by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.
The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima in February 1945, marked the culmination of two years of hard fighting that had progressed 3,500 miles across the Pacific. With this island in Allied hands, they now stood poised to strike directly at Japan. The Coast Guard had played an integral part in each of the invasions during the Pacific campaign and advanced with the other services every step of the way.
Almost exactly midway between Saipan and Tokyo lay the island of Iwo Jima. Although the largest island in the Bonin Island group, this pork-chop shaped island was only four and a half miles long and two and a half wide at its widest point. The highest point is Mount Suribachi, rising a commanding 550 feet above sea level on the southern end of the island. Allied planners believed the capture of this volcanic island would ease later operations because the island could be used as an emergency air base for heavy bombers attacking Tokyo and other important industrial cities in Japan. Furthermore fighters based on the island could supply cover for bombers from Iwo Jima to the targets and back.
The Japanese realized the importance of the island and began fortifying their defenses of Iwo Jima in March 1944. Due to its size the Japanese knew that the entire island could be easily bombarded from sea. In designing the defenses they took this into consideration. These defenses took advantage of the rough terrain and included a network of concealed emplacements for artillery, mortars, and machine guns. The Japanese connected many of these positions with an intricate system of underground tunnels, excavated rooms, blockhouses and caves, all designed to make the capture of the island costly.
Nine hundred vessels sailed in the numerous task groups in support of the Allied invasion. These ships carried an expeditionary force of over 70,000 Marines, nearly 4,000 men in the naval landing force, and over 36,000 garrison troops to attack the 21,000 Japanese defenders. The Allies set 19 February as D-Day. The assault forces arrived off the southeast side of the island to make landings at seven predetermined beaches stretching only 3,500 yards. Included in these vessels were the attack transports Bayfield (APA-33) and the Callaway (APA-35). Eighteen LSTs and the submarine chaser PC-469, all manned by the Coast Guard, also participated in the landings.
The two transport groups arrived off the beaches before daylight and began debarking troops. Control parties established the line of departure 4,000 yards off the beach. LSTs in the tractor groups hove to 1,500 yards farther from the beach. The LSTs and LSMs put LVTs, LVT(A)s and DUWKs into the water while the larger transports lowered LCMs and LCVPs for the later waves of the assault. The scene was described "like all the cats in the world having kittens."
The first five waves, comprising only LVTs, formed at the line of departure off the southeast beaches. The first wave consisted of 68 LVT(A)s. These small craft reached the beach at 0900 under light gunfire and the next four waves followed within twenty-three minutes.
With no reefs surrounding the island the landings had promised little difficulty. The beach looked like a fine gravel dump with brown volcanic ash and black cinders that looked like sand covering the island and the landing beaches. Unfortunately the anticipated good beach conditions did not materialize. The LVTs found their progress blocked by a terrace that rose, in some places, fifteen feet. The cinders and ash also hampered progress because it offered poor traction and the tracked craft could not easily traverse over this surface. To make matters worse, the surf broke directly on the beach, broaching and carrying the small craft sideways. The real trouble began when the wreckage began collecting in the landing areas, blocking and disabling later waves of landing craft.
Within thirty minutes after the landings began, the Japanese increased the bombardment of the beachhead. This artillery and mortar fire further added to the number of craft damaged and out of action. Due to the wreckage, the successive waves of landing craft had difficulty getting to the beach. As they came in wave after wave more damage resulted among the craft.
The Coast Guard coxswains found it necessary to back their craft into the wind and current to keep from going onto the beach. The beachmasters, salvage parties, and beach parties normally kept the beaches clear, but due to the intense Japanese mortar fire, none of these men could remain on the beach. Therefore the coxswains in the landing craft had to take all the initiative to get to the beach and back off. Even the larger LSMs and LSTs that came to the beach later had difficulty and their commanding officers struggled to keep the waves from broaching their ships. Pontoon causeways were also launched but the seaward ends could not be anchored and they broached, sank, ran adrift and added to the wreckage already on the beaches. The wreckage eventually caused the beaches to be closed to everything smaller than a LCT until tugs and other craft cleared the beach for later waves to disembark troops and supplies.
Despite all the confusion, the Coast Guard landed contingents of the 4th and 5th Marine divisions along with their gear, bulldozers, vehicles, rations, small arms, water, and virtually everything that would keep the landing forces moving inland. By the end of D-Day 30,000 troops had landed although the beachhead was only 4,000 yards long and 700 yards deep. The 5th Marines on the left advanced quickly across the narrow part of the island and captured one of the three airfields. Part of this division then swung towards Mount Suribachi while other units fought their way northward.
The Coast Guard ships remained busy off shore. The Bayfield, only 2,000 yards off shore took on board over 250 Marine casualties from small craft as they came from the beaches. The Coast Guard manned LSTs also took the wounded off the beaches and treated them on board. During the operations Coast Guard vessels suffered from the attacks. The LST-792, LST-758, and the LST-760, were all struck by Japanese fire on the beach.
The fighting ashore was tough but the Marines made slow and steady progress. The 5th Marines secured the top of Mt. Suribachi on February 23rd, killing 600 Japanese to reach the summit. There were, however, 1,000 more defenders on the mountain securely entrenched in the numerous caves and tunnels and it took close and bloody fighting to kill them. The 4th Marines landed in the middle of the southeast side of the island and pushed toward the northern end. The 3rd Marines completed landing on the 24th of February. All three divisions advanced abreast to the north part of the island. The 4th drove on the right, the 3rd in the middle, and the 5th on the left. The island was declared secure on March 16th. Nevertheless, the Japanese, in isolated pockets, continued their resistance for months.