Marines from 1/24 enjoy mail call during a brief respite in February 1945.
This seemed like the right sort of time to pick up the story of 1/24 on Iwo Jima.
I started work on this project five years ago and started posting the daily reports for the 70th anniversary of the battle. I lasted until D+4. Months later, I tried again – and again – and only got to 1 March 1945. First Battalion was in combat until they departed on 18 March.
Iwo is a heavy subject, no matter what aspect of the battle you’re following. Its fame and prevalence in popular culture puts a bit of a polish on the grime; it’s so iconic – “uncommon valor,” the flag raising, the damaged silver B-29s coming in for a grateful, if not graceful, landing – that it’s almost sanitized into a relatable touchpoint of the war. The foxhole view is so brutal and so personal, however, that it’s extremely hard for those who weren’t there to wrap their minds around it.
Working through this third (and, I hope, ultimately successful) attempt, with all the new records and accounts at my disposal, two aspects of the battle stuck out above all others. The first was the size of the battalion’s area of operations. It’s small. There is a dizzying array of place names to track: The Boat Basin, the Quarry Motoyama #1 and #2, Minami Village, Hill 382, Charlie-Dog Ridge, The Meatgrinder, The Amphitheater, Turkey Knob, The Wilderness, to name a few. All of these locations are within approximately a thousand yards of each other.
The map below shows the line of progress as the battle went on. First Battalion went ashore on Beach Blue 2 (in Target Area 166). The farthest their left flank extended was TA 200S by Motoyama Airfield #2. Hill 382 is in 200Y. Several battalions fought over this square for a week, trading off as each one was worn down. The very last pockets of Japanese resistance were around TA 185 QR.
About 482 Marines from 1/24 were wounded in that small distance. One hundred and forty-six more died. And they were not the worst hit by far. I have no way of knowing how many Japanese troops died in the defense of this sector, but that number too must be in the hundreds – if not thousands. In 1945, Corporal Kenneth E. Imhof opined that “When the final count comes out, it will indicate that the Japanese and American casualties were about the same in number – except that all the Japanese casualties are dead.” He was probably not far wrong; he was there.
Imagine spending days attempting to climb the same rocky hill. The distance isn’t far – fifty, maybe 100 yards – but you’re being shot at, constantly, by heavily armed people that you can’t see. They can see you perfectly well, and some of them have telephones to call in mortars and artillery. You haven’t been sleeping well or eating much, and can’t remember the last time you had a bowel movement. You’ve probably been nicked by a piece of metal or stone splinter at least once. Constant explosions are making you woozy; constant gunfire is making you deaf. And every day you try to climb the hill, you know that some of your closest friends are going to die or be maimed. It’s inevitable; and if it doesn’t happen to them, it will happen to you. This happens day after day, and the scenery never changes – it’s the same paths, the same rocks, the same twisted rebar in broken concrete. The only changes are the people, and the wounds they suffer. And if you do manage to make it partway up the hill – or, by some miracle, make it to the top – there’s another one right behind it. After all of this effort, you could toss a stone and hit the hole where you slept the night before. Sisyphus had it easy; he wasn’t being shot at and he didn’t have to see his friends die.
Corporal Eli Plotnik was killed in action not long after this photo was taken.
This brings up the second point. I’ve read a lot of veteran’s accounts, listened to oral histories, and personally interviewed many more. Every one remembers two things about Iwo Jima: how they arrived, and how they left. Memories are reasonably clear for the first week or so, and then things start to get fuzzy. The order of events gets confused, or the names of buddies are mixed up, or locations don’t make sense. It’s easy to ascribe this to the natural aging of memory, but it’s also not a phenomenon I’ve noticed when speaking to vets about Saipan or Tinian or Roi-Namur. The physical and emotional strain of Iwo really drops the hammer after a few days. As a consequence, the events from D+10 onwards are difficult to piece together. The stultifying sameness of the terrain, the constant trauma of battle, and the sheer exhausting numbness of it all combine these memories into a mishmash of terror, grief, and the occasional joke. Even contemporary records appear as if afflicted; casualty reports, muster rolls, and After Action Reports contain conflicting dates, locations, and identities. I’m sure this must not be unique to Iwo Jima, but in fourteen years of researching it is most noticeable in this campaign.
Our sergeant, he says, “We’re sending you into the jaws of death, and we expect you to bring back the jawbones.” And that was about it.
– Ed Curylo
I’ve tried to put this together as best I can, as someone who wasn’t there, won’t ever fully understand, and struggles to put my appreciation for these Marines into words.
Updates will be posted incrementally and (fingers crossed) all complete before 18 March. Check out the menu page for the latest… or start from the beginning:
Company A, First Battalion, 24th Marines after the battle of Iwo Jima.