The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the fiercest battles in the Pacific Ocean theater. Capturing the island was crucial. Not only was it an airbase for Japanese fighter planes used to attack American forces, but it served as an airbase during the major Battle of Okinawa. The fighting was ruthless, and many veterans still don’t know how they made it out alive.
Private Jay Rebstock was only 20 years old when he was sent to the sandy shores of Iwo Jima. From surviving surprise attacks and endless artillery to rescuing fellow comrades, Rebstock is ready to tell his story. So, let’s take a look at one soldier’s personal story of one of the most difficult battles of World War II The Battle of Iwo Jima.
Fresh out of boot camp, Jay Rebstock was assigned to the 5th Marine Division. Although the division was new, it had many new Raider veterans and well-experienced paratroopers, including the legendary John Basilone, who received the Medal of Honor while fighting in Guadalcanal and opted to return to combat instead of remaining in the States.
Rebstock was in the presence of greatness, and as a recruit, these veterans gave him confidence. From February until September 1944, the 5th Division trained in the United States and Rebstock was assigned as a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines. By the first week of January 1945, Rebstock and the rest of his division (along with the 4th and 3rd division), headed for what they thought was China or Formosa.
The troops knew nothing of Operation Detachment, which had been issued just a few weeks prior. The operation was dangerous. It called for a direct frontal assault on the black, sandy beaches below Iwo Jima’s Suribachi, as well as for the seizure of three airfields.
The 5th division was assigned to the left of the beaches, while the 4th was assigned to the right. About one week after leaving Hawaii, Rebstock and the rest of his company were told of the operation. Everyone looked at each other puzzled. The captain pulled out a map, which revealed a diagram of the island and began to explain what the operation entailed.
Briefings were now held daily. Models and maps of Iwo Jima were available for each troop to see. One thing was clear to everyone Mount Suribachi had to be taken. As the Marines approached the beaches, the final briefings also included the estimates of the length of the battle.
The young men were told to expect no more than three to five days and even less if the Japanese gave their usual banzai charge and let the Marines cut them down like they always did. On February 18, 1945, the night before the landings, sleep was nearly impossible. There were religious services on board, but barely anyone attended. Some Marines wrote letters, but most of the time was spent checking and rechecking their equipment.
The landing force was called in to eat at 0300 hours on February 19th. Some could not stomach the food, while others ate like there was no tomorrow. Rebstock ate in the gallery. There was little talking, just the sound of metal forks on metal trays. By 0630, everything was in position, and the roar of the shore bombardment began.
To any outsider, the bombardment looked like a chaotic mess, but it was actually a very detailed, meticulously executed operation. Each vessel had been told which target to hit, how many shells to hit it with, and at what time. Every square yard of Iwo Jima was hit by a rain of steel. Five battleships pounded the island from the east coast, while two others hit the island from the west.
For nearly an hour and a half, the battleships shot more than 500 rounds at the island, and the cruisers shot an additional 700. While the shells rained down, the landing force began their mission. With his heavy pack and 5-gallons of water, Rebstock hustled down to the tank deck of the LST (landing ship tank).
The other marines scrambled over the steel decks, and the drivers started their vehicles. The noise in the closed hull was deafening, and the exhaust from the engines began to fill the compartment. After what seemed like forever, the steel doors in the LST’s bow began to open, allowing sunlight and fresh air to seep into the vast hold. Tractor after tractor waddled down the ramp, plopping into the water nose-first. Now it was the 2nd Platoon’s turn.
Rebstock and his fellow 15 Marines suddenly found themselves floating off to join the other launched tractors. By 0800, the naval gunfire suddenly stopped. As the LVTs approached the line of departure, they passed the Navy ships filled with sailors waving and yelling words of encouragement. Nothing could be heard over the rumble of the tractor engine, but Rebstock gave a thumbs up in response.
As the 2nd Platoon reached the line of departure, US aircrafts flew overhead to bomb the island further. For 20 minutes, the Marines cheered as planes dropped their explosives on Mount Suribachi and the Motoyama fields. As the planes flew away, the Navy bombardment began again with every gun concentrating on 3,000 yards of sandy black beaches.
AT 0835, the first wave of infantry formed and headed towards the beaches. Rebstock could see the sterns of the tractors in front of him as they chugged towards Red Beach 1. Holding his 5-gallon water can, Rebstock watched as waves broke over the gunwales and splashed on the deck. The sea was relatively calm, but some men still got sick.
The 30 minutes spent waiting in the belly of the LST with exhaust fumes began to take its toll. As the tractors approached the beach, Rebstock began to see some splashes. He just assumed that the Navy fired some short rounds. But the splashes continued, and suddenly, an LVT exploded, sending screaming men into the water. This was not the Navy, and those were not short rounds.
Rebstock snuck a peek over the side of his tractor. Not only had the LVTs from the first wave not reached the beach, but they had also backed down. The LVTs were firing their guns from the water. “What’s going on?” Rebstock thought to himself. Finally, the tractor reached the beach, and the men jumped onto the black sand.
Rebstock kept low while trying to move forward, but he struggled to lift his feet. The 40-day ship ride had left him out of shape. He felt like a salmon trying to swim upstream. As Rebstock looked down, he realized that he was still lugging his 5-gallons of water. Without skipping a beat, the Marine half-threw, half-kicked the can away.
Even though Rebstock was now 5 gallons lighter, he could still barely move. In addition to his gun, Rebstock had 240 rounds of ammunition, a bandoleer on his chest, a bipod for his BAR, canteens of water, grenades, and a pistol. It didn’t take the Marine long to throw his pistol and bipod onto the beach.
When Rebstock looked up, he noticed that some of his squad had already jumped into the Japanese gun pits and were attacking enemy soldiers. As the 2nd Platoon moved across the island, they wearily looked up at the forbidding slopes of Suribachi, expecting a storm of steel and fire at any moment, but the mountain was eerily quiet.
The men continued until they reached a small sugar cane field that had somehow withstood the Navy bombardment. Before Rebstock knew it, a Japanese soldier began charging towards him. It was almost unreal, like a dream. It took Rebstock just a moment to level his gun and knock down the charging enemy with just one shot.
It was the private’s first kill. Suddenly, a lieutenant ran towards Rebstock, screaming at him. The soldier he just killed was a fellow marine, the lieutenant yelled. Rebstock was horrified. How could he have been that thoughtless? But his worry didn’t last too long, as a fellow Marine presented Rebstock with the insignia he had cut off of the fallen soldier’s uniform. He was, in fact, a Japanese soldier.
The men pushed on. By the early afternoon, the Marines finally reached the opposite side of Iwo Jima and began to count their casualties. The Easy Company had lost its commander along with six other men, and there were nine wounded. However, it was all worth it, they thought. The Marines had carved a wide path across Iwo Jima, isolating Mount Suribachi from the island’s northern shores.
The company evacuated their wounded, took defensive positions, and waited for the order to march north. But those orders did not come. Back on the beach, the soldiers were experiencing hell. The beaches were pulverized with every type of fire imaginable. Landing crafts exploded, equipment was destroyed, and the wounded were gunned down along with the medics assisting them.
As darkness approached, Rebstock and the rest of the Easy Company prepared for a banzai counterattack. The gunner positioned his BAR towards the north, envisioning the upcoming screaming charge of Japanese soldiers. Rebstock began to worry if he would be able to fire fast enough. By 1845, the skies turned black and the air cold.
The Japanese bombardment continued, but the banzai attack never came. Instead, General Kuribayashi continuously pounded the American forces with artillery fire, knowing that the Marines would eventually come to him. When morning came, all Rebstock and the other men could do was advance a few yards and then burrow into the ground because of the constant artillery that fell around them.
Other than the artillerymen on the beaches and the soldier whom Rebstock killed on D-day, the enemy remained unseen. The 2nd Platoon had yet to see enemy soldiers. They had no idea where the Japanese were hiding, but one thing was for certain wherever the Japanese soldiers were hiding, they had eyes on the Marines.
There were 600 casualties that day, including Company E’s second commander. Rebstock prepared for another attack on February 23rd, but suddenly there was wild cheering heard across the front lines, and the ship’s whistles could be heard from the water. “The flag’s up,” someone yelled. All eyes turned towards Mount Suribachi. There it was in all its glory the Stars and Stripes blowing gently in the wind.
As everyone began cheering, Rebstock felt tears in his eyes. Not only was he bursting with pride, but he knew the battle must be coming to an end. After all, his commanders predicted a three to five-day battle. They were already on day five. Well, the battle was not even close to being over. In fact, the Battle of Iwo Jima was just beginning.
Once the exhilaration of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi passed, the battle returned to its bloody contest of attrition. On February 24th, Company E and the rest of the men from the 2nd Battalion crept up the west coast along an area later nicknamed Death Valley. The plan was straightforward Lay down a base of fire, bring in the flamethrowers, destroy the bunker, and move on to the next one.
As the Marines trudged on, they gazed out at the peaceful waves breaking on the black volcanic sand beaches. Rebstock began to fantasize about what an amazing spot it would be to spend a lazy afternoon. But there was no time for fantasies, especially since their by-the-book attack wasn’t working.
As the men reached the pillbox, the flamethrower operator was hit. Another man took his position but was killed almost instantly by enemy fire. Rebstock revved up his shooting, cursing the enemy he couldn’t see. A third man reached for the flamethrower, but he was also hit. Even when the Marines finally took over the pillbox, they were shot at from a different enemy position. They had to come up with a new plan.
The next day, the officers thought of a different plan. Instead of fires, which announced the beginning of the attack and drove the enemy underground, the Marines decided to attack without any preparatory fires, hoping to catch the Japanese by surprise. Death Valley was shaped like a football stadium, with high ridgelines surrounding the valley floor.
The new plan was to go down into the valley and then seize the northern ridgeline to seal off the rest of the island from the enemy in the north. The entire attack, however, could be seen by the unseen enemy, but there was no other way. At exactly 1500, the descent began, but Rebstock could not move. His feet were frozen in place, and he was overcome with an unquenchable thirst.
“I guess that is what’s called being scared,” Rebstock told author Ronald J. Drez. “I could not move, and I drank almost an entire canteen of water, and only then did my legs move forward.” The Marines moved no more than 50 yards before the explosions began. Everyone dove for cover, and Rebstock found himself in a hole with his squad leader and two other men.
But before the soldiers could get acquainted with one another, two other men were hit in the head by Japanese bullets and fell over dead. Rebstock and his squad leader laid in the fetal position as Japanese artillery roared around them. As the ground shook, rocks began to bury the huddled soldiers.
To make matters worse, airbursts began detonating above them, sending pieces of shrapnel flying. Rebstock couldn’t move. He flattened himself into the hole like a worm. The gunner remained pinned there for what seemed like hours until he finally heard the friendly tanks arrive. As the tanks began to fire, so did Rebstock. When the smoke began to clear, the Marine spotted a new bunker.
So, he crawled closer, changed his magazine, and prepared to fight. Other Marines spotted the bunker and joined Rebstock. To his right, Private First-Class Leonard Nederveld threw a smoke grenade into the opening, expecting a soft explosion, after which all they would have to do is wait for the Japanese soldiers to run out.
However, the explosion was far from soft. It was a deafening explosion that not only destroyed the bunker but also clouded the battlefield. Rebstock was thrown to the ground and his BAR fell from his hands. The explosion seemed to echo over and over again. The pillbox turned out to be an ammunition dump. Rebstock staggered to his feet, but all he could hear was ringing.
Dazed and disoriented, the Marine looked for his weapon. But just as he regained his standing, he was knocked down by yet another explosion. Next to him, a Sherman tank erupted in a ball of fire. While the tank continued to explode, so did the pillbox. After what seemed like an eternity, the entire area was engulfed in an eerie silence.
The Marines began to pick themselves up from the ground, but they were disoriented. They began to make hesitant steps in one direction and then the other. Unarmed, Rebstock began frantically looking for his weapon. He finally came across the damaged piece of machinery and cradled it into his arms.
After taking a working weapon from a fallen fellow soldier, Rebstock smashed his own BAR on to a large boulder, just to be sure that the Japanese couldn’t use it against him and his men. Like figures in a dream, other Marines began to appear through the settling dust and smoke. Someone said to return to their original lines, so the battered Marines began limping back, dragging their wounded buddies with them.
Although the attack wasn’t long, the company added 16 more casualties to their list. As night fell, cold rain began to beat down on the already battered marines. Rebstock lay in his hole, shivering and cursing the island of Iwo Jima. The miserable weather was accompanied by yet another Japanese bombardment, making whatever little sleep they might have been able to get impossible.
As the rain continued into the morning, the Marines were ordered to stay in their holes. They would be reissued ammunition, and more replacement soldiers would be sent to the platoon. Until then, the Marines were ordered not to move. Then at 1630, a soldier next to Rebstock noticed that a Japanese soldier was crawling in on them.
The private squinted his eyes and spotted a crawling figure about 50 yards in front of him. But as the man crawled, he raised his hand before continuing towards Rebstock. The private narrowed in on the man, but suddenly someone shouted, “Don’t shoot!” The man crawling towards them was not an enemy soldier but a U.S. Marine.
Two soldiers ran out to bring the dust-covered and severely injured Marine back to safety. The man was unrecognizable, but as Rebstock stared at him, he realized he knew who the man was. It was Watson from a different company. The other corpsmen patched Watson up the best they could and tried to evacuate him to the rear.
But as they picked the wounded man up, the Japanese opened fire. The stretcher crashed to the ground as everyone dove for cover. The wounded man began to scream until finally, someone pulled him to safety. “You’ll be okay, Watson,” Rebstock said as he patted him on the shoulder. “Why are you calling him Watson? That’s not Watson,” another Marine said. “That’s Nederveld.”
The private took a closer look. The other Marine was right. Unbelievably, it was the man who had dropped the smoke grenade into the bunker the day before. Not only did he survive the explosions, but he spent more than 24 hours behind Japanese lines. Everyone was in disbelief.
The company was promised that they would not return to the front line. They had lost too many men and were mercifully sent back to the rear for much-needed “R&R.” However, this promise was broken on March 4th, nine days after the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. By the time Company E returned to the front line, it had moved all the way to the northern end of the island.
At an elevation of 300 feet, Rebstock could even see the ocean. They were almost done. For the next week, the soldiers of Company E attacked the Japanese final defenses. It was there that Rebstock first saw a Zippo tank in action. The fire-breathing machines could shoot a long stream of fire for more than a minute.
The Zippo tanks annihilated the Japanese soldiers in their defensive positions. The few that did survive were shot down almost immediately by Rebstock and the other Marines. As each hour passed, the Japanese soldiers became frantic. Sensing the end was near, they dropped a seemingly endless supply of mortars on the Marines.
At night, they snuck behind American lines in search for food and water, stabbing any sleeping soldier they came across. By one of the last days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the 2nd Platoon found themselves on the final ridgeline looking down towards the ocean. The end was in sight. A Marine descended into the canyon, but as he approached the bottom, a shot rang out. The soldier slumped over, dead from a sniper’s bullet.
One Japanese soldier came out, waving his hands, but the Marines cut him down. Then a second Japanese soldier came out with something in his hands. Some Marines shouted to hold fire, but a nervous shot was fired. When a third Japanese soldier was shot, Rebstock says that he put down his weapon. He couldn’t shoot anymore. Other Marines followed suit, and there was finally silence.
By March 27th, Rebstock and his fellow survivors were back at their starting point on the sandy beaches near the base of Mount Suribachi. Just before dawn, the soldiers heard shooting in one of the airfields, but after an hour, there was silence once again. As the sun began to rise, an LST made its way towards the shore to take the Marines off the island.
Rebstock later discovered that the shooting had been one last banzai charge by the last surviving Japanese soldiers. Over 300 Japanese attacked, killing almost 100 Marines who lay sleeping in their tents. The cost of the Battle of Iwo Jima was appalling for both sides.
According to author Ronald J. Drez, the Japanese suffered more than 20,000 casualties, while the Americans suffered 5,931 dead and 17,372 wounded, making it the only Marine battle where American casualties exceeded the Japanese. As Rebstock’s ship sailed from the island, he couldn’t believe that he survived. On the ride back to Hawaii, there were several burials at sea as the wounded succumbed to their wounds. More than 40 days out at sea was too much for them.
As the ship reached Pearl Harbor, Company E gathered towards the front of the ship. As the men anxiously waited to pass through the gates, a photographer told them to line up for a company photograph. The battered Marines lined up in three rows, unenthusiastic about the photo. Many of the survivors’ heads were elsewhere.
Although their bodies may have left the island, their mind was still on the black, sandy beaches of Iwo Jima. As the photographer snapped the photo, a voice on the loudspeaker came on to announce that President Franklin Roosevelt had just died. According to Rebstock, everyone was overcome with emotion. The president had not seen the end of the war for which they had sacrificed so much.
A few months later, the Americans dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and, within days, Company E was loaded onto a ship headed for Japan. Three days out of Pearl Harbor, while the ship sailed under blackout, the lights suddenly turned on. The captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that the war was over. Rebstock and the rest of the company could finally go home.
The Battle of Iwo Jima would remain Rebstock’s only battle. The battle proved to be significant as it cleared the way for the largest battle in the Pacific Ocean Theater, the Battle of Okinawa. But the sheer number of casualties led many Iwo Jima veterans to question whether it was worth it.