In February of 1945, US Marines attacked the rocky Japanese island of Iwo Jima, whose name literally means 'Sulfur Island'. American military strategists planned the invasion as the first assault on one of Japan’s “Home Islands” in World War II, and its success would deny the Empire the use of the island for early warning purposes and as an emergency landing strip for its damaged aircraft, while providing the United States with the same advantages. On February 9, US Navy battleships and B-24 heavy bombers from the 7th Air Force began an intense bombardment of the Japanese troops garrisoned in the island's fortified bunkers which lasted for ten days.
Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, fully aware of the production and military power of the advancing US military, ordered the beach defenses to be abandoned. Instead, he had ordered his men to build a series of tunnels, pillboxes, and trenches to augment the natural defensive capabilities of the island. By the time the Americans arrived, the Japanese defenders had built more than 11 miles of tunnels beneath the island, and more than 18,000 Imperial soldiers waited within them, virtually impervious to the American bombs that had been pounding the island in preparation.
Mount Suribachi, a flat-topped caldera on the southern tip of Iwo Jima, dominated the teardrop-shaped island; the rest of the island is mostly flat, except for the much smaller Hill 382 on the north end. At 8:59 a.m. on February 19, the artillery fire and bombing runs stopped, and the US Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions landed at four points on the southwestern corner of the beach. They met with surprisingly little resistance at first, so some had thought that the shelling had annihilated the defenders and the Marines could advance unopposed. The Americans secured the beach and additional troops and equipment soon filled the area as the soldiers began advancing toward the center of the island; advancement was slow going, in part due to the difficulty of moving in the coarse black volcanic sand.
As soon as the Marines were committed into the heart of the island, Japanese troops began to appear from hidden bunkers and hatchways, as if by magic, firing on the American soldiers, and disappearing as quickly as they came. Many of the usual American tactics failed to affect their Japanese adversaries due to their superior defensive positions. Defensive positions thought secured were suddenly repopulated, as the Japanese literally crawled out of the ground at night to reoccupy them. The weapons that provided most effective against the barricaded Japanese were grenades and even bayonets, but the Americans hesitated to close to the uncomfortably short range needed, so the American advance was slow and costly. In order to reduce their casualties and fulfill their mission, the Americans needed a weapon which could fill and destroy a bunker from a distance.
Originally a German invention called the flammenwerfer, by the time of the Iwo Jima, the US had advanced through several versions of the flamethrower. The M2-2 entered service in mid-1944, with the same basic structure as its predecessors: two large tanks filled with flammable fuel mounted on a backpack frame, with a smaller tank filled with a compressed propellant attached in the center. The propellant forced the fuel through a hose and into a vaguely rifle-shaped wand in the user’s hands. The wand had a pilot flam at the front of it, which would ignite the fuel as it was forced out toward the enemy. Earlier versions had used gasoline propelled by hydrogen, but the M2-2 used thickened napalm propelled by nitrogen, providing a longer 20-40 meter range and a more stable burn. The standard tactic was for riflemen to engage a fortification from the front and draw the enemies’ fire, while the flamethrower “torchman” would approach from an angle and fire obliquely into the target, incinerating or asphyxiating everyone inside. Sometimes the torchman would do a “wet shot”, a stream of unlit napalm followed by a fully lit burst, resulting in a massive fireball.
21-year-old Corporal Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, served as a torchman on Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. He spent the day of February 23, 1945, darting through enemy fire, neutralizing a total of seven enemy strongholds with a series of flamethrowers; while periodically returning to gather more fuel or a replacement weapon. At one point, he climbed atop a Japanese pillbox and torched it down through the air vent, and at another point he was charged by a group of bayonet-wielding Japanese warriors, flaming them all with one burst. He was wounded in action on March 3, and for his troubles he was awarded the Purple Heart, and on October 5, 1945, President Harry S Truman awarded him with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on Sulfur Island.
Despite Williams’s success, personal flamethrowers had many disadvantages. They weighed about 70 pounds and had a high profile, so soldiers had difficulty running or crawling while wearing one. They had a short range compared to a rifle, and ran out of fuel after about eight seconds of constant fire. While flamethrowers usually did not explode when shot, Japanese soldiers eager to avoid a screaming, burning death would target American torchmen whenever they could. The necessity for the torchman to expose his whole upper body before firing meant that the torchman's life expectancy was notoriously short and trained operators were soon in short supply. Continued use of the flamethrowers required an alternate method of delivery.
To fill that need, the Americans refitted the ubiquitous M4 Sherman tanks to carry flamethrowers rather than main guns; these tanks were designated M4A3R3, imaginatively nicknamed the ‘Zippo’. Tactics for the Zippo were very much like tactics for the torchmen; other tanks would provide cover and draw fire while several Zippos then rapidly closed in and ignited the target. Terrain sometimes limited their mobility, but they proved to be very effective overall; General Kuribayashi mentioned the flamethrower tanks specifically in his final letter back to Japan.
The siege of Iwo Jima lasted for 39 days and resulted in a decisive American victory. In the end, only 216 Japanese soldiers survived to be captured; the rest were killed on Iwo Jima. General Kuribayashi was among the dead, though the nature and time of his death is unsure, as his body was never found. The operation cost the Americans dearly as well; 6,821 US Marines died there, with 19,217 wounded. However, the success of the invasion dealt a serious blow to the Japanese cause, and in September, the Empire of Japan surrendered and the war had formally ended.
Of the six men in the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, three died on the island, and the other three all suffered from post-war stress; the last of them, Navy Medic John Bradley, died in 1994 at the age of 70. In 2011, 87-year-old Woody Williams appeared on the cable show Sons of Guns, in which he got to fire his refurbished flamethrower once again, torching a stationary target with obvious glee.
Links and Sources:
”The Battle for Iwo Jima” on the Navy Department Library website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
”Chapter XV: The Flame Thrower in the Pacific: the Marianas to Okinawa” in Chemicals in Combat, on the US Army Center of Military History website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Hershel Williams at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, by Robert S. Burrell, Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
M2A1-7 Portable Flamethrower Operator’s Manual, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1973.
The Smell of Burning Flesh, on Steve Baker Films, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Sons of Guns, season 1, episode 3, Discovery Channel, 2011.
“Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima” by Joe Roesenthal, for the Associated Press.
Photo of Marine with flamethrower is courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.
Painting of Corporal Williams in action is titled “Corporal Hershel Williams”, by Jim Laurier.
"Sulfur Island" 2015 by James Husband.