In His Native Tongue
ASU Magazine Spring 2012 Bonus Feature
By Preston Lewis
Director of Communications & Marketing
Iwo Jima was an obstacle to defeating Japan. It was about the midway point between the Mariana Islands and Japan proper. After long-range B-29 bombers left the Marianas, Iwo Jima served the Japanese as an early warning station to notify the main islands to prepare for an impending attack. Capturing the island would eliminate that warning network, but the major reason for taking Iwo Jima, from an airpower perspective, was to provide P-51 fighter escorts for the B-29s, according to Dr. Robert S. Ehlers, director of ASU’s Center for Security Studies and a military aviation authority. Secondarily, Iwo Jima provided a landing base for damaged bombers that might need a place to land in case they couldn’t make it back to the Marianas. For that, Iwo Jima was the perfect location. Additionally, Iwo Jima was one of the Japanese home islands, offering a taste of what would follow on planned invasions of Okinawa and Japan.
Possibly the most fortified island in the history of warfare, Iwo Jima was an inhospitable speck of land, composed of black volcanic ash, rocks, sand, sulphur and patches of scraggy vegetation torn by more than seven months of bombing. Iwo Jima, which is Japanese for “Sulphur Island,” was anchored by the 545-foot Mount Suribachi on the narrow southern end of the island, which gradually widened into the rough shape of an elongated triangle. Suribachi, an extinct volcano, was peppered with natural caves and tunnels. Nature’s defensive fortifications had been augmented elsewhere on the island by some 11 miles of interconnecting tunnels, plus hundreds of bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and antitank ditches sheltering more than 22,000 Japanese troops and their machine guns, mortars and artillery.
Arrayed against the island fortress was an armada of more than 450 ships, including some 70,000 Marines and sailors whose job it would be to take the scruffy island. Warships, led by the battleships Nevada, Tennessee, Arkansas, New York, Idaho and Texas, pounded the island with naval gunfire while carrier planes bombed the island for three days before the scheduled Feb. 19 invasion. Aboard troop transports, the more than 42,000 Marines of the Fourth and Fifth Divisions made last minute preparations or fought seasickness while the men of the Third Division idled away the time in reserve.
Liberty and Victory ships by the score carried the myriad supplies necessary to feed the beast that was war without mercy. Their cargo holds contained 60 days of rations; drinking water in five-gallon cans by the thousands; millions of rounds of ammunition; toilet paper; grease; spare parts for vehicles; cigarettes, 100 million for Samuel Tso’s Fifth Division alone; splints, morphine, blood plasma and bandages for the wounded; and white crosses, thousands of them, for the dead. In all, the cargo ships carried 1,322 pounds of supplies for each Marine.
The role and importance of the Navajo Code Talkers such as Tso was described by author Richard Wheeler in his book Iwo: “As communications personnel, their job was to transmit messages among each other—messages between aircraft and the ground, between ships and stations on shore, between front-line command tanks or artillery and the rear, and among various infantry command posts. Their language, known to only a few non-Navajos, was absolutely undecipherable to the Japanese and it amounted to a secret code.”
Tso would land twice on the unsecured beaches of Iwo Jima. As a member of the Fifth Marine Division’s reconnaissance company, he accompanied a Navy underwater demolition team onto the beaches in the early morning darkness of Feb. 16 to radio back in code the location of any obstacles as well as the surf, wind and ground conditions on the beaches designated for landing sites to make sure they could support landing craft and vehicles without getting bogged down. He was accompanied by his Marine Corps-assigned bodyguard Al Mertz.
After completing their assignment, they returned to their rubber raft to row away from shore where they could be picked up and returned to the convoy, but the incoming tide was too strong and after 20 minutes they were back on the beach again, radioing for assistance. The tug that came to relieve them was sunk.
“The Japanese discovered us and they started shooting,” Tso said. “Talk about praying, I prayed and prayed and prayed. I don’t know whether whoever I prayed to answered me or not, but one thing is for sure, all of a sudden here comes a speed boat with ropes and inner tubes attached…While we’re bobbin’ in the ocean that speed boat picked us up (but) it’s up to whoever it is to go out to that inner tube and hang on for dear life. So, when you hang on (to the inner tube), they just pull you out of the Japanese gun range.”
Tso and his bodyguard Mertz rejoined their unit in time for the big show three days later on Feb. 19. A Marine was assigned to each code talker as a bodyguard because of the importance of their role in the invasion. However, accounts differ as to the precise assignments of the bodyguard. By some accounts, they were to protect the Navajos, but by other reports the bodyguards were to kill them to prevent capture by the Japanese. Either way, the presence of the personal bodyguards demonstrated the importance the military placed on maintaining the Navajo code’s integrity.
Tso and Mertz returned to Iwo Jima in the first wave of landing craft on the morning of Feb. 19. Ahead of them, Mount Suribachi stood like a malevolent pimple above the cobalt sea. Tso’s assignment was to take up a position between Mount Suribachi and the southernmost of three Japanese airfields.
The Marines landed to only sporadic fire, as the Japanese were waiting until the beaches were crowded with men and machines to maximize the damage when they did open fire. Even so, Tso’s progress was impeded as his boots sank up to his ankles in the volcanic ash with every step. In places, he would sink in the ash almost to his knees, but he kept moving forward. Then the Japanese opened fire. A Marine to his left fell. Another to his right took a bullet as well.
“Why I didn’t get hit is beyond me,” Tso recalled at ASU. “So, I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’”
Reaching the end of the runway, Tso and his comrades dug in as best they could in the shifting sands of Iwo Jima. He had survived but had not done any damage because he had forgotten to load his rifle, as had others around him, drawing the wrath of a sergeant.
“All of a sudden,” Tso remembered, “he said, ‘Here they come! Here they come!’ and he started blasting away. So, we grabbed our rifles. I didn’t know who was coming be we started shooting where he was shooting and with all that firing from the Marines we really had fire power, more than the Japanese did. And, all of a sudden the other sergeant said, ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ So, we stopped.”
“And, then they said, ‘That’s the way we want you to fight,’” Tso continued. “Is that a fight? All we did was sit in the fox holes and just blast away at something we didn’t see.”
Iwo Jima’s Red Beach
Marines of the 5th Division inch their way up a slope on Red Beach No. 1 toward Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, defended by seven Japanese Battalions. By nightfall, 566 Marines were killed and 1,854 wounded. February 19, 1945. Navajo Code Talker Samuel Tso landed on this beach.
Experienced aerial observers had never witnessed a battle like Iwo Jima, thousands of Americans advancing or fighting from fox holes against a practically unseen enemy.