Seventy-five years ago today, it was a Monday morning, and US Marines were landing on a small island in the Pacific, an island with a name nobody had ever heard of. Yet.
Here is the landing through the eyes of a man who was there.
A chunky amphibious tractor circled around off the shore of Iwo Jima, waiting for 0900: the appointed hour for the Marine Corps to invade the island. Nineteen-year-old Private Bill Hudson sat in the amtrac, watching ships two miles out shoot big guns at the island. Planes were dropping bombs. The island had been bombed for weeks. The Japanese holding the island couldn’t have survived, but all the firepower still aimed at the island was heartening to see.
Hudson looked forward to this adventure. He knew men got killed in battle, but he had thought about what could happen and explained to himself why everything would be all right.
He had figured his odds of survival, and felt prepared.
He was well trained for landing on this island, and he was in a good unit. His officers were experienced from other Pacific battles. Hudson was confident they knew what they were doing. He was in the Fourth Division, scheduled to land on the north end of the beach, move north, and then turn east. His battalion, 3/25, would attack the high ground, called the Quarry, above the East Boat Basin. Then the battalion would move up to the O-1 (Objective for Day 1) line, far inland.
The amtrac was full of supplies: cases of ammunition, five-gallon cans of water, and a big box of ponchos. Hudson knew what the ammunition and water were for, but wondered about the ponchos.
Then the Navy guns stopped. The time had come. Hudson’s craft headed for Blue Beach Two, the end of the beach furthest from the island’s active volcano, Mount Suribachi. At 0902, the amtracs in the first wave hit the beach. Hudson’s wave, landing second at 0912, was the first wave with troops. Wave after wave followed, each a few hundred yards apart.
Ready for his first battle, Hudson jumped out as soon as he felt the thud of the amtrac going up on the beach. A mortar shell landed several feet away and hit his platoon sergeant, Mike Schrock, and his corporal and assistant rifleman. Overall, though, the island was quiet—just a bit of small arms fire that caused no major damage. The Marines were prepared to take some small arms fire while landing two-thirds of their force on the beach over the course of just one hour. If all went well, maybe they would be able to walk right across the island.
Hudson knew exactly what to do. He threw supplies from the amtrac on the black volcanic ash of the beach. Then he looked for cover, but found none. Instead, he had a series of sand terraces, each one a wall of sand five or ten feet high. The coarse pebbles of sand rolled underfoot, and he sank to his ankles.
Beach sand was the Marines’ first enemy at Iwo Jima. Upon landing, vehicles sank to their hubcaps in sand, creating traffic jams, and Marines carrying fifty to one hundred twenty pounds of equipment sank to their ankles, calves, or knees.
Silent and hidden, Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi watched as wave after wave of Marines landed on the beach. He had chosen the landing area as the target for guns dug in above the beach on both sides and now was waiting for his target to be filled with Marines. The more he could kill on the beach, the more effective would be the other traps he had set.
As the Marines struggled across the beach, they saw big flare go up in the sky.
The flare was the signal for the Japanese to open up with everything they had. Every mortar, artillery piece, machine gun, and soldier with a rifle zeroed in on the Marines. Every part of the beach was a target.
I never heard so much noise or saw so much smoke in my life. The scene could only be described as chaos, havoc, destruction, carnage, suffering, and death. That was an experience that was just absolutely unbelievable.
The bombardment that followed destroyed boats, ships, and men. Moving forward through Japanese fire was the only way off the beach, and some Marines never made it onto the beach. Looking back at the waves of Marines that landed behind him, Hudson saw landing craft that had taken direct hits before the men could get out of them. All around him was noise, chaos, fear, uncertainty, and Marines being wounded and killed.
The noise was deafening, and the beach was full of smoke, devastation, wounded, mangled, and dead Marines. It was the most horrible sight I had ever seen in my life. To this day, I don’t know how I got off that beach without being killed or wounded.
Now that death was all around Hudson, mind games didn’t help anymore. Every second counted for survival. His brain concentrated on staying alive; it was hard to remember anything else.
To get off the beach, Hudson knew his unit was supposed to move inland and off to the right flank, hugging a high cliff that should partly protect them from enemy fire. But there were pillboxes in front of them and machine guns and artillery were dug into the cliff. The enemy was firing from the Quarry they were supposed to take. Finding little cover, the unit got hit hard. Hudson crawled into a hole that was hot from a shell that had landed there seconds before he did.
The start of the battle was well-defined. The Marines had been preparing for months for this battle, which was supposed to be a quick operation; just a few days. The island didn't even cover ten square miles.
During four weeks’ travel to Iwo Jima, Hudson’s unit had little to do but plan and practice for combat. Daily, they shot their weapons out from the deck into the ocean. They cleaned their weapons and kept them fully loaded.
On the day scheduled for invasion, the Marines were ready with weapons, cartridge belts, and bayonets. (Hudson’s BAR did not come with a bayonet.) Each had a solid chocolate D ration bar, two canteens, and a helmet.
On 19 February 1945, after the traditional pre-combat breakfast of steak and eggs, Hudson and 20 or 30 other Marines entered their amtrac down in the tank deck of the ship and waited for the signal to start the last two miles over the sea to Iwo Jima. “A sailor on deck yelled down to us and said, ‘You guys will be back for noon chow. There ain’t no Japs alive on that island.’ Boy, was he wrong.”
Excerpts are from Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos, now republished as a 75th anniversary edition in paperback and Kindle. We will be commemorating the 75th anniversary with more excerpts.