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Iwo Jima and President’s Day

And so, here we are in mid-February. doubtless cold and wet in the Great Lakes. If we had a nickel for every snowstorm in February…lots of nickels. Every February day I don’t have to haul out the snowblower’s a good day…

But this is 19 February, when we celebrate the birth of Copernicus in 1473 (remember him, the guy who said that the Earth was not the center of the universe?). And we remember the non-promotion of Benedict Arnold on 19 February 1777: he was so mad he was willing to sell out the country.  Also, on 19 February 1861, Tsar Alexander II of Russia freed the serfs: unlike slavery in the US, the practice wasn’t universal in Russia. Edison patented his phonograph on this day in 1878. And Cuban strongman FIdel Castro resigned his offices on this day in 2008. But today we talk about high spots in the ocean, and Monday holidays.

That made Iwo a problem, especially for the Army Air Force’s B-29s based in the Marianas.

The Volcano Islands, just south of the Bonins, were the first overseas acquisition for the Empire of Japan when they were annexed in 1891. No one else really wanted them, so no one minded, at the time. But by 1944 they were a bastion for the Home Islands as the Americans moved inexorably towards Japan. Iwo Jima, the flattest of the island group, had the beginnings of three airfields on it by the end of 1944. That made Iow a problem, especially for the Army Air Force’s B-29s based in the Marianas.

The Japanese rarely tried to pursue the big Superforts over the water.

But HH “Hap” Arnold, commanding the US Army Air Forces, didn’t like the idea that the Japanese could use Iwo to attack his bombers on their way to Japan. As unpleasant a prospect as it was, he couldn’t show that any of his airplanes had been shot down by Iwo-based fighters. Then Arnold got the idea that he could base fighters on Iwo to “escort” the bombers, and maybe crippled B-29s could use it as an emergency airfield. All of which was true, but “escorting” B-29s wasn’t practical. The Japanese weren’t real good at intercepting B-29s over Japan, and the way fighter “escort” worked that late in the war was more like “be at this map grid at this time when the bombers are expected to be there.” The Japanese rarely tried to pursue the big Superforts over the water.

200px-Iwo_jima_location_mapSagredo

As the map shows, Iwo is in a direct line between the Mariana Islands and Japan. Now, the airfields weren’t a problem for anyone other than the B-29s, and that a minor irritant in the long run. But the Marines had three divisions rebuilding in Hawaii that formed V Amphibious Corps, and the Army was scrambling for as many men as they could get for their Philippine campaign. On that basis, Arnold convinced the Marines that using the otherwise idle Marines to take Iwo would save them from Douglas MacArthur’s clutches.

The Marines have used Iwo Jima as a case study of their worth ever since.

Nonetheless, eventually, Arnold sold the Iwo Jima project to everyone he needed to, and the Marines stormed ashore on 19 February 1945. The savage fighting lasted until mid-March, and resulted in nearly 7,000 Marine and over 17,000 Japanese dead. The Marines have used Iwo Jima as a case study of their worth ever since. But later scholars have asked:

  • How many “escort” missions were conducted from Iwo? Answer–three (1191 sorties), and all lost more fighters than bombers due to the fighter’s lack of over-water navigational aids that they were too small to accomodate. The effort was soon abandoned.
  • How many B-29 crewmen were saved by using Iwo for emergency landings? Answer–About 5,000, give or take. At least half of the subsequent emergency landings were of convenience, not dire emergency.
  • Given those two answers, does that mean that the 7,000 Marines who died were worth less than the 5,000 or so Army air crewmen saved? And herein lies the controversy.

This dispute brewed up in the 21st century between scholars of the Pacific War, and pointed out that not all operations there were without debatable results. My book, Tug of War: The Super-Heavy Bomber and the Invention of Strategic Warfare (tentatively,  sometime in 2019) discusses the nascent theories of “strategic bombardment” and the struggle of Arnold and others to bring them into practice.


And today is Presidents’ Day/Washington’s Birthday, observed in the US as an alternative to Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday since the late 1980s, depending on where you are and who you ask. It’s the federal holiday (my wife the banker doesn’t work and there’s no mail) in observance. But, as the image at the top implies, it’s also an excuse for businesses to hold sales, as if they need one. The lass in question is shilling for some California resort’s Presidents’ Day Weekend. Although she’s pretty, I’m not sure that old George would have approved of her use of the flag. I mean, seriously: standing on a boat crossing the Delaware with a flag that wouldn’t be invented for another two years is one thing, but she’s much too scantily clad for New Jersey in December. She’d catch her death. Drape one of those over her shoulders…

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