The Ghosts of Iwo Jima

The Ghosts of Iwo Jima

The Ghosts of Iwo Jima

The Ghosts of Iwo Jima


In February 1945, some 80,000 U.S. Marines attacked the heavily defended fortress that the Japanese had constructed on the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima. Leaders of the Army Air Forces said they needed the airfields there to provide fighter escort for their B-29 bombers. At the cost of 28,000 American casualties, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions dutifully conquered this desolate piece of hell with a determination and sacrifice that have become legendary in the annals of war, immortalized in the photograph of six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi.

But the Army Air Forces' fighter operations on Iwo Jima subsequently proved both unproductive and unnecessary. After the fact, a number of other justifications were generated to rationalize this tragically expensive battle. Ultimately, misleading statistics were presented to contend that the number of lives saved by B-29 emergency landings on Iwo Jima outweighed the cost of its capture.

In The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, Captain Robert S. Burrell masterfully reconsiders the costs of taking Iwo Jima and its role in the war effort. His thought-provoking analysis also highlights the greater contribution of Iwo Jima's valiant dead: They inspired a reverence for the Marine Corps that proved critical to its institutional survival and its embodiment of American national spirit. From the 7th War Loan Campaign of 1945 through the flag-raising at Ground Zero in 2001, the immortal image of Iwo Jima has become a symbol of American patriotism itself.

Burrell's searching account of this fabled island conflict will advance our understanding of World War II and its continuing legacy for the twenty-first century. At last, the battle's ghosts may unveil its ultimate, and most crucial, lessons.


Imagine a young boy on a street corner in Washington, D.C. on a cold, windy morning. He has a newspaper in his hand and a bundle of the same at his feet. It is the middle of March 1945, and he shouts out the headline with all his adolescent might in an effort to overcome the noise of the bustling automobile traffic. “Iwo Jima casualties total twenty thousand wounded! Over four thousand dead, read all about it!” Pedestrians stop to purchase the daily paper from the young lad with the customary dread at seeing the latest death toll of American sons lost overseas. Underneath the headline, an unidentified woman has written a letter to the Secretary of Navy, in which she pleads: “Please for God’s sake stop sending our finest youth to be murdered on places like Iwo Jima. It is too much for boys to stand, too much for mothers and homes to take. It is driving some mothers crazy. Why can’t objectives be accomplished some other way? It is most inhuman and awful—stop, stop.”

In the wake of Iwo Jima, the public voiced dismay at the cost of the operation. On 27 February the San Francisco Examiner had run a front-page editorial that bemoaned the heavy price in lives suffered in the battle. the article stated that the Navy’s use of amphibious assault against strong Japanese positions led to “enormous and excessive casualties” that endangered long-term strategy by wasting manpower. the newspaper further argued that General MacArthur should take command of all naval operations in the Pacific because “he saves the lives of his own men, not only for the future and vital operations that must be fought before Japan is defeated, but for their own safe return to their families and loved ones in the American homeland after the peace is won.”

Losses on Iwo Jima sprang to the forefront of American concerns in the spring of 1945, nearly four years into the bloody war. As the battle raged, casualty figures made the front page on a daily basis in nearly every major newspaper in the country. the body count obsessed the public as the toll quickly rose to extreme levels in a short period of time. Iwo Jima became the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. Moreover, it was one of the most costly American battles fought in World War ii. Nearly a third of all Marines who died in World War II lost their lives on Iwo Jima.

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