The island of Iwo Jima, an isolated collection of rock and sand stuck out in the Pacific 660 miles from Japan, was the objective for Operation Detachment on 19th February. Iwo Jima had been comprehensively blasted by bombs and shells for the previous 74 days. The Marines who landed here today were to discover that all this explosive had had very little effect on reducing the enemy.
The Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi had been preparing for this moment since June 1944. His intention was to inflict maximum casualties on the American forces in a defensive battle fought from 5,000 undergound bunkers and eleven miles of tunnel. He was to urge his troops to fight to the death:
Keep on fighting even if you are wounded in the battle. Do not get taken prisoner. At the end, stab the enemy as he stabs you.
George W. Nations was in a Marine Corps tank:
At 0800 hours the heaviest bombardment in history per square mile was fired upon Iwo, every ship within firing range opened up with all guns firing. It was a fireworks display I’ll never forget. The island was now totally obscured from view by the dust from the bombardment.
Promptly at 0900 hours the firing stopped and the first wave of amphibious tractors went ashore. At this time we are still about three or four miles offshore, our tanks, “B-Company” is landing in reserve. It was very exciting now sitting on top of our tank turret watching through field glasses as the Marines go ashore in wave after wave. First, armored amphibious tractors shell the beach, then amphibious personnel carriers land with men, then Higgins Boats, all putting large numbers of Marines ashore into the hostile environment of Iwos’ volcanic ash beaches. About 1000 hours we saw our first tanks slowly making their way up the beach. It seemed like forever before they moved up from the beach and out of sight.
All this time our landing craft, LSM-141 was moving closer to the line of departure that was about 2,000 yards off the beach. The old battleship New York is only a hundred yards or so from us, firing broadside into the island. The noise was unreal. We are now inside the tank. Lt. Steiner gives us the word to button-up. We know we are now very near the beach. The only thing we can now hear is our tank engine running.
Since I am a crew member in the Platoon Leaders’ tank, we are first in line to disembark. At last we feel the surge as the LSM slams ashore at about 7 to 8 knots putting us high and dry on the beach. Our bow doors opened and the ramp fell. Straight ahead of us is Iwo Jima, Red Beach One, the time is about 1330 hours.
I’ll never forget the first thing I saw as the ramp fell, giving us a clear view. The first terrace was only 30 to 40 feet in front of us. Marines were dug into this terrace or trying to dig in. The foxholes would cave in before the hole was large enough for a man to get his body below the surface. Their faces were covered with black volcanic ash form trying to take cover. They looked much like an ostrich putting his head into the sand, only to find his body still exposed. Their faces were very young and showing unashamed fear.
At first I did not understand why they were so afraid but as our tank turned right on the beach I began to realize why. The beach was littered with Jeeps, trucks, amphibious tractors, Higgins Boats, men and equipment in various degrees of destruction. We were able to go only a short distance before we had to stop because of a Jeep stuck in the narrow stretch of beach between the terrace and the surf. We were contemplating driving over the Jeep when a Marine jumped in, started the engine and because he was unable to drive forward, put it in reverse and backed into the surf, giving our tank clear passage.
To my right was an amphibious tractor. A large shell had blown its armored turret inward. It’s name in bold yellow letters, ‘Lena Horn’. Every time I hear her name or see her picture, my mind sees this amphibious tractor in the surf with its turret twisted in an awkward fashion from the explosion of this shell, the surf splashing over her. The crew must still be inside, all dead.
We continue up the beach for about two-hundred yards dodging the various obstacles and looking for our guide who was supposed to meet us. We finally reach the location where the guide was supposed to be and stop. We know minefields are ahead. Before coming ashore, we had discussed removing the waterproof stacks mounted on our exhaust and intake manifold at the first opportunity.
The exhaust re-circulates through the intake causing the engine to overheat in approximately forty-five minutes. We are getting close to that time, so I told Lt. Steiner this pause was our opportunity for getting rid of these stacks. With his okay, I opened my hatch and quickly leaped out onto the engine compartment just behind the turret. The terrific noise of gunfire and shells landing was a real shocker. Never had I heard so much incoming and outgoing fire in all my life and I’m outside the tank, not inside.
I scratched and clawed with my fingers and finally pealed away the waterproof tape so that the latches could be released enabling me to push the stacks off the tank. I’m now sitting behind the turret for cover thinking about climbing on top of the turret to get back inside. I’m looking out to sea. We are about 30 yards from the surf. A Higgins Boat is just reaching the beach loaded with Marines when a shell lands on the starboard side near the stern. Marines are running from the boat as the ramp falls. They leave about one-third of their men inside.
After forty years I can still see their lifeless forms hanging over the sides of this Higgins Boat. The boat sinks and becomes part of the destructive scene as it washes back and forth in the surf. There was nothing anyone could do for the men inside the boat. Without thinking of my own safety, I slowly climbed inside our tank, almost in shock from this experience. This was to be only one of many such incidents that sometimes keep me awake at night.
Read the whole of George W. Nations account at One Man Remembers