147th at Iwo Jima

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147th at Iwo Jima 2017-03-27T09:08:52-04:00

147th Infantry Regiment at Iwo Jima

When Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi took command of the 20,000 plus officers and soldiers on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, he gave two strident, uncompromising orders:

1. Each Japanese officer and soldier must kill 10 Americans when they invaded.

2. There would be no surrender, so each Japanese officer and soldier must be prepared to die in the effort to kill 10 Americans.

There was a purpose to Kuribayashi’s decision. He well knew that Japan could not defeat the U.S., so the ultimate plan was to cause such a great loss of life on the Americans that they would think twice before attacking the Japanese homeland itself, and perhaps agree to some form of compromise. Therefore, he was prepared to sacrifice the entire command to that end.

So when 50,000 marines and 20,000 supporting troops began landing in February, 1945, they knew it was a fight to the finish.

Iwo Jima is a small island, about 2 1/2 miles by 5 miles. It lies about 650 miles from Japan, and both the Japanese and the Americans knew that it was a priority target.

Until 1944, there were almost no ways available to attack Japan by air. The Pacific Ocean was too big, and setting up bases in China was too dangerous and difficult to support. Then two things changed that: the Americans brought into service the giant B-29 bombers, and they took the islands of Saipan and Tinian as bases. Now they were 1200 miles from their target. It would take five or six hours to reach Japan, and the same returning. But halfway there, they would be within range of the three airfields on Iwo Jima and the Japanese fighters ready to pounce. Once through that gauntlet, they would have to face the fighters on Japan, then the long trip back, with the Iwo Jima enemy waiting for another crack at them.

Any plane damaged or shot down, ended in the Pacific. If the odds were right, like one thousand to one, an American submarine might be cruising in the vicinity and pick up the survivors. Usually, the Pacific was their grave.

Iwo Jima had to be taken – to protect the 29’s on their flight, and as a haven for those damaged which could not make it back to their home bases. For the record, about 6,800 Americans lost their lives to take Iwo Jima, but about 25,000 flyers were saved. Unless you were the mothers or wives or the sisters of those killed, it was a good trade-off.

During the invasion, the population density of Iwo Jima was the highest in the world, about 100,000 people. But on that small island, the Japanese had engineered and built miles of underground passages. There were fighting positions, with interlocking fires, so when one was attacked, a neighboring bunker could shoot down the exposed assaulting troops from the flanks. Inside these underground miles were storage dumps for ammunition and food, rooms for the troops to sleep, eat, and train, hospitals to treat the sick and wounded, offices, command centers, and every requirement that troops in battle would need. Actually, the Japanese had decided to be the first in history to fight a battle from underground rather than face their enemy head-on.

In addition, their engineers had so designed their defenses that when a position was about to be blown up or sealed with bulldozers, they had passageways to leave the threatened bunkers and continue fighting from other positions. One position was found to have 15 exits.

Iwo Jima is shaped like a pear, wide in the north and tapering down to Mount Suribachi in the south. From the center to the northern area, it is filled with ravines, gullies, and caves, and here the fiercest part of the battle was waged. Artillery and mortars played a significant role, and the Japanese had almost every inch zeroed in, so that they could strike without having to register or adjust their fires. Shells would suddenly rain down on the attackers without warning.

The three marine divisions lined up and started north. By the time the island was declared secure, on March 26, 1945, there were 6,800 Americans dead and about 18,000 wounded – which was one man in three paying the price. It was estimated that only about 200-300 hold-outs of the 20,000 plus Japanese were still alive.

The army’s 147th Infantry Regiment had a checkered career. It had come from the 37th Infantry Division, a mid-western National Guard outfit, when the old type divisions of four regiments were triangulated. Some called it a separate regiment, others a bastard regiment. Being commanded by a colonel in a war run by generals and having only a limited punch, it was sent here and there on guard duty. Relieving the battered marines and mopping up the island seemed a proper task, so it was loaded on ships at New Caledonia and sent north. Partway to Iwo Jima, the powers decided to declare the island secure a bit in advance, so the ships were ordered to proceed at flank speed – which is all out – and on March 21, 1945 the 2,700 men of the 147th Infantry, now attached to the 3d Marine Division, were landed.

One battalion was assigned to the lower half of the island, a second battalion got the eastern half of the northern sector, and the third battalion got the western half. Mopping up is a deceptive word. Of course, you don’t have to face interlocking defenses, but it becomes a much more personal fight. An example is Iraq, where a few hundred troops were lost knocking out the enemy, then a thousand more died “mopping up”. The 147th set up perimeters, and the troops began attacking caves and bunkers in a 360 degree assault, patrolling the gullies and ravines, setting up night ambushes, and ferreting out the die-hards. One main concern was keeping the remnants from joining forces to attack the airfields, now in U.S. hands. Actually, the Japanese did attack, storming through the tents, shooting and sabering the air corps pilots and ground troops, and shaking up the complacency of the people for whom the island had been taken. During the main battle, the marines would pull out units to mop up behind their own lines before they would continue their offense.

By the end of April, when the island was declared fully secure, the 147th had killed an additional 1,600 enemy soldiers and captured 800, about one for each member of the regiment. The capture rate was unprecedented, since the Japanese were steeped in the Bushido code, which declared it was cowardly to surrender – that only a fight to the death, or, at the least, committing suicide when cornered, was acceptable. Much of the success was due to facing an enemy who had been battered, but equally true was the method of fighting. The marines are trained to “barrel in” – hit the enemy fiercely without regard for the cost. They have to, since assaulting a beach is unmitigated hell and confusion, and there is generally no time to bring up supporting weapons to use instead of raw flesh. But that philosophy still lingers when the battle becomes set-piece. On the other hand, the army infantry officers are taught to use every technique or weapon upon the enemy before “presenting him with the bayonet”. It’s slower, prodding, but many feel it saves lives. Of course there are times the army infantry has to move without regard of cost, and they do so, but they prefer to leave that type of fighting to the marines. Most of the action was pitting small groups against entrenched holdouts, using squads or platoons, rather than companies or battalions. The leaders took their time attacking, exploring all alternatives before committing their troops to a final assault. Two of the most effective weapons were the satchel charges, bags filled with explosives, and flame throwers. They also used captured Japanese to speak to the hold-outs, to explain that they would not be executed or tortured when they surrendered. One incident took place that many joked about. Lieutenant Jim Ahern was reconnoitering for an area to patrol when he was suddenly attacked by a Japanese officer wielding a saber. The safety was on Jim’s carbine as the saber blade struck, but, like so many miracles, was deflected by a box of K rations in his field jacket. Jim finally got off a shot, which did the trick, and he got his prized saber. But on the whole, you did not try to determine whether there were 5 or 50 Japanese in a cave, you just blew it shut or burned it out.

After about another month, the island was deemed fully secure, so some of the 147th was assigned the task of preparing new beach defenses. Nobody in his right mind thought the Japanese would attempt to retake the island, but it kept the troops from becoming bored.

Then one afternoon, a call came through. The Americans had invaded Okinawa, where 125,000 Japanese were waiting, and the losses of infantry officers were staggering. The army tried to recruit any officer available, engineer, ordnance, transportation, signal, to lead the troops, with limited success. So infantry replacements were requested. By nightfall, 19 officers had volunteered, and were promptly put on planes to help out.

But, that is another story.