On this day, Operation Detachment, the U.S. Marines’ invasion of Iwo Jima, is launched. Iwo Jima was a barren Pacific island guarded by Japanese artillery, but to American military minds, it was prime real estate on which to build airfields to launch bombing raids against Japan, only 660 miles away.
The Americans began applying pressure to the Japanese defense of the island in February 1944, when B-24 and B-25 bombers raided the island for 74 days. It was the longest pre-invasion bombardment of the war, necessary because of the extent to which the Japanese–21,000 strong–fortified the island, above and below ground, including a network of caves. Underwater demolition teams (“frogmen”) were dispatched by the Americans just before the actual invasion. When the Japanese fired on the frogmen, they gave away many of their “secret” gun positions.
The amphibious landings of Marines began the morning of February 19 as the secretary of the navy, James Forrestal, accompanied by journalists, surveyed the scene from a command ship offshore. As the Marines made their way onto the island, seven Japanese battalions opened fire on them. By evening, more than 550 Marines were dead and more than 1,800 were wounded. The capture of Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the island and bastion of the Japanese defense, took four more days and many more casualties. When the American flag was finally raised on Iwo Jima, the memorable image was captured in a famous photograph that later won the Pulitzer Prize.