An amazing visual artifact from the Second World War, being an aerial reconnaissance photograph of Iwo Jima island stamped January 12, 1945, thus documenting the savage pre-invasion bombardment of the island.
This rare aerial reconnaissance photograph covers several square miles of the northern end of Iwo Jima, with breakers along the beaches clearly visible at upper right and Motoyama Airfield No. 3 visible at lower left in grid squares 7-T and 8-P. This area was a Japanese stronghold, characterized by rocky terrain which favored defenders. While Japanese commander Lieutenant General Kuribayashi had organized the southern part of the island around Mount Suribachi as a sort of independent sector, he built up the northern part of the island as his main defensive zone. According to estimates, he positioned the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, and two artillery and three heavy mortar battalions in the region, along with some 5,000 naval gunners and infantry. This substantial and heavily dug-in force was faced by the 5th Marine Division.
The neatly drawn grid of green and yellow lines closely resembles that found on the Special Air and Gunnery Target Maps of the island produced in advance of the invasion, and was likely drawn in to facilitate methodical damage analysis and/or guide future attacks. Close inspection of the photograph reveals large areas heavily scarred by bombs and/or artillery blasts. What is not visible is the vast system of bunkers and tunnels constructed by the Japanese in advance of the invasion, much of which was untouched even after months of bombardment.
Original aerial reconnaissance photographs of Iwo Jima dating to the period of the invasion are very rare on the market. For example, a search of RareBookHub shows dozens of variations of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi having been offered for sale, but not a single reconnaissance photo.
Background: The invasion of Iwo Jima
Iwo Jima, whose name translates as “Sulfur Island,” was an important midway point between South Pacific bomber bases that were already in the hands of the Allies and the Japanese home islands. 700 miles from Tokyo and 350 from the nearest U.S. airbase, with a central plain suitable for large runways, American planners viewed it as a valuable target. Following months of bombardment, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions began landing on the island on February 19, 1945.
Despite the sophistication of the American intelligence effort and the overwhelming force brought to bear, the invasion was extraordinarily costly. American planners failed to understand the defensive strategy of Japanese General Kurabayashi or the complexity and extent of the Japanese fortifications, which included a huge network of linked underground bunkers, well-hidden and -protected artillery positions, interlocking fields of fire, and some 11 miles of tunnels. They also vastly overestimated the impact of the months-long pre-invasion bombardment, which left these fortifications largely intact on the day of the invasion. Indeed, one recent writer quotes Admiral Chester Nimitz, American Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, as having said “Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight.” (Derrick Wright, The Battle for Iwo Jima, p. 51)
The battle for the island was among the bloodiest of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. In total, more than 6,800 U.S. Marines lost their lives and more than 19,000 were wounded, while a staggering 18,000 of the roughly 20,000 Japanese defenders were killed. In light of these terrible losses, there was, and still is, dispute about whether the invasion had been merited.
In all, a rare photographic artifact from one of the great battles of the Second World War.