By February of 1945, Japan still controlled many Pacific islands. Those which had been lost followed a typical battle plan. As Allied troops came ashore, the defenders would shoot to kill before the enemy reached the beach. The defense of Iwo Jima, however, would be different. No one would fire a shot until the island’s black sands were clogged with men and equipment.
Men and equipment on the black-sand beaches of Iwo Jima. USMC Photo
Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi commanded nearly 22,000 troops on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. Part of Japan itself, the island represented “sacred soil” to its defenders. Their job was to make the island impregnable. Their mission was to prevent Allied forces from capturing this stepping stone to Japan’s home islands - or die trying.
The USS Spearfish (SS 190), a Navy submarine, had paid a surreptitious visit to the island in the late fall of 1944. Through the sub’s periscope, ship’s personnel observed a great deal of Japanese activity on Iwo. Their photographs, including this panoramic view of Suribachi’s base, helped invaders plan their mission.
Japanese-planted mine fields would cause great difficulties for the invaders, disabling tanks and killing men. Marines would have to clear the area before any support vehicles could move forward. White tape would have to designate lanes of safe travel.
Suribachi flamethrowers. USMC Photo 110599
From their positions atop Suribachi, the Japanese had a clear view of the landing beaches and the southern section of Iwo Jima. Their wooden rocket launchers would come in handy to ward off an attack.
Iwo’s defenders were protecting sacred soil. They held the honor of Japan in their hands. Every man picked for the job was prepared to fight to the death. They may have believed, as von Urach did, that:
One can only understand the enormous power that the emperor cult gives the Japanese people once one has seen it in action in Japanese life. The materialistic peoples of America and England cannot understand this form of state religion. They do not comprehend it. They cannot understand the enormous strength the emperor cult gives the Japanese people. This strength is spiritual, and can outweigh superior fleets of battleships and armaments budgets.
Or ... maybe not.