By early 1945, the United States was beginning to run out of fighting men. The draft was in effect for all branches of the military, but the country was nearing the self-imposed limits it placed on its armed forces at the outset of the conflict. Victory in Europe was beginning to feel imminent, and though Marine training facilities like Camp Pendleton continued to pump out new recruits, many Americans on the home front considered the total defeat of Japan less important than the battle to exterminate the Nazi menace.
"The government had committed to raising only a certain number of divisions and wasn't prepared to raise more," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries.
At the battle front in the Pacific, the war felt far from over. And all of the services - air, ground, and sea - were working mightily to force the enemy to surrender. An American naval blockade, carried out primarily by submarines, prevented supplies of badly needed oil, iron and rubber from reaching mainland Japan from its economic colonies in Southeast Asia. Firebombing missions from Saipan, Guam, and Tinian were incinerating Japanese cities, while Army infantry and Marines moved relentlessly northward, toward the enemy's shores.
The taking of Iwo Jima, a volcanic island about 700 miles south of the mainland, filled three strategic goals: It would neutralize a sizable Japanese garrison; the island's airfields were expected to support squadrons of fighter escorts for the B-29 raids from the Marianas Islands; and Iwo was to serve as an emergency landing base for distressed bombers returning from raids over Japan.
"The B-29's engines tended to catch fire, and it was a long journey from Saipan to Japan, so a lot of these crippled B-29s went down in the sea." Miller says. "Iwo Jima was situated right in the flight path of the bombers, so they could touch down there for repairs. It saved a lot of Air Force lives, but it was taken at a terrific cost in American lives."
The battle marked the first time in the Pacific that the enemy inflicted more casualties on an American invasion force than it sustained: More than 20,000 Marines were killed or wounded. The Japanese, using the same tactics they did on Peleliu, resided within caves and tunnels on the island and fought 24 hours a day to bleed the invaders.
"The Marines landed there with little opposition for about three hours, and then it was just a hurricane of fire," Miller says. "And Iwo Jima was a desolate desert of volcanic ash that provided the Marines with no cover. The Japanese had heavy guns and clear lines of fire ... The approximately 6,000 Marines killed on Iwo represented almost a third of the total men they lost in all of WWII."
When the invasion of Iwo Jima was planned in October 1944, the next objective was also marked out: taking the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. So by the time fighting ended on Iwo Jima in late March, the landing on Okinawa, on the doorstep of mainland Japan, followed just days later.
The battle marked the first time in the Pacific that the enemy inflicted more casualties on an American invasion force than it sustained: More than 20,000 Marines were killed or wounded.