“This will be the bloodiest fight in Marine Corps history. We’ll catch seven kinds of hell on the beaches, and that will be just the beginning. The fighting will be fierce, and the casualties will be awful, but my Marines will take the damned island.”– Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, Commander, V Amphibious Corps
The battle was supposed to last a week. Instead, it took five. When it was over, the Japanese garrison of about 20,000 soldiers and sailors was wiped out. American casualties included 6,821 Marines and sailors killed and 19,217 wounded. Such a total is a testament to the grueling ferocity of combat on that remote Pacific island. Marine correspondent Sgt. Gilbert Preston Bailey observed that of the men who fought on Iwo Jima, “Stories will never be written about most of them. There are too many, and what they do has come to be taken for granted.”
Yet over the years many of those stories – of heroism and sacrifice both great and small by men on the battle lines; of corpsmen and surgeons waging their own war to save the lives of those wounded; of Navy beachmasters and Construction Battalion personnel, the Seabees, imposing organization out of beachhead chaos; of cooks at their field kitchens, braving hostile fire in order to provide hot food; and so many others – have emerged, reminding each successive generation why Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) Fleet Headquarters Adm. Chester W. Nimitz said of those who fought on Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
That statement is underscored by the 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines and Navy servicemen who fought there, the highest number awarded in a single battle. The 22 Marine Medals of Honor represent more than 25 percent of the 83 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in that conflict. Of the vast mountain of countless acts of heroism rendered on Iwo Jima, those who received the Medal of Honor represent the summit. What follows are some of their stories.
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The first Medal of Honor awarded in the battle was the result of action that occurred two days before Marines would set foot on Iwo Jima’s volcanic beaches. Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs – the forerunner of Navy SEALs) were conducting reconnaissance and demolitions missions to gather beach condition intelligence and destroy underwater obstacles in the days leading up to the amphibious assault.
Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class George E. Wahlen, USN, receives his Medal of Honor from President Harry S Truman. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Though fighting would continue for several more days, in CINCPAC communiqué No. 300 dated March 16, 1945, Nimitz stated that “organized resistance had ceased” and that “the battle of Iwo Island has been won. … With certain knowledge of the cost of an objective which had to be taken, the Fleet
Marine Force supported the ships of the Pacific Fleet and by Army and Navy aircraft fought the battle and won. By their victory, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions and other units of the Fifth Amphibious Corps have made an accounting to their country which only history will be able to value fully. Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The phrase “uncommon valor was a common virtue” was later included in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Ridge Park outside Arlington National Cemetery.
As of this writing, Hershel Williams is the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Battle of Iwo Jima and one of only two living World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
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(*denotes posthumous award)Cpl. Charles J. Berry, USMC*Pfc. William R. Caddy, USMCR*Lt. Col. Justice M. Chambers, USMCRSgt. Darrell S. Cole, USMCR*Capt. Robert H. Dunlap, USMCRSgt. Ross F. Gray, USMCR*Sgt. William G. Harrell, USMCLt. j.g. Rufus G. Herring, USNRPfc. Douglas T. Jacobson, USMCRPlatoon Sgt. Joseph R. Julian, USMCR*Pfc. James D. La Belle, USMCR*2nd Lt. John H. Leims, USMCR*Pfc. Jacklyn Harrell Lucas, USMCR1st Lt. Jack Lummus, USMCR*1st Lt. Harry L. Martin, USMCR*Capt. Joseph J. McCarthy, USMCRPvt. George Phillips, USMCR*Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class Francis J. Pierce, USNPfc. Donald J. Ruhl, USMCR*Pvt. Franklin E. Sigler, USMCRCpl. Tony Stein, USMCR*Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class George E. Wahlen, USNGunnery Sgt. William G. Walsh, USMCR*Pvt. Wilson D. Watson, USMCRCpl. Hershel W. Williams, USMCRPharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class Jack Williams, USNR*Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class John H. Willis, USN*This story is from Uncommon Valor: The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.