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Iwo Jima: island nobody wanted

By
THOMAS CALDWELL

IWO JIMA, Japan, March 14 -- The horrific battle over this tiny black island during World War II burned it permanently into American and Japanese history, but for most of its life Iwo Jima was a piece of real estate nobody wanted. The island, 750 miles (1,210 km) south of Tokyo, is part of a small chain of three atolls called the Volcano Islands. The group was formed during volcanic activity tens of thousands of years ago. When the first explorers arrived, there were no people living on any of the three tiny islands, although modern archaeological digs have unearthed artifacts pointing to a fishing village on at least one of the group about 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. In 1543, a Spanish explorer named Detores on a mission from the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, came across Iwo Jima. He landed, noted the island stank of sulphur and lacked fresh water and left. More than 200 years later, Captains Gore and King, the men who took over Captain Cook's expedition after he was killed in Hawaii, landed on the island in 1779. They too were repelled by the smell and deemed the place worthless. In 1805, Russian Admiral Krusenstern arrived at Iwo Jima. He also noted the island's inhospitable conditions and did not even bother to claim it for the czar. The Russians were the last non-Japanese to set foot on the island until the U.S. Marines came ashore in 1945. In the late 1800s, after coming out of self-imposed isolation, Japan began formally laying claim to many of its surrounding islands.

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It claimed Iwo Jima and its two sisters in 1878. The first settlers arrived in 1887, and in 1891, Iwo Jima came under the civil administration of the city of Tokyo, as it is today. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima had a population of only a few hundred people, most of whom made their living by fishing and raising sugar cane. Early in the war, the Japanese government deemed the islands of little strategic value and stationed only a few troops there. That changed in mid-1944, when U.S. bombings pounded the island for the better part of a day. The attack set off alarm bells in Tokyo and a massive military build-up was begun. The United States had an interest because it saw the island a stepping stone to the Japanese mainland. From there, B-29s on long-range bombing missions could land as could fighter escorts. Many war-time residents of Iwo Jima have noted that the U.S. Marines could have waded ashore with only a few thousand men before 1944 and taken the island in an afternoon. But the Japanese military build-up converted Iwo Jima into a virtual fortress. Japanese troops dug themselves into tunnels from which they could withstand bombings and could launch ferocious attacks of their own. The United States attacked Iwo Jima on Feb. 19,1945. Thirty-six days later it took the island after a bloodbath that killed 6,800 Americans and all but 1,017 of the 21,500 Japanese defenders. After the war, Iwo Jima became a base for the U.S. military and Coast Guard. It also served as an unofficial dumping ground for aged equipment and munitions. One of these dumps is a seemingly bottomless pit dubbed the 'million dollar hole.' Actually a volcanic fumarole thought to be around 1,000 feet (330 m) deep, the pit got its name because of the millions of dollars worth of tanks, guns, jeeps, trucks and other military equipment dumped there after the war. The island was finally returned to Japan in 1968, and the remains of many of the Marines who died and were buried there were exhumed and sent home to the United States. A U.S. Coast Guard navigation station remained in operation until recently. The last American flag to fly over the island was lowered at noon at Sept. 29, 1993, from Mount Sarabachi -- site of the famous photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal of the flag-raising by five U.S. Marines and a Navy medic.

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