One of World War II's most famous and lasting images is the photograph of U.S. Marines raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Thousands of Americans died to gain control of this tiny island. Why was it so important for American forces? The answer is simple. The U.S. needed Iwo Jima's airbases.
After American forces captured the Mariana Islands in the summer of 1944, B-29 bombers began flying their payloads to Japan. The planes had to travel almost 3,000 miles, much of it over enemy territory. Planes damaged over Japan by fighter planes or anti-aircraft fire might not be able to complete the 1,500-mile return trip to the Marianas. They needed a safe haven. Iwo Jima, halfway between Tokyo and the Marianas, was ideal. American landing strips on Iwo Jima would not only provide emergency assistance, but could also be a base for American fighter escorts.
The other reason American forces needed Iwo Jima was to eliminate the threat of the Japanese planes based there. Japanese fighters had been attacking B-29s in the air and on the ground. Initially, more B-29s were lost on airstrips in the Mariana Islands than were shot down over Japan. The Japanese set up early warning radar alerts on Iwo Jima, and took away the B-29s' element of surprise. There was no question in the minds of U.S. strategists: Iwo Jima had to be captured and its airbases turned over to American forces.
A Long and Fierce Fight
D-Day for Iwo Jima was February 19, 1945. The 30,000 Marines who came ashore that first day had to uproot 21,000 Japanese defenders in well-fortified underground bunkers. An open, barren, moon-like landscape provided little to no protection for the exposed American forces. It would take the Marines more than a month of yard-by-yard fighting over inhospitable terrain to secure the island. The battle for Iwo Jima was over on March 26, 1945. Less than two weeks later, on April 7, the Americans had converted it into an offensive asset: 108 P-51 Mustang fighters took off from the island, supporting a fleet of B-29s heading for Japan on a bombing raid.
Securing Iwo Jima came at a great cost to the Marine Corps and the Navy. More than 75,000 Americans fought at Iwo Jima. Almost 7,000 were killed and more than 24,000 wounded. Almost 6,000 of the dead were U.S. Marines. Nearly all of the Japanese defenders died. But the B-29 crews who had gained a new base were grateful. Harry George was a co-pilot on a B-29:
"Every time I see or meet a Marine, I'll head him to the nearest bar and buy him a drink, because [if] it hadn't been for them, I probably wouldn't be here, I know, and our crew wouldn't. Always grateful to Marines."
Proof of Iwo Jima's Value
George appreciated Iwo Jima because without it, he almost certainly would have died. On the night of May 25, 1945, just a few weeks after the U.S. had secured the island, Harry George's B-29 was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire:
"Over the interphone came the voice of our left gunner saying, 'I'm hit, I'm hit.' And I remember my control column flopped in my lap. The airplane commander's control column flopped this way. The rudder just went loose, left rudder pedal. In other words, the controls were starting to go."
Two of the gunners had been hit; one lost most of his jaw. They were in need of help. The plane was down to two engines. Iwo Jima was three hours away.
"When we finally got to Iwo, it was all socked in. Well, we didn't have enough gas to go on back down to our base at Tinian, which would have been another three hours of flying time. So we said we were going to stay right there over Iwo and try to get in there."
Parachuting to Safety
The weather made landing the plane impossible. Despite gallant efforts, Harry's crew was never able to get their B-29 over the runway. Down to their last drop of gas, the engines began to cut out and the crew, all 11 including the injured men, had to bail out.
"I remember coming down in my chute and landing in a big foxhole. And this big old Army sergeant comes sliding down with all his pack on. 'You all right?' I said, 'Boy, am I glad to see you.'"
Thankful to Survive
All 11 men from George's crew survived. Harry George was so thankful to be alive that he saved his parachute.
"I put it in a cardboard box. I said, 'Hey, take this back to the States and mail it to my fiancée.' When I arrived home in November, after the war was over in August, she had it made into her wedding gown. And I was married in November, and I still have the nylon wedding gown that was made up at that time."
By war's end, more than 3,000 B-29s in distress had used Iwo Jima's landing strips.
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