Seventy-five years ago yesterday, the east beach of Iwo Jima was covered with a deadly trap of a traffic jam.
Although surrounded by chaos and carnage, the men went forward. As one Marine said, according to Haynes and Warren in Lions of Iwo Jima, “You’ve got to keep busy or you’ll go nuts!” They didn’t go nuts. On the day of the invasion, only a third of one percent of the men were evacuated for combat fatigue. Men trained as Marines feared failing to do their parts more than they feared dying.
The Marines could try to move forward, but how could they destroy invisible Japanese? The whole first day, Hudson never saw his enemy, only dead and wounded Marines. He could hear machine guns. He knew the Japanese had mortars, artillery, and rifles. But the fire was coming from caves and tunnels out of sight. With no targets to shoot at, he didn’t use much ammunition. Never seeing the enemy—even dead—shredded morale.
Hudson didn't know what to shoot at or how to defend himself. For a long time he didn't know the platoon had already lost its officers.He tried to find a place that was safe, if there was any such thing.
Hudson’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Justice “Jumping Joe” Chambers, commanding battalion 3/25, took notes for his personal diary as he watched Hudson’s company—K Company—go ashore. The casualties started right away with the wounding of Tom Witherspoon, the company commander. The executive officer, John Camien, took command and brought the company up the first terrace. Camien lasted about ten minutes.
Targeting of the officers continued, and by the end of the day, all seven of the officers K Company had landed with were dead or wounded.
Platoons tried to care for their dead and wounded, but often didn’t know what to do with them. Hudson learned the ponchos he had seen were for covering dead bodies. “After the first day, it was obvious that we didn’t have enough ponchos.” There was no place to put a dead body out of the way. A wounded man couldn’t be evacuated, because nobody was going back to the ships. Marines lined up their wounded on the beach, where many were hit again while waiting for a ship to come get them. Some Marines later listed as missing were literally missing. A direct hit left nothing to identify.
Marines still landing fought both rough seas and falling shells. The bombardment created a gigantic traffic jam as men struggling through sand died and vehicles were shattered, blocking the path of Marines still landing. Hudson thought himself lucky to have been in the first wave, since he got farther in.
The 3/25 battalion started out confused and wasn’t given time to stop and sort things out. The deadly firing on the beach wouldn’t end until somebody took the Quarry. Colonel Chambers, a big man wearing a shoulder holster and accompanied by a radioman and eight bodyguards, led his 3/25 battalion up the cliffs toward the Quarry, telling them to get up there before the Japanese did.
At one point during the effort to take the cliffs, the strafing from close air support was too close, almost into the Marine lines. Close air support was supposed to help the attack by strafing the enemy—if pilots could tell which ones were the enemy. The Marines had long bands of yellow linoleum cloth to lay on the front lines, showing pilots where they could start shooting.
The battalion took the Quarry, enduring deadly fire from the Japanese that shredded the battalion. Yet the effort finally stopped the firing on the rest of the beach. Battalion commander Chambers eventually received the Medal of Honor for what the battalion accomplished that day.
By 1800 hours, or 6 p.m., the battalion of four hundred men was reduced to one hundred fifty.
The first day of death and chaos devastated Hudson along with his platoon.
Disorganized without their dead or wounded leaders and frustrated at not being able to see their attackers, the platoon members tried to protect themselves in what little cover there was. They prepared for a night attack, but the Japanese stayed quiet that night.
On the islands of Saipan and Tinian, the Japanese had made “banzai” charges—a tactic named for the Japanese patriotic battle cry. Banzaiing was usually suicidal, a last-resort attempt to turn the tide of battle or die. On Saipan and Tinian, the tactic failed; American forces had a solid defensive line that wiped out the Japanese. But in the chaos of Iwo Jima, with scattered groups of survivors trying to figure out what was going on, Hudson thought a banzai charge that first night “would have driven us back into the sea and the battle would have been a disaster for us.”
Kuribayashi, however, was not ready to commit suicide. He had many other traps to spring. For now, nighttime allowed the Marines a chance to regroup and set up a defensive perimeter.
Nighttime was their first chance to organize since leaving the amtrac. “It was then when our platoon got together, and to see only twenty-seven men out of the original forty-seven was a hard thing to take.” Even worse, the company overall had only sixty-seven men left of the two hundred fifty-five who had landed that morning. The others were dead or wounded. In a shock to their already fading morale, they realized moving in a few hundred yards had cost three quarters of their company. Like the Marines’ plan of attack, Hudson’s attitude didn’t survive the first day.
The second day of battle was a Tuesday, 20 February.
The first day on Iwo Jima had been a one-sided fight with an invisible enemy. The real fight was still to come, not on the beach but on the main island. On this second day, the rain continued and the sea got rough, increasing the difficulty of landing anything. Landing craft kept coming in, trying to bring food, water, and more men, but the beach was still a traffic jam of wrecked and stalled equipment, so space for landing was hard to find. Tanks trying to move inland got stopped by minefields and rugged ground.
Slowly, everyday life on Iwo Jima took shape as Marines moved off the beach, found out who was left and where they were, and gradually got food and supplies moving inland past the sand.
The platoon got organized and found the volcanic rock inland was easier to walk on than the soft black beach sand. But after a day, they had still moved only a couple hundred yards in. They were still getting hit by the Japanese regularly, and this second day his Regimental Combat Team also had to endure a friendly fire airstrike, as mistakes were bound to happen on a tiny island of 8.5 square miles where 110,000 Marines and supporting forces opposed 22,000 well-hidden Japanese.
Excerpts are from Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos, now republished as a 75th anniversary edition in paperback and Kindle.