Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Iwo Jima Deconstructed

The battle for Iwo Jima started this week in 1945.


The battle is justly regarded as one of the most savage of the entire second world war. It is the battle of which Adm. Chester Nimitz observed, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Was the entire rationale for invading Iwo to provide an emergency landing strip for B-29s returning from bombing mission over Japan? This is a widely-accepted view, and until I re-studied the history, one that I held myself. Yet according to Naval Academy historian Robert S Burrell, pre-invasion planners never considered the idea of using Iwo as an emergency strip ("Worth the Cost? Justificaton of the Iwo Jima Invasion"; see also "Rethinking the Iwo Jima Myth," by Max Boot.).

The horrific casualties the Marines suffered taking Iwo Jima are well known, especially the 6,821 killed, who accounted for one-fourth of all Marines killed in action during the war. One account of the battle says that by the war's end the strip had saved the lives of 30,000 airmen, more men than were killed and wounded taking the island. In fairness, the 30K figure is the high estimate, based on the fact that 11 men crewed a B-29 and no one knows for certain how many bombers landed there. A lower estimate is that 2,220 bombers landed, making the number of airmen saved about 24,420. Either way, it's more than the number of Marines who died taking the island.

One of the repulsive things (of many) about war is the sanguinary calculus like that of comparing the number of Marines who died with the number of airmen saved and then trying to answer, was it worth it. Would the families of the Marines say yes, and would the airmen say no?

Be that as it may, Burrell's article about the battle makes it untenable to continue believing that Iwo Jima was invaded to provide an emergency bomber strip. That it turned out to be one was a happy bonus to the island's seizure. Seizing the airstrip was indeed the objective (there was nothing else of interest on the island) but it's intended use was principally not as an emergency base for Superfortresses but as a base for American long-range fighters to escort B-29s over Japan.

However, fighter operations the Army Air Force had envisioned for Iwo Jima never panned out. Iwo Jima was about 750 miles from the main Japanese island of Honshu, where most B-29 targets were. A round-trip mission from Iwo was thus 1,500 miles. Theoretically, a P-51D Mustang could fly 2,000 miles unrefueled, but in practice from Iwo such ranges were mostly unobtainable because of air maneuvering over Japan and the fact that winds to and from Japan were often extremely strong, requiring fuel use that the fighters couldn't spare. In fact, a number of fighters were lost from weather alone. As well, the P-51 had primitive navigation equipment, even for its day, making the fighters' ability to link up with the bombers difficult and fuel consuming.

Moreover, one of the greatest limiting factors of fighter escorts from Iwo was the human factor. The B-29 was heated with a pressurized crew cabin. Compared to the unheated, unpressurized P-51, the bomber crews flew in comfort. The punishment on the fighter pilots' bodies was compounded by the extremely high altutudes they flew to escort the bombers, usually more than 30,000 feet. This was several thousand feet higher than fighter pilots flew in Europe while escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers. The round trip from Iwo to Japan and back was nine hours, most of which was spent in a physically battered state.

A grand total of only 10 escort missions were flown from Iwo Jima before the whole idea was scrapped. And yet gaining Iwo as a base for fighter escort was practically the sole reason the Marines were sent to take the island.

The first B-29, "Dinah Might," to land on Iwo Jima. The battle was still in full swing when it landed.
A number of historians argue that the "emergency airfield" reason for invading Iwo Jima was post-war rationalization for the attack. The first bomber to use Iwo Jima did make an emergency landing while the battle still raged. Newsreel crews filmed the landing, servicing and subsequent departure of the bomber, and these reels, shown in stateside theaters, did more than anything else to cement the notion that Iwo Jima was invaded just for that purpose. But the pre-invasion planning documents don't address this facet.

There is also the fact that of the 2,000-plus bombers that landed on Iwo, probably only a small minority were making actual lifesaving landings. So the figure of 24K-30K airmen "saved" is suspect to begin with. Most of the bomber landings on Iwo were made during training flights, scheduled refuelings or to await the passing of bad weather over the target in Japan. Of the true emergency landings, there can be little doubt that a large number of the planes would have made it back to Marianas, since the B-29 could fly with any two of its four engines running.

So was the invasion of Iwo Jima actually necessary? Burrell says no, and documents why all the explanations for its necessity don't hold up. The widely-held reason for the invasion - emergency landing strip - wasn't the actual reason. There were in fact very few benefits otherwise for seizing the island. Its utility as a fighter base and bomber staging area was very limited and turned out to be superfluous to the rest of the war.
I found the short essay below by Charles A. Jones (Col. USMC-ret.), whom I have know well since 1973 - we were classmates in college and have kept in contact since. It is online here.
June 26, 2006 
The Lore of the Corps: a 5-minute history lesson 
‘Dinah Might’ was first bomber to land on Iwo

By Charles A. Jones
Special to the Times 
After the famous flag-raising on Feb. 23, 1945, perhaps the most memorable image from Iwo Jima was the first B-29 emergency landing on the island.

One reason for capturing Iwo was to provide an emergency landing strip for B-29 Superfortress bombers flying to or from Japan.

Less than a month after the Marines’ Feb. 19 invasion of the island, the first B-29 landing was highly symbolic. Returning from a mission over Tokyo on March 4, 1st Lt. Raymond Malo landed “Dinah Might” at Iwo’s Motoyama Airfield No. 1. Fighting still raged — Marines held half the airfield, the Japanese the other. Malo landed on the Japanese side but stopped on the U.S. half.

Several photographs show Marines and sailors surrounding the plane. Prominent tail markings indicated the aircraft was with the 9th Bomb Group, 313th Wing, 21st Bomber Command, 20th Air Force.

The plane was repaired and took off the same day. It returned to Iwo on April 12 heavily damaged and was eventually abandoned. But the March 4 landing boosted troop morale.

For Field Musician Charles Adams of the 5th Marine Division, it “was quite an experience.” During the landing, his unit was fighting along the west side of the airfield.

The landing emphasized the differences between aerial and ground combat. A battalion commander, Maj. Shelton Scales of the 4th Marine Division, watched the plane appear from the south and circle Mount Suribachi so closely that he thought it would crash.

In photographs, the Dinah Might dwarfs onlookers. When Scales went to examine her, he thought the plane was “the size of [a] monster.” The infantry world is small; infantrymen focus only on the ground they occupy. For aviators, the battleground is the sky.

The landing, as well as the ability to make other landings on the island, contrasted attitudes about Iwo.

Infantrymen cursed its ground because they faced the possibility of death there.

Aviators, who faced danger during takeoffs in planes loaded with bombs and fuel, flights to and from Japan, mechanical problems and landings in damaged aircraft, were relieved to be there; for them, the island represented safety.

On an April 15-16 night mission over Kawasaki, the 9th Bomb Group lost four crews, the most for any mission. One was Malo’s, who was flying another B-29. It crashed into the sea off Japan, killing 10 crewmen; one was captured but fatally burned during a prison fire.

At least two B-29s carried the name Dinah Might, but for infantrymen on Iwo, only one mattered; its first landing was a victory in a grim battle that would continue for many days.
Maybe I will ask Charles to reconsider his second paragraph, but as historian Burrell points out, that historically-false reason for taking the island has become received wisdom and is hardly questioned except for specialists like him. Charles father, Elmer, btw, was a radar observer for B-29 “Double Trouble,” which landed on Iwo Jima twice, once for repair and once for fuel.

Here is the official USMC movie of Dinah Might landing during the battle.

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