A rare and fascinating visual artifact from World War II, being a wartime aerial reconnaissance photograph of Iwo Jima stamped March 8, 1945, thus documenting part of the island while the American invasion was fully underway.
This rare aerial reconnaissance photograph shows the area around Kitano Point, at the northern end of the island, with breakers along the beaches clearly visible. This 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. Kuribayashi’s headquarters and main stronghold was in a 640-meter gorge south of Kitano Point. This substantial and heavily dug-in force was faced by the 5th Marine Division.
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. The neatly drawn grid of blue lines was likely drawn in to facilitate methodical analysis and/or guide future attacks. There are also several curved lines and numeric notations, the purpose of which is unclear.
The photograph is stamped March 8, 1945, suggesting it was taken on or around that date, thus anticipating the final struggle for the northern part of the island. On March 21, the Marines destroyed the command post in the gorge with four tons of explosives and on March 24, they sealed the remaining caves in the area. However, on the night of 25 March, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final counterattack in the vicinity of Airfield No. 2 (not shown on the present photograph). Army pilots and Marines of the 5th Pioneer Battalion and 28th Marine Regiment repelled the repelled the attack but suffered heavy casualties. Kuribayashi himself died in the attack, supposedly while leading a final assault. Iwo Jima was officially declared secure at 09:00 on March 26.
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.