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Posted on Mar 20, 2008 in Books and Movies

The Bloody Battle for Suribachi Book Review

By Richard N Story

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The Bloody Battle for Suribachi: The Amazing Story of Iwo Jima that Inspired Flags of Our Fathers. Richard Wheeler, author. Skyhorse Publishing 2007. List price $12.95. ISBN 978-1-60239-180-2.

 

This is a revised version of this title, with a new introduction by the author and the addition of recently discovered photographs. The new subtitle reflects the publisher’s statement that "this book served as invaluable source material both for James Bradley’s bestseller Flags of Our Fathers as well as Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed film of the same name."

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Iwo Jima was one of the most costly battles for the United States during World War II. The casualties were staggering for such a small island. The United States lost 6,821 killed and 19,217 wounded, plus 2,648 cases of "combat fatigue." The full extent of Japanese losses will never be known, but more than 95% – at least 20,000 men – lost their lives. An unknown number chose suicide rather than dishonoring themselves, their family and their ancestors by surrendering. Was Iwo Jima really worth this sacrifice? That is a question best left to those who fought there. Perhaps Chester Nimitz best described the fighting on Iwo Jima when he said, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Among those who fought at Iwo Jima was an aspiring writer named Richard Wheeler. He enlisted in the Marines early in 1942 to fight the Japanese, but his training platoon was designated to serve as military police in guard detachments on the West Coast and in Alaska where "His most dangerous assignment was the directing of traffic at busy intersections." He finally got the assignment he’d sought when he was transferred to 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. After intensive training, the 28th deployed overseas bound for Iwo Jima, a small volcanic island, the worth of which was measured by the fact it had two airfields and a third was being constructed. It would be the first Japan’s home islands to be invaded. To the high commands of both sides Iwo Jima looked like a dagger aimed straight at the heart of mainland Japan.

Its Japanese garrison was reinforced and received a new commander, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi. A former commander of the 1st Imperial Guard Division, which protected the Emperor, he had eight months to prepare the island against the coming invasion. Smart and aggressive, he knew that he could not hope to defeat the Americans, but he could make them pay for every yard they advanced. He had his troops dig in and prepare to fight.

Perhaps Iwo Jima could be considered the ultimate example of the sort of trench warfare that had characterized the First World War. Mount Suribachi was a fortress. Its height would dominate the battlefield. Numerous bunkers were connect by underground tunnels, trenches and anti-tank ditches. The defenders suffered only minimal casualties during seven months of bombings and intermittent attacks by the Navy. Likewise, three days of constant shelling from offshore warships and the final bombardment as the initial assault waves formed added little to reducing the underground defenses.

Corporal Richard Wheeler and the rest of the landing force hit the beach to discover it was very quiet. Black volcanic sand made footing treacherous and digging in nearly impossible. The quiet did not last long. From the moment the Japanese opened fire, the fight for Iwo Jima would be bitter and deadly with no quarter asked or given. The only Japanese prisoners taken would either be civilian conscripts or those who were rendered incapacitated via wounds – one series of photos shows a man buried alive in volcanic ash up to his neck.

Wheeler describes the days and nights of fighting with a gritty intensity that reveals not only his courage in combat but also the extreme pressures that accompany Soldiers in the field. Wheeler followed the example of his comrades who had trained as Marine paratroopers and raiders before their units were disbanded to form the Fifth Marine Division, including his squad leader and best friend, Sergeant Howard Snyder. Corporal Wheeler would do almost anything to avoid losing the respect of these grizzled veterans. He fought with valor along with his platoon until he received severe head and leg wounds.

Evacuated to a hospital ship, he did not learn until later about the history being made by his platoon. It was selected to take an American flag to the summit of Suribachi and plant it there to show the United States had gained the upper hand in the fight for the mountain. The expedition up was preserved for posterity by the pictures taken by Marine photographer Lou Lowery. After the flag was raised the battalion commander wanted it back as a battalion trophy. Besides, it was too small to be seen from far away, so a larger American flag from LST-779 on the beach was sent up. The second, more famous, flag raising was photographed by Joe Rosenthal and became the iconic symbol of the war in the Pacific.

Only one man from the 3rd platoon took direct part in both flag raisings, Navy Hospital Corpsman, Pharmacist Mate 2nd Class, John Bradley. As a result, Bradley became a hero to Americans at home, an honor he felt wasn’t deserved. By the end of the fighting on Iwo Jima, the 3rd Platoon, Company E, 28th Marines had suffered a staggering 91% casualty rate. Richard Wheeler’s war was over. He would come home and rehabilitate and then go on to pursue his writing career.

There is not a lot to dislike about this book. The writing is crisp and clear. The photographs are abundant and add substantially to the text. The afterword and appendix bring insights into the author and his companions in the platoon. Perhaps the most moving section was seeing the few survivors who gathered in 2006 for perhaps the last time.

The few flaws that I found are of the nit-picking nature. Some of the studio photos were not as crisp and clear as could be expected and probably could have used computer aid to restore them to original clarity. One photo had a grammatical error in the caption by using "Opening" instead of "Operating." Finally, I would have preferred that the card from Mrs. Kuribayashi had been enlarged for easier reading. None of these flaws distract from the book, and if you are a student of Marine operations in World War II or are looking for an exciting read about the life of a Marine infantryman, then The Bloody Battle For Suribachi is a must-have on your bookshelf. With a list price of $12.95 this book is easily in the budget of all readers. It is highly recommended.

 

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