Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?

Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?

World War 2

The Land Battle for Iwo Jima, 19 February–26 March 1945

Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith stated, “Iwo Jima was the most savage and costly fight in the history of the Marine Corps.” Admiral Chester Nimitz’s quote that, “uncommon valor was a common virtue,” would become immortalized, with the virtue of being entirely true. However, an earlier quote by Admiral Nimitz, “This will be easy. The Japanese will give up Iwo Jima without a fight,” won’t be found in the USNA “Reef Points” section of quotes to be memorized by midshipmen. Marines would earn 22 Medals of Honor at Iwo Jima (about a quarter of the 82 awarded during the entire war). 

Navy personnel, including four Navy Corpsmen serving with the Marines, would be awarded five Medals of Honor, two of them posthumously. Just under 6,000 Marines died on the island, and another 17,272 became wounded (19,920 including those incapacitated by combat fatigue). This was the only time in the U.S. offensive in the Pacific War that U.S. casualties (dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese (almost all dead).

The event that most remember from the Battle for Iwo Jima was the flag raising on Mount Suribachi on 23 February.

Immortalized in a photo by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, which was later turned into a bronze statue for the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial overlooking Washington, DC. 

Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?

This photograph was possibly the most famous of the entire war, and arguably one of the most famous of all time. Although the flag raising was a huge morale-booster to everyone who saw it (including Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who came ashore on Iwo Jima that day), many weeks of hard fighting still remained ahead, including rooting out Japanese still hidden and fighting in caves and tunnels in Suribachi itself.

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington with the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol in the distance.

The flag raising captured in Rosenthal’s photo was actually the second of the day. On the morning of 23 February 1945, First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, USMC, volunteered to lead a 40-man combat patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi, bringing a flag taken from the battalion’s transport ship, Missoula (APA-211). The patrol made it to the top with little resistance, as ships were bombarding the Japanese at the time. 

The flag was attached to an iron water pipe and was raised, provoking a huge cheer from Marines on the island and loud blasts of ships’ horns, which tipped off the Japanese that something was up and caused the patrol to come under Japanese fire, which fortunately was quickly eliminated. Schrier would later become awarded a Navy Cross for leading the patrol.

Secretary of the Navy Forrestal’s boat touched shore just as the first flag went up, and Forrestal said to Lieutenant General Holland Smith, “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” Forrestal then indicated he wanted the flag as a souvenir. This went over like a lead balloon with Schrier’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines commander, who said “To hell with that!” when informed of Forrestal’s desire. Johnson ordered Lieutenant Albert “Ted” Tuttle, USMC, to go find a replacement flag, “and make it a bigger one.” 

According to the official U.S. Marine Corps history, Tuttle obtained a larger 96-by-56-inch flag from Ensign Alan Wood of the USS LST-779 (which would also be the last ship to cross paths with the USS Indianapolis before she was sunk just before the war ended). The flag had become sewn by Mabel Sauvageau, who worked in the flag loft of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. (There is an alternative version that the flag came from U.S. Coast Guard Quartermaster Robert Resnick aboard LST-758, although this story did not surface until 1971.)

Five Marines took the bigger flag up Mount Suribachi, arriving around noon. Rosenthal and two Marine photographers reached the summit as the bigger flag was being attached to on old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal almost missed the shot when the Marines raised the flag with no fanfare. It would turn out that identity of the six men in the photograph of the second flag raising would provoke controversy for years. Rosenthal would also be accused of “staging” the photograph, although that is not true.

U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi, Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?

Of the six men in the photo, three were killed later in the battle for Iwo Jima, one possibly by a shell from a U.S. Navy destroyer.

One of those who died was initially misidentified as another Marine who died on Iwo Jima (both had helped with the flag raising, but only one was in the photo). Corrected in 1947. 

Of the three who survived the battle, two of them were misidentified. One of those originally identified as being in the photo was Navy Hospital Corpsman John Henry “Doc” Bradley, who would be awarded a Navy Cross for heroism for his actions to save wounded Marines under intense fire on 21 February, two days before the flag raising. Bradley’s “battle buddy,” Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski had become captured, brutally tortured, and executed by the Japanese in that same action, and Bradley had found his body, something which haunted him the rest of his life.

A U.S. Marine firing his Browning M1917 machine gun at the Japanese

On orders of President Roosevelt, the three survivors were brought back to the States to participate in a war bond drive, which was wildly successful, raising $26.3 billion, twice the goal.

However, of the three “survivors,” only one was actually in the Rosenthal photograph, Ira Hayes (a Native American, who tragically suffered from acute alcoholism and died of exposure and alcohol poisoning on a mountain in 1955). 

In 2016, after painstaking analysis (in part due to agitation by outside researchers), the Marine Corps announced that the man in the photo originally identified as Navy Corpsman Bradley was actually a Marine, Harold Schultz. Bradley assisted both flag raisings by piling rocks and staking down ropes to hold the poles in place after they were raised, but was not one of the six in the Rosenthal photograph, a fact he never revealed before his death.

After yet more analysis, the Marine Corps announced in 2019 that the Marine originally identified as Rene Gagnon was actually Harold Keller (Keller’s wedding ring was the key piece of evidence). Gagnon, who survived and participated in the war bond drive, carried the second flag up Mount Suribachi, but was not in the Rosenthal photograph. Like many of those of that generation, neither Keller nor Shultz spoke up before their deaths about being in the most famous photo in Marine Corps history. In my book, however, every one of these men is a hero. 

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the NAVY CROSS posthumously to


For service as set forth in the following CITATION

Marines from the 24th Marine Regiment during the Battle of Iwo Jima

For extremely meritorious heroism while serving as an Automatic Rifleman in a platoon of Company F, Second Battalion, Twenty-fifth Marines, Fourth Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, from 19 February to 1 March 1945. Despite lack of previous experience as a flame thrower, Private First Class Ortiz repeatedly volunteered his services when two flame thrower operators became casualties.

Joining whichever platoon was engaged in the assault, he voluntarily carried his weapon many times through murderous enemy machine-gun, sniper and rifle fire to positions fifty to one hundred yards in front of the lines, steadfastly refusing relief from this extremely hazardous and tiring duty until he had aided in the destruction of ten Japanese pillboxes. 

On 1 March, courageously attempting to extricate his company from a heavy barrage of fire from an enemy fortified emplacement, after a demolition team had failed to get close enough to destroy this position, he crawled with his flame thrower to an exposed but advantageous firing point and, by diverting the hostile fire from the demolition team, enabled it to contact and destroy the hostile group. Mortally wounded during this action, Private First Class Ortiz, by his aggressiveness and indomitable fighting spirit, contributed materially to the successful accomplishment of his company’s mission. His courageous devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

(For the president, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy)

The Medal of Honor citations for the four Navy Corpsmen also provide a representative example of the valor and sacrifice of those who fought on Iwo Jima:

28 February 1945—Pharmacist’s Mate First Class John H. Willis (posthumous)

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Platoon Corpsman serving with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during operations against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 28 February 1945. Constantly imperiled by artillery and mortar fire from strong and mutually supporting pillboxes and caves studding Hill 362 in the enemy’s cross-island defenses. Willis resolutely administered first aid to the many Marines wounded during the furious close-in fighting until he himself became struck by shrapnel. And received orders back to the battle-aid station. 

Harry Truman congratulates Marine Corporal Hershel Williams of the Third Marine Division on being awarded the Medal of Honor, 5 October 1945.

Without waiting for official medical release, he quickly returned to his company and, during a savage hand-to-hand enemy counterattack, daringly advanced to the extreme front lines under mortar and sniper fire to aid a Marine lying wounded in a shell-hole. Completely unmindful of his own danger as the Japanese intensified their attack, Willis calmly continued to administer blood plasma to his patient, promptly returning the first hostile grenade which landed in his shell-hole while he was working and hurling back 7 more in quick succession until the ninth exploded in his hand and instantly killed him.

By his great personal valor in saving others at the sacrifice of his own life, he inspired his companions, although terrifically outnumbered, to launch a fiercely determined attack and repulse the enemy force. His exceptional fortitude and courage in the performance of duty reflect the highest credit upon Willis and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

(signed, Harry S. Truman)

The destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027), in commission from 1957 to 1972, became named in his honor.

USS John Willis (DE-1027) underway in the the North Atlantic on 22 June 1967 (NH 107510).jpg
The U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027). Underway in the North Atlantic on 22 June 1967, while enroute to the Mediterranean Sea for a NATO cruise.

3 March 1945—Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Jack Williams (posthumous)

 For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with 3rd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during the occupation of Iwo Jima Volcano Islands, March 3, 1945. Gallantly going forward on the front lines under intense enemy small-arms fire to assist a Marine wounded in a fierce grenade battle, Williams dragged the man to a shallow depression and was administering first aid when struck in the abdomen and groin three times by hostile rifle fire. Momentarily stunned, he quickly recovered and completed his ministration before applying battle dressing to his own multiple wounds. 

The Shermans with the CB-H2 flamethrower had a range of 150 yards

Unmindful of his own urgent need for medical attention, he remained in the perilous fire-swept area to care for another Marine casualty. Heroically completing his task despite pain and profuse bleeding, he then endeavored to make his way to the rear in search of adequate aid for himself when struck down by a Japanese sniper bullet which caused his collapse. Succumbing later as a result of his self-sacrificing service to others, Williams, by his courageous determination, unwavering fortitude and valiant performance of duty, served as an inspiring example of heroism, in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

(signed, Harry S. Truman)

The guided missile frigate USS Jack Williams (FFG-24) was named in his honor, serving in commission from 1981 to 1996.

3 March 1945—Hospital Corpsman Second Class George E. Wahlen, USNR

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during actions against Japanese forces on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Group on 3 March 1945. 

Painfully wounded in the bitter action on 26 February, Wahlen remained on the battlefield, advancing well forward of the frontlines to aid a wounded Marine and carrying him back to safety despite a terrific concentration of fire. Tireless in his ministrations, he consistently disregarded all danger to attend his fighting comrades as they fell under a devastating rain of shrapnel and bullets, and rendered prompt assistance to various elements of his combat group as required. When an adjacent platoon suffered heavy casualties, he defied the continuous pounding of heavy mortars and deadly fires to care for the wounded, working rapidly in an areas swept by constant firing and treating 14 casualties before returning to his own platoon. 

Wounded again on 2 March, he gallantly refused evacuation, moving out with his company the following day in a furious assault across 600 yards of open terrain and repeatedly rendering aid while exposed to the blasting fury of Japanese guns. Stout-hearted and indomitable, he persevered in his determined efforts as his unit waged a fierce battle and, unable to walk after sustaining a third agonizing wound, resolutely crawled 50 yards to administer first aid to still another fallen fighter. By his dauntless fortitude and valor, Wahlen served as a constant inspiration and contributed vitally to the high morale of his company during critical phases of the strategically important engagement. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of overwhelming enemy fire upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

(signed, Harry S Truman)

A flamethrower operator of E Company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines3rd Marine Division, runs under fire on Iwo Jima.

After the war, Wahlen gained a commission in the U.S. Army, serving in combat in Korea and Vietnam (Purple Heart) before retiring in 1968.

15 and 16 March 1945—Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Francis J. Pierce

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, 4th Marine Division, during the Iwo Jima campaign, 15 and 16 March 1945. Almost continuously under fire while carrying out the most dangerous volunteer assignments, Pierce gained valuable knowledge of the terrain and disposition of troops. Caught in heavy enemy rifle and machinegun fire which wounded a corpsman and 2 of the 8 stretcher bearers who were carrying 2 wounded Marines to a forward aid station on 15 March, Pierce quickly took charge of the party, carried the newly wounded men to a sheltered position, and rendered first aid. 

After directing the evacuation of 3 of the casualties, he stood in the open to draw the enemy’s fire, with his weapon blasting, enabling the litter bearers to reach cover. Turning his attention to the other 2 casualties, he was attempting to stop the profuse bleeding of one man when a Japanese fired from a cave less than 20 yards away and wounded his patient again. Risking his own life to save his patient, Pierce deliberately exposed himself to draw the attacker from the cave and destroyed him with the last of his ammunition. Then, lifting the wounded man on his back, he advanced unarmed through deadly rifle fire across 200 feet of open terrain. 

Despite exhaustion and in the face of warnings against such a suicidal mission, he again traversed the same fire-swept path to rescue the remaining Marine. On the following morning, he led a combat patrol to the sniper nest and, while aiding a stricken Marine, he became seriously wounded. Refusing aid for himself, he directed treatment for the casualty, at the same time maintaining protective fire for his comrades. Completely fearless, completely devoted to the care of his patients, Pierce inspired the entire battalion. His valor in the face of extreme peril sustains and enhances the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

(signed, Harry S Truman)

Pierce was originally awarded a Navy Cross and a Silver Star, which were subsequently combined and replaced by the Medal of Honor.

American supplies being landed at Iwo Jima

The debate over whether Iwo Jima was “worth it” began almost as soon as the first news reports reached the American public, many of whom became appalled by the staggering cost the U.S.

Marine Corps had paid for a small rock in the middle of nowhere. The issue is an interesting academic exercise in hindsight, but decision makers could only base their decisions on what they knew at the time. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the Japanese defenses at Saipan, Peleliu, and Leyte should have affected the assumption that taking any piece of real estate from the Japanese would be easy. The capture of Iwo Jima provided many lessons for the following assault on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Principally to expect an extremely tough fight, and also to expect what an awful bloodbath any invasion of the Japanese home islands would be.

In the search for a justification for the loss of over 6,800 American lives for a tiny island, the rationale usually given was the 2,251 emergency landings made on Iwo Jima by B-29 Superfortresses, which in theory prevented over 20,000 airmen from ending up in the ocean.

The reality is that most of those B-29s would probably have made it back to bases in the Marianas.

However, landing on Iwo Jima was a sensible precaution, since it was there. As it was, 414 B-29s became lost during the war. About 150 to Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft defenses, and the rest to operational causes, with the loss of over 2,600 airmen; it was a dangerous mission, especially in the early months. 

As it turned out, flying fighter escort missions from Iwo Jima generally proved to be impractical and unnecessary, especially since Japanese air opposition to the B-29s dropped off greatly after February 1945 due to shortages of pilots, aircraft, ammunition, and fuel. 

Even after the loss of Iwo Jima, the Japanese could still gain early warning of B-29 raids from Rota Island in the Marianas, which the U.S. never captured, although such early warning was of little use in identifying the likely targets of inbound raids, but then neither was early warning from Iwo Jima. 

The capture of Iwo Jima did prevent the Japanese from using it to strike B-29 bases in the Marianas.

However, even at the peak of such raids, B-29 losses were small. While almost all Japanese planes involved were lost.

In sum, the answer to whether taking Iwo Jima was “worth it” is probably “no.” 

However, that detracts nothing from the valor and sacrifice of those who took the island because it was their duty to do so. 

The U.S. Marine Corps Museum gives the Marine death toll on Iwo Jima as 5,931. Other accounts give a number of 6,800 are including about 880 U.S. Navy deaths, including Navy corpsmen, construction battalion, beach party, underwater demolition, ships and landing craft crewman, and pilots and aircrewmen (not including the air strikes on Japan). Approximately 1,900 U.S. Navy personnel became wounded in the Battle for Iwo Jima. The U.S. Marines paid a very dear price for the island, but the U.S. Navy paid a high price as well.

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?

Internments of the 4th Marine Division.
Internments of the 4th Marine Division.

Sources: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. XIV: Victory in the Pacific by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison (Little, Brown and Co, 1960); NHHC’s Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS) for U.S. ships. combinedfleet.com for Japanese ships, and the Military Times Hall of Valor site for award citations. Additional sources include: The Little Giants: U.S. Escort Carriers Against Japan, by William T. Y’Blood (Naval Institute Press, 1987). American Amphibious Gunboats in World War II: A History of LCI and LCS(L) Ships in the Pacific, by Robin L. Reilly (McFarland and Co., 2013). The Heart of Hell: The Untold Story of Courage and Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima, by Mitch Weiss (Penguin Random House, 2016). Noise, Heat, Stench and Dust: The Seabees on Iwo Jima by Julius Lacano, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum historian.

Iwo Jima cemetery entrances built by the 133rd Seabees, with the 3rd Marine Division foreward and the 4th Marine Division opposite.
Iwo Jima cemetery entrances built by the 133rd Seabees, with the 3rd Marine Division foreward and the 4th Marine Division opposite.

World War 2

Why was the Battle of Iwo Jima so important?