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Fatigue in Combat on Iwo Jima

iwo jima marines wwii

Iwo Jima, Monday, 5 March 1945

After two straight weeks of battle, 5 March was a rest, a day for reorganizing instead of attacking, though both sides fired mortar and artillery. New men came forward to replace casualties, but, not knowing how to work with the team, often they didn’t last long. Replacements were about half as likely as veterans to survive. A combat veteran, now, with a survival record of an entire two weeks, Hudson taught “young and green” replacements how to stay alive.


I can’t remember exactly how many more days we slowly pushed the Japs back, and forced them from their underground tunnels. I just knew that with each day that passed, the men in my squad were fewer and fewer. The Japs hit us hard, but we hit back even harder. Unfortu­nately, men are killed and it’s not easy to forget them.



As the battle went on and on, Hudson tried to train the replace­ments in his squad, and they managed to fight a little better than their enemies, because their enemy was willing to die, but “we wanted to live.”


The rest they got on this day was badly needed, but not nearly sufficient. The noise and stress Marines slept through showed how exhausted they were. 


Sheer exhaustion allowed Hudson to sleep through flares lighting the night sky at least as brightly as daylight. The Marines’ nighttime schedule of sleeping one hour at a time may almost have been worse than not sleeping, but few people understood sleep cycles then. Several hours in a foxhole of alternating an hour of sleep with an hour of watching would leave Marines under the impression they were awake and ready for battle in the morn­ing, but in reality, their physical fatigue had been adding up every day, for two weeks so far. Not to mention the mental and emotional fatigue of combat.

The fatigue of combat included the stress of not knowing what would happen next, seeing the devastation of the battle, and experiencing horror in many forms, including seeing separated parts of the human body. All this would be stressful enough without the overarching terror of wondering when his own turn would come.

Knowledge of how to handle combat was irrelevant to a Marine too exhausted to respond to what was happening. Hudson felt he was overloaded, running on empty, like a train going uphill with no fuel. His idea of paradise became six solid hours of sleep.


The interruptions were probably cutting off his sleep before he reached the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. Lack of REM sleep diminishes the ability to think, learn, remember, and perform; not a good set of abilities to lose in combat.


With maybe ten to eleven hours of dark, Hudson should have received four to five hours of sleep, one hour at a time, if things worked out according to plan.

But things usually worked out otherwise. 

After two weeks, Marines who had landed in top fighting condition could hardly stay awake. What was supposed to be a quick sprint across the island had become a marathon—and, in this battle, even alert men found it hard to stay alive.

Captain Fred Haynes commented on what an ongoing loss of sleep did to tough Marines on the front lines; hollow-eyed, they had lost a lot of weight, and their head movements were not lined up with their eye movements. It was obvious they couldn't go on this way.

Excerpts are from Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos, now republished as a 75th anniversary edition in paperback and Kindle.

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