Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sulfur Island

In February of 1945, US Marines attacked the rocky Japanese island of Iwo Jima, whose name literally means 'Sulfur Island'. It was the first assault on one of Japan’s “Home Islands” in World War II, and its success would deny the Empire the use of the island for early warning purposes and as an emergency landing strip for its damaged aircraft, while providing the US with the same advantages. On February 9, an intense bombardment from US Navy battleships and B-24 heavy bombers from the 7th Air Force began pounding the Japanese garrison on the tiny island, and continued to do so for ten days. The first US Marine boots landed on the southwest beach of Iwo Jima on February 19, and were met with surprisingly little resistance at first. The reason for this was simple: the Japanese defenders were all hiding.

Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commanding officer of the island’s defense, was fully aware of the production and military power of the advancing US military. He ordered the beach defenses to be abandoned, and instead had his men build a series of tunnels, pillboxes, and trenches to augment the natural defensive capabilities of the island. By the time the Americans arrived, the Japanese defenders had built more than 11 miles of tunnels beneath the island, and there, more than 18,000 Imperial soldiers waited, virtually impervious to the bombs.

Iwo Jima is roughly teardrop-shaped, with the southern ‘point’ being dominated by Mount Suribachi, a flat-topped caldera and the highest spot on the island; the rest of the island is mostly flat, except for the much smaller Hill 382 on the north end. At 8:59 am on the 19th, the US Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions landed at four points on the southwestern corner of the beach, and due to the lack of incoming fire, many had thought that the shelling had annihilated the defenders and the Marines would be unopposed. The artillery fire and bombing had to stop, for fear of shelling their own men, and before long the beach was filled with US Marines and equipment. The Americans began making inroads toward the center of the island, but advancement was slow going, in part due to the difficulty of moving in the coarse black volcanic sand. At this point, the Japanese - having been ordered by Kuribayashi to wait until this point - opened fire.

The American advance was slow and costly. The Japanese were in such a superior defensive position that many of the usual American tactics were ineffective. Defensive positions thought secured were suddenly repopulated, as the Japanese literally crawled out of the ground at night to reoccupy them. The pillboxes, bunkers, and caves provided superior protection against small arms and rifle fire; grenades and even bayonets proved helpful, but in order to use them, American troops had to get uncomfortably close to the entrenched Japanese defenders. In order to take the island, the Americans needed to utilize a weapon that would be effective against firmly entrenched enemies, and for that, they turned to the flamethrower.

Flamethrowers were originally a German invention called the flammenwerfer, but by the time of the Iwo Jima, the US had advanced through several versions of it. The M2-2 entered service in mid-1944, and had the same basic structure as its predecessors: two large tanks filled with flammable fuel on a backpack frame, with a smaller tank filled with a compressed propellant. The propellant would force the fuel through a hose and into a vaguely rifle-shaped wand in the user’s hands. The wand had a pilot-like flame at the front of it, which would ignite the fuel as it was forced out toward the enemy. However, instead of gasoline propelled by hydrogen, as the earlier versions used, the M2-2 used thickened napalm propelled by nitrogen, providing a longer range (20-40 meters) and a more stable burn. The standard tactic was for riflemen to engage a fortification from the front and draw the enemies’ fire, while the flamethrower operator - or “torchman” - would approach from an angle and fire obliquely into the target, incinerating or asphyxiating everyone inside. Sometimes the torchman would do a “wet shot” - that is, a stream of unlit napalm - followed by a fully lit burst, resulting in a massive fireball.

One of the torchmen on Iwo Jima was 21-year-old Corporal Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, serving with the 21st Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. He spent the day of February 23, 1945, darting through enemy fire with his flamethrower, neutralizing a total of seven enemy strongholds while periodically returning to gather more fuel or demolition charges. At one point, he climbed atop a Japanese pillbox and torched it down through the air vent (pictured), and at another point he was charged by a group of bayonet-wielding Japanese warriors, flaming them all with one burst. He was wounded in action on March 3, and for his troubles he was awarded the Purple Heart, and - on October 5, 1945 - the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Harry S Truman.

Despite Williams’s success, personal flamethrowers had many disadvantages. They were heavy - about 70 pounds - and had a high profile. It was difficult to run or crawl while wearing one. They had a short range and ran out of fuel after about eight seconds of constant fire. While they usually did not explode when shot, they were easy and popular targets; Japanese soldiers eager to avoid a screaming, burning death would target American torchmen whenever they could. As the torchman also would have to pop up and expose his whole upper body before firing, their life expectancy was notoriously short and trained operators were soon in short supply. Alternate methods were desired to deliver the flamethrower’s effects.

Enter the tank. The Americans refitted the ubiquitous M4 Sherman tanks to carry flamethrowers rather than main guns; these tanks were designated M4A3R3, imaginatively nicknamed the ‘Zippo’. Tactics for the Zippo were very much like tactics for the torchmen; other tanks would provide cover and draw fire while several Zippos then rapidly closed in and ignited the target. Terrain sometimes limited their mobility, but they were overall very effective; General Kuribayashi mentioned the flamethrower tanks specifically in his final letter back to Japan.

The siege lasted for 39 days and resulted in a decisive American victory. In the end, only 216 Japanese soldiers survived to be captured; the rest were killed on Iwo Jima. General Kuribayashi was among the dead, though the nature and time of his death is unsure; his body was never found. 6,821 US Marines also died, and 19,217 were wounded. By early September of that year, the war was formally over. Of the six men in the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, three died on the island, and the other three all suffered from post-war stress; the last of them, Navy Medic John Bradley, died in 1994 at the age of 70. In 2011, Woody Williams - aged 87 - appeared on the cable show Sons of Guns, in which he got to fire his refurbished flamethrower once again, torching a stationary target with obvious glee.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia pages for The Battle of Iwo Jima, the M2 flamethrower, and Woody Williams.
”The Battle for Iwo Jima” on the Navy Department Library website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
”Chapter XV: The Flame Thrower in the Pacific: the Marianas to Okinawa” in Chemicals in Combat, on the US Army Center of Military History website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Hershel Williams at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, retrieved March 20, 2012.

The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, by Robert S. Burrell, Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
M2A1-7 Portable Flamethrower Operator’s Manual, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1973.

The Smell of Burning Flesh, on Steve Baker Films, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Sons of Guns, season 1, episode 3, Discovery Channel, 2011.

“Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima” by Joe Roesenthal, for the Associated Press.
Photo of Marine with flamethrower is courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.
Painting of Corporal Williams in action is titled “Corporal Hershel Williams”, by Jim Laurier.


  1. I saw a show not long ago on Military Channel or one of the Discovery networks where some Iwo vets went back to the island for the first time since the war. As I recall, the island is all but deserted now, if not completely so. What struck me most was how quiet and serious and morose these guys got once they hit the island. Clearly they did not enjoy being back there. Who could blame them? Iwo, Pelileu, Okinawa, Tarawa--the entire Pacific campaign was harrowing. I can't imagine being in that.

    Oh, and this: did pre-invasion bombing ever do much good? I don't think so. Didn't do much on Iwo. Didn't do much at Normandy. Just a waste of ordnance on hunkered-down enemies, and a good way to tell them, hey, we're about to invade!

  2. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if it was completely deserted now. The place is really a pile of rock.

    And surely pre-invasion bombing must do *some* good. The military would never keep doing something they know to be pointless . . . right? :D


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.