This Day in History… February 19, 1945

U.S. Marines Land on Iwo Jima

U.S. #929 was controversial when it was released because it pictured living people. But it went on to become very popular.

On February 19, 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima began.

By early 1945, Japan had lost most of its empire and faced certain defeat, but its soldiers continued to fight. To make their Pacific campaign successful, the Allies needed more bases. In particular, they needed a place where their damaged B-29 bombers could land and be repaired without having to travel all the way to the Mariana Islands. A tiny island approximately 750 miles south of Japan became their primary target – Iwo Jima. At the time, Iwo Jima was occupied by about 21,000 Japanese army and navy troops.

Eight months before the actual invasion, American ships and aircraft began bombing Iwo Jima in the longest and most intense bombardment of the Pacific theater. Many suspected the Japanese on the island to be largely wiped out, but a secret tunnel system had kept them safe.

Item #20008 – Raymond Spruance was the overall commander of the Iwo Jima invasion.

Then at 8:59 a.m. (one minute ahead of schedule) on February 19, 1945, the battle began when the 3rd, 4th, and 5th U.S. Marine divisions landed on Iwo Jima. The Japanese had prepared elaborate mine fields and underground tunnels, and a remarkable communications system for the island’s defense. The fight for Iwo Jima proved to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Item #CNM11274 – According to 5th Marine Division signal officer, Major Howard Connor, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

As the Marines crossed the beach they came under heavy mortar and rifle fire, and soon found they couldn’t even construct foxholes in the soft black volcanic sand. As the Marines moved forward, the Japanese opened fire from their steel-doored tunnels and then quickly closed the doors to avoid the return fire. Even after the Americans cleared tunnels with flamethrowers, the Japanese would reoccupy them and launch a surprise attack from an area believed to be clear.

By the end of the first day, some 30,000 Marines landed, and would later be joined by another 40,000. The battle raged for several days, with the Japanese launching sneak attacks at night. The Sherman M4A3R3 tanks, equipped with flamethrowers, helped to clear Japanese positions. Navajo Code Talkers – bilingual Navajo recruits that sent messages in their native tongue – sent and received over 800 messages in the first two days. They were immensely helpful in keeping the lines of communication open across the front. Eventually, the Japanese ran out of food, water, and supplies, and their attacks grew desperate.

U.S. #2981a – From the WWII stamp series marking the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.

On February 23rd, after five days of intense combat, the Marines captured Mt. Suribachi and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. A Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of this moment has become one of the most famous images of the war, and served as the model for the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. After 36 days of fierce fighting, the Japanese surrendered on March 16th – nearly 7,000 Americans lost their lives and about 19,000 more were injured.

 Item #571545 – Commemorative cover marking the 61st anniversary of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

Item #571545 – Commemorative cover marking the 61st anniversary of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

A strategic location for the U.S. in the last stages of the war, Iwo Jima served as a base for the P-51 Mustangs that escorted the formidable B-29s on their bombing raids, as well as an emergency landing airstrip.

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