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Remote island battle begins end of World War II

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2005-03-18

The tiny island far to the east of the Ryukyuís was considered essential to the strategic interests of American forces seeking to bring Emperor Hirohitoís Japan to its knees.

Iwo Jima, only eight square miles of rugged real estate, had to be in American hands for the U.S. to begin a final assault on the mainland. Sixty years ago today, U.S. Marines were in the mop up stage of their mission to capture Iwo Jima following a six-week campaign that claimed thousands of lives. As Iwo Jimaís attack was in progress, generals and admirals were poring over maps, looking to the remote island as a jumping off point for an attack on mainland Japan.

It didnít turn out that way.

Okinawa became the pivot point that brought World War II to a bloody end. Only 375 miles from mainland Japan, it posed a threat to U.S. troops.

America recognized that the Ryukyu Islands must be tamed in order for U.S. forces to move north to the four main Japanese islands. The campaign for supremacy in the waters surrounding Okinawa began in 1944, as naval forces pummeled Japanese shipping. American submarines plying the waters sunk a Japanese troop ship nine months before the Okinawa ground battle began, killing 5,600 soldiers. Only months later, the Japanese battleship Yamato was sunk by American fighter bombers as it steamed toward Okinawa.

Iwo Jima was a Japanese military bastion, a handy 760 miles from mainland Japan. Its three airstrips were being used by kamikaze pilots flying against the Americans. U.S. leaders saw the island as a key emergency landing strip for planes flying from the Mariana Islands to mainland Japan, and would facilitate B-29 raids against Tokyo and other key Japanese cities.

Seventy thousand U.S. troops began their assault on the small island February 19, going against 27,000 Japanese. One Marine unit, E Company, suffered 40% casualties in four bitter days of fighting. They didnít know the Japanese had fortified the island with more than 800 pillboxes connected by some three miles of tunnels.

A small but critical victory came at Mount Surabachi where, on February 23rd at 10am, the stars and stripes were raised for the first time. Powerful photographic images of that small group of Marines planting the flag came from photographers Bob Campbell and Joe Rosenthal. Rosenthalís camera captured the emotion of the moment, and has become the most reproduced photograph in photographic history.

There were no civilians on Iwo Jima, leaving the death tolls to Japanese Imperial Army and U.S. forces. As the stars and stripes waved in the Pacific breeze, 6,821 Americans lay dead, another 19,217 wounded. An estimated 20,000 Japanese died, and another 1,083 became prisoners of war.

Final victory came on March 26, 1945.

The Final Outcome

Okinawa was not supposed to be the final battle in World War II. Military planners had been preparing Operation Downfall for more than a year, an all-out attack on mainland Japan. Tides of war changed all that as the forces came together in the Ryukyus.

The Battle of Okinawa began April 1, 1945, the largest amphibious assault in U.S. military history.
It was the start of 82 days of hell that was nicknamed tetsu no ame, literally a rain of steel.

NEXT WEEK: The battle begins.

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