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Guns of Iwo Jima: 1945-2008.

On February 19, 1945 the United States Marine Corps landed the 4th and 5th Divisions on a tiny speck of a Japanese island named Iwo Jima. That volcanic rock sat roughly halfway between the American occupied Marianas Islands and the Japanese capital of Tokyo.

The purpose was to build an emergency landing field for B-29 bombers returning from raids on the Japanese home islands, serve as a base for shorter range P-51 fighter escorts and to deny the island as an early warning radar site and defensive fighter base for the Japanese.

Iwo Jima was considered home territory by the Japanese and, when civilians occupied the island, it had been governed as part of the prefecture of Tokyo. Those civilians were gone by 1945, and the island turned into a fortified bastion as had seldom if ever been seen in such a confined area. Between 21,000 and 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors were on, or rather mostly in the volcanic rock that makes up Iwo.

There were literally hundreds of pillboxes, bunkers, and fighting positions built of reinforced concrete. A great many of them were connected by mile upon mile of tunnels. Hospitals, living quarters, command centers, and munitions storage areas had been excavated so deep that even the 1-ton, 16" projectiles fired from American battleships could do them no harm.


In ancient times Iwo Jima had been formed by the eruption of a volcano with the lava flowing northwards. As it sat in 1945, the summit of the volcano called Mount Suribachi was about 550' above sea level and the highest point on the island. Shaped like a pork chop, Iwo Jima was a mere five miles long and only 2-1/2 miles wide at its northern plateau. The neck of the island directly beneath Mount Suribachi was only about 800 yards wide. Aside from the volcano the highest point on Iwo Jima was a hill in the north 382' above sea level. Perhaps in terms most Americans can use to gain better perspective, Iwo Jima's slightly more than eight square miles equates to a bit more than 5,000 acres.

As the Marine divisions hit Iwo Jima they were reinforced to about 20,000 men each. Still, the Japanese resistance was so fierce that within five days two of the three infantry regiments comprising the 3rd Marine Division had to be called into the fray. At the height of the battle there were over 70,000 Americans crowded onto Iwo. When fighting finally ended after 35 days more than one American had died for every acre and over 18,000 more had been wounded; some with minor injuries but many maimed for life.

Only about 1,000 Japanese defenders survived with most of their comrades forever buried in the underground defensive system they had built. It was one of the most ferocious battles ever fought on this planet, especially considering the small size of the battlefield. Some idea of the intenseness of the combat on Iwo Jima might be realized when you know that of 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines and sailors, 13 were given posthumously.

During most of World War II in the Pacific. Japanese military doctrine had called for extreme aggressiveness. During previous American invasions of Japanese held islands the primary defense had been at the water's edge. When Americans gained a toehold on the beaches, as they always did, then the Japanese counter-attacked with their famous Banzai charges. Waves of Japanese troops, shouting, screaming, with officers swinging swords and ordinary soldiers armed with bayonet-fixed rifles trying to overrun American positions defended by automatic weapons. Invariably such Banzai charges failed, with the backbone of the defending Japanese forces being broken.


General Kuribayashi, commander of all Japanese troops on Iwo Jima eschewed such tactics. He knew from the beginning the battle would be lost, however, his plan was to make the battle so bloody, so horrendous in terms of casualties the American public would quail at the losses. Then perhaps the Japanese could end the war with a negotiated settlement, instead of unconditional surrender. Kuribayashi even told his troops there was no hope of them surviving the coming fight but that each and every one of them should vow to kill 10 Americans before they died.

His plan almost worked. That February and March as thousand upon thousand of telegrams arrived all over the United States informing families that their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers had been killed or wounded on a tiny flyspeck of an island no one had ever heard of, there indeed was a public outcry about the cost of taking Iwo Jima. However, its impact was tempered somewhat by a simple black and white photograph--the most famous war photograph of all time and arguably the most famous photograph of any kind.


It was snapped almost as an accident by Associated Press war correspondent Joe Rosenthal on top of that volcano. On February 23 Marines had made it to the top of Mount Suribachi and raised a small American flag. A bigger flag would be more visible so a second one was sent up the mountain. Simultaneously with the lowering of the first flag, the second one was raised. Rosenthal's camera stopped the action of the second flag raising in mid-stride. The photograph's effect on the American public was amazing. It electrified the nation to rededicate itself to finishing this terrible war.

If more evidence were needed the battle for Iwo Jima was a bloodbath consider this. Of the six men who Rosenthal photographed raising that second flag, three were already dead by the time the picture had aroused the American public. They were Marines Michael Strank of Pennsylvania, Harlon Block of Texas, and Franklin Sousley of Kentucky. Wounded on the island was flag raiser and Navy Corpsman, John Bradley of Wisconsin. Only two Marines of the second flag raising left the island unscathed: Rene Gagnon of New Hampshire, and Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona.

Japanese Rifles & Carbines

As befits an article in a firearms publication let's take a brief look at the small arms the Japanese and Marines used against one another on Iwo Jima. On the Japanese side their rifles were bolt actions of two basic types but both commonly called Arisakas. One was the Type 38 6.5mm with 31-1/4" barrel. The other was the Type 99 7.7mm with 25" barrel. Both were conventional bolt actions with integral box magazines of 5-round capacity.

Interestingly, the Type 99s came with a folding, wire frame monopod attached to the front barrel band. It must be a commentary on their practicality that few war souvenir Type 99s were picked up still fitted with monopods. Sights found on both models were either open or peep types. The latter were rather odd in that they were located out on the barrel where normal open sights would be instead of back near the shooter's eye. Having some experience with these Japanese rifles, it is my opinion the distant mounted peep sights do allow accurate shooting, but at a much slower rate than if the peep sight is mounted on the rifle's rear receiver bridge. A sample Type 38 from my collection weighs exactly nine pounds, while a Type 99 is only 7-3/4 pounds.

During WWII the Japanese also utilized at least two carbines also chambered for their 6.5mm cartridge. These were the Type 38 and Type 44. Both used the same basic action as the Type 38 rifle, but with 19" barrels. The Type 44 had the addition of a folding bayonet. Although initially intended for arming cavalry troops, both carbines were also often given to soldiers manning crew-served weapons such as mortars and artillery pieces. As the Japanese had an abundance of such on Iwo Jima, it's likely these carbines were present during the battle.

It's also likely one other type of rifle saw considerable use in Japanese hands during the battle. Those would be scope-sighted sniper rifles, of which they fielded two during WWII. Those were the Type 97, a scoped version of the Type 38 6.5mm and a Type 99, which was their standard 7.7mm Type 99 mounted with a scope. Unlike scopes on any other World War II combatant nation's sniper rifles, the Japanese sniper scopes were not adjustable themselves. Zeroing was done by adjusting the scope mounts; something done at the arsenal before issuance.

The vast majority of Marines fighting on Iwo Jima carried the M1 Garand, a semi-automatic rifle with 8-round magazine capacity. It has a 24" barrel, weighed 10 pounds and chambered in .30-06. The M1 Garand is one of the most venerated of WWII battle rifles, but Iwo Jima's volcanic ash (often miscalled sand) managed to foul the actions of many M1s causing them to malfunction. That's something seldom ever seen in veterans' reports from other WWII battles.


A likewise problem occurred with the semi-automatic M1 Carbine, which was issued to specialized troops such as war dog handlers, communications specialists and officers. The little carbines weighed only five pounds with an 18" barrel and a detachable magazine of 15-round capacity. The small .30 Carbine cartridge was also seen as a detriment as it had a reputation for lacking stopping power. Several Iwo Jima veterans told me that as soon as they landed they threw down their M1 Carbines and picked up some fallen Marine's M1 Garand.

Although it was being phased out by 1945, some Marines also landed on Iwo Jima carrying Thompson submachine guns. In fact a Thompson was generally standard issue to tankers. Thompson is a generic name for Models 1928, 1928A1, M1, or M1A1. All saw action in WWII and all were .45 ACP. The first two models could be fitted with 50- and 100-round drum magazines plus 20- or 30-round stick magazines. The latter two models could only use the stick magazines. Accurate only at short range but possessed of considerable stopping power, the submachine guns are said to have served well in the close-range fighting normal on Iwo.

An interesting note: although the bolt-action Model 1903 Springfield had been replaced as standard rifle by the M1 Garand in 1943, some were still in troops' hands on Iwo. Such a statement would have been hard to prove except that on page 21 of the book Nightmare On Iwo by Patrick F. Caruso there is a clear view of a Marine with an '03 on one of Iwo's landing beaches with Mount Suribachi in the background. The Model 1903 was the only standard issue American shoulder arm of WWII without a peep-style rear sight.

Last but certainly not least the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was the backbone of every Marine rifle company on Iwo. Each Marine squad of 12 men was built around three BARs. One Iwo veteran told me as men fell in combat their personal weapon generally stayed with them to be picked up by recovery teams. That is except for the BAR. On Iwo he said if the BAR man went down someone else dropped their M1 Garand or M1 Carbine and took up the casualty's weapon. The various versions of BARs were all .30-06s, capable of full automatic firing, and weighed in excess of 20 pounds fed from a 20-round box magazine.

The above is a very brief overview of some of the small arms used in the fighting on Iwo Jima. Mortars, machine guns, grenades, flamethrowers, and artillery pieces of all sizes were in great use by both sides, with some Marine accounts rating flamethrowers as perhaps the most valuable weapon of all.


Iwo Jima 2008

"Duke, why would you spend a bunch of money to go to Iwo Jima?" That question was asked of me many times as I prepared to attend the 63rd Reunion of Honor for Iwo Jima veterans. This trip was made possible by a company named Military Historical Tours and was their 13th journey to Iwo, starting with the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1995. It is also virtually the only way an American civilian can reach the island, since President Lyndon B. Johnson returned it to Japanese control in 1968.

The US Marine Corps and Navy have treaty agreements with the Japanese so they can use the island for training purposes. In fact, there was a squadron of US Navy F-18 Hornet fighters there when we were. Otherwise. Iwo serves as a rather small training base for the modern Japanese military. Military Historical Tours can bring battle veterans, their families and interested parties like me only on the one day the battle will be commemorated in a ceremony hosted by both countries. With us were 13 American battle veterans ranging from former Marine infantrymen to Navy sailors who drove landing craft, to Army Air Force B-29 crewmen for whom Iwo's landing fields were a lifesaver. There were also three Japanese battle veterans present, but not speaking their language I was never able to ascertain in what manner they served.


As our chartered Continental Airlines Boeing 737 approached Iwo Jima early on the morning of March 12, I was struck by two impressions. One was I'd never been in a jet airliner flying so low and slow while doing figure eights and, two, the weather looked plain awful. As for the way the plane was being handled, the pilot was allowing everyone on both sides of the plane to get a great overview of this historic island.

We could see steam rising from fissures in the ground and from the caldera of Mount Suribachi: testimony the volcano is dormant, but not extinct. Also we could see the island is now green, whereas almost all photographs taken at the time of the battle show little more than barren volcanic ash and rocks. The pre-invasion bombardment by air and by sea had been so terrific the island was virtually defoliated. After the war. the American government reseeded it by air to stop erosion. From the air I saw several concrete pillboxes or bunkers and hoped I would be able to inspect them when on the ground.

After our plane landed on the airport (elevation 370') and approximately on top of where Hill 382 had been during the battle, the first two things I noticed were indeed the Japanese had renamed the island Iwo To because it was painted prominently on the airport control tower, and we could certainly smell sulfur in the air as so many accounts from 1945 reported. The third thing immediately evident was rain was beginning to drizzle from the low clouds. The entire tour group took cover in a large hanger where the Japanese made it immediately evident we could not take photos of the airport and we could not use their toilets.

However, they did make available several mini-buses to take the battle veterans and their families to the top of Mount Suribachi. The more physically fit of the group started hoofing it the four miles to the south end of the island. Not really belonging to either group I hesitated briefly with a GUNS Magazine reader named Garry Garrett before we started the hike. That was a stroke of luck because we were then tapped on the shoulders and told. "There are extra seats left on the buses. Hop in." Thusly we made it to the monuments atop the mountain before the true rains hit.

Riding up the winding road to the top of Suribachi. I looked at the near perpendicular, north side of the volcano and thought. Not even on the best day of my life could I have climbed up the side of this thing! Never mind with a 70-pound flamethrower on my back or 20-pound BAR in my hands. Never mind with the thought in my head there would be people shooting at me or trying to toss a grenade at my feet!"

If that didn't inspire an awe of WWII Marines, the view from the top of the mountain had to. The landing beaches were right beneath us--some of it in easy rifle shot and all of it within heavier weapons range. How any Marine avoided being hit on that small killing field while Japanese troops occupied Mount Suribachi is difficult to imagine.

Also difficult to imagine is how two full Marine divisions and the greater part of a third managed to fit into such a small area. There simply was no room to maneuver against the hundreds of fortified points the Japanese had constructed. Dictated by the terrain, the battle was a head-to-head slugging match. In a conversation with battle veteran Lt. General Lawrence Snowden (Retired), who had been a company commander with the 25th Marine Regiment on Iwo, I asked him what he thought when the flag was raised on Suribachi. General Snowden replied, "Where I was we didn't notice it. The firing was so heavy if we had raised our heads to look they would have been shot off."


After the buses returned us to the airport/Japanese military base Garry Garrett and I took off on foot for the landing beaches on the island's east side. One of the first things we saw was the golf course the Japanese had constructed near the airport. Such a thing on a place like Iwo seemed incongruous, but evidently the Japanese troops stationed there need recreation, too.

The other thing immensely evident and a great disappointment to me personally was that green vegetation. It wasn't just groundcover. It was amazingly thick jungle a good 10' tall in many places. It was almost completely impossible to penetrate on foot, so my hopes of "brush popping" off the roads and to those concrete pillboxes and bunkers went unfulfilled. Garry and I did fulfill just about every American visitor's desire for some of the black ash/sand from the invasion beaches. It came back with me to give as gifts to my many friends who have served at one time or the other in the Marine Corps.

By the time we made it to the invasion beaches the drizzle had turned into a rain. When we returned to the airport it became a full-fledged tropical deluge, the likes of which this Montanan had never witnessed. I spent my last three hours on Iwo in the US Navy's hangar watching a veritable wall of water fall from the sky. Therefore, I didn't make it to any of the caves such as General Kuribayashi's headquarters located to the north of the airport, so perhaps there will be a reason for me to return to Iwo Jima someday.

And that brings us back to the original question. Why would someone like me who never spent a day in the military, who never had a relation who fought on Iwo Jima, who wasn't even born yet when the battle was fought, feel a lifelong drive to go there?

I honestly can't answer that because I don't know. Such a need was in me and now I've done it. People have asked me if my trip to Iwo was "fun." No it wasn't fun. Standing on that small rock of an island where immense bravery and sacrifice was commonplace was extremely humbling.




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Author:Venturino, Mike "Duke"
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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