and determination that America can unleash when confronted with a problem. The assault on Iwo Jima was the result of years of harsh lessons, innovation and resourcefulness. America responded in a historic way to the challenges of WWII, and just as the Battle of Iwo Jima is in the DNA of every Marine, I am convinced that it is in the DNA of every American to courageously respond to great challenges.
Of the Marines’ capture of Mount Suribachi, then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal remarked that, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
For as long as there is a United States, there will be a United States Marine Corps to defend her. The same tradition of faithful service that has guided the Corps since 1775 will endure, and America — her people, her values, and her freedoms — will also endure.
Todd Young, a Republican, represents Indiana in the U.S. Senate.