Starting at 8:59 am, local time, on February 19, 1945, and continuing for 36 days, the little island a fewhundred miles south of the main island of Japan was one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Only about a third the size of Manhattan, the strategic importance of Iwo Jima to both the Japanese who were defending it, and to the American forces who were invading it, made this tiny land mass one of the most important and fiercely-fought-over battlefields of World War II.
Over a hundred thousand men – an eventual landing force of some 70,000 marines versus approximately 30,000 dug-in Japanese – were either fighting to capture and control the island and its three air fields, or defending this vitally important piece of land. Though the strategic significance of some of the battles of this war were not always clear to the men fighting them, the importance of this particular island was obvious to both sides. The Americans needed a base from which to launch air strikes against the mainland of Japan and the Japanese had to prevent that from happening. The many miles of tunnels and rabbit holes from which the Japanese executed their well-practiced defense of the island severely diminished the advantage the Americans had in terms of fighting men.
One of those men was a 23 year-old corporal from Baltimore, Jacob Jennings, leading a squad of machine gunners with a Marine Corps rifle company – Company K, with the 21st Marine Regiment, 5th Division.
For nearly ten years, on the advice of his grandfather who noticed that Jacob made frequent – sometimes wise and profound – observations worth writing down, Jennings carried a hardback journal and some kind of writing utensil with him wherever he went. In his book, with the little remaining light from the cloudless sky, he wrote the following on the evening of February 22:
came ashore 3 long days ago. no am-tracks near by. when we reached the top of the first steep slope about 15 yards up the beach, we dropped to the sand. six of us pinned down, lying belly down on the beach, looking back and to the west we could see our tractor. when it reached shore, it had got bogged down in the soft volcanic ash real fast and barely cleared the water’s edge. soon enough 20 yards closer, maybe 70 yards from us, another rifle squad was exiting another am-track. when the rear ramp dropped, and the rifle squad exited their vehicle, and the squad leader, Cpl Neil Langdon of Naples, FL, went out to the left, and his entire squad followed rather than alternate right and left as they were trained. I could see machinegun fire hitting the water about 10 feet to their right. it had to be the same gun that was trained on us but where was it coming from? I didn’t know and couldn’t tell. I waved them down, and they dropped immediately. it was strange in that I had heard no sound of machinegun fire. there was no zing of bullets passing overhead and no snap or pop of bullets passing nearby.
later that morning, after we’d moved further down the beach to the right, a single rifleman of Langdon’s squad joined up with my squad. he was very nervous. He told me that Langdon’s squad was just about wiped out as soon as they left the tractor. I realized then that I had never looked back again to see how Langdon’s squad made out. I knew it was pointless to feel guilt about it because I was in charge of looking out for my men and Langdon was in charge of his. I assumed that the machinegun that delivered fire close to my men had been the same one that had taken out Langdon’s squad.
we finally moved on because we couldn’t stay there. after we crabwalked a short distance, I tripped acrossed the body of a Marine face down in a shallow ditch. he was dead. “Lt C.L. N. Barsma” was stenciled on the back of his pack. I knew Barsma, having served with him when he was a corporal back at Camp Lejeune in the early spring of 1943. he was one of several Philippines veterans who joined us in Co L, our so-called “heavy weapons” outfit. when Co L dissolved in 1944, Barsma went into Co G and I went into Co K. Nells Barsma received a field commission to second lieutenant. I write too many details. helps my hand shakes.
PFC Snelling, Rogers, McDonald and I continued up the beach, still moving toward the right, and before long stopped in a shell crater. looking back, I saw a bazooka man approaching. when he was about 25 feet from us, a single enemy shell landed very close to him. we ducked down, and when no other shells fell, I looked back to find nothing but a large crater and awful pieces where the whole bazooka man had been four seconds before. that eliminated the only live Marine I had seen in our area of the beach other than my own men.
continuing forward we later came upon a huge, elongated shell crater, probably formed by one of the Navy’s big guns. Lt Finnegan and five or six of his 81mm mortar men were in the crater. finney called out “Mac, don’t come in, we’re too crowded.” I yelled back that we were just moving through, and with no further words I moved to the far end of the crater, and Snelling and McDonald joined me. later that morning, Lt Finnegan and the men with him were killed.We were in the same platoon at boot camp in Jan-Feb 1943.
we had moved ahead again and joined up with men of Co D. It was there on the third terrace of the black beach that the company commander, Capt Karl “Gus” Gussendorf, was in the process of reorganizing the company. we dug defensive positions far short of our D-Day objective, the O–1 line, at the first airfield which was directly ahead of us. the ash collapsed when a hole was dug. the first night on Iwo Jima was generally quiet except for occasional enemy shells along the frontlines, as well as the usual bright flares overhead fired from 5-inch naval guns offshore.