On the 16th March the US Forces on the island of Iwo Jima had declared the island “occupied”. The statement, signalling at least the beginning of the end, was partly in response to the concern at home over the very heavy casualties.
The fighting was still far from over even if it might be described as “contained”, hundreds of Japanese were still hiding in their bunkers and doing everything possible to continue to cause casualties to the Americans.
At the same time General Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander, was considering his position. He had masterminded the tenacious defence of the island and inspired his men to fight to the end. His aim to cause maximum casualties, rather than die gloriously in the traditional suicidal Banzai charge, had been achieved. But, with his men weak from starvation and parched from lack of water, he realised there was little time left for them to carry on in this manner.
He was still managing to communicate with Tokyo via an increasingly intermittent radio connection with the Japanese occupied island of Chichi Jima:
I have 400 men under my command. The enemy besieged us by firing and flame from their tanks. In particular, they are trying to approach the entrance of our cave with explosives. My men and officers are still fighting.
The enemy’s front lines are 300 meters from us, and they are attacking by tank firing. They advised us to surrender by loudspeaker, but we only laughed at this childish trick, and we did not set ourselves against them.
On the 17th Kuribayashi radioed his final message to Tokyo:
The battle is entering its final chapter. Since the enemy’s landing, the gallant fighting of the men under my command has been such that even the gods would weep.
In particular, I humbly rejoice in the fact that they have continued to fight bravely though utterly empty-handed and ill-equipped against a land, sea, and air attack of a material superiority such as surpasses the imagination.
One after another they are falling in the ceaseless and ferocious attacks of the enemy. For this reason, the situation has arisen whereby I must disappoint your expectations and yield this important place to the hands of the enemy. With humility and sincerity, I offer my repeated apologies.
Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favor, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies.
I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory.
I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my inmost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity
It was with this message that he sent the traditional ‘death poem’ of Japanese soldiers to his commanders, setting out his sentiments as he faced death:
Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.
It would not be until 23rd March that Kuribayashi sent his final message to Chichi Jima:
All officers and men of Chichi Jima – goodbye from Iwo.
Nothing more is known about how Kuribashi met his end but it is likely that he died in the final attack from his position in ‘The Gorge’ on the 26th March. It was not a suicidal Banzai charge but a silent, co-ordinated attempt to inflict one last blow against the Americans. They crept into US positions and bayoneted soldiers as they slept before the alarm was raised – and then they were overcome during hand to hand fighting. It is believed that Kuribayashi removed his officers insignia so that his body would not be identified.
Later his son Taro Kuribayashi was to claim:
My father had believed it shameful to have his body discovered by the enemy even after death, so he had previously asked his two soldiers to come along with him, one in front and the other behind, with a shovel in hand. In case of his death, he had wanted them to bury his body there and then.
It seems that my father and the soldiers were killed by shells, and he was buried at the foot of a tree in Chidori village, along the beach near Osaka mountain. Afterwards, General Smith spent a whole day looking for his body to pay respect accordingly and to perform a burial, but in vain.
For the Japanese perspective on the fighting on Iwo Jima see Fighting Spirit: The Memoirs of Major Yoshitaka Horie and the Battle of Iwo Jima and Kumiko Kakehashi: Letters From Iwo Jima.