The Killing Fields of Sulfur Island

Author: Robert A. Leader

It was dark and very quiet on the LST deck. It would be hours before the final naval bombardment of the beaches would begin. Through the gloom I realized our ship was off the southern tip of the island. The first rays of sun pierced the smoky haze. And there, by God, it was . . . the volcano! Suribachi was dangerous, yet through the filtered light I thought it beautiful.

I recalled the recent days as the LST waddled up from the Micronesia island of Saipan. The Landing Ship Tank, designed so men and supplies could be unloaded without docks or cranes, was a sweltering steel box. The troops lived topside, seeking shelter in the shade of landing craft and equipment lashed to the deck. By night we slept with limbs locked around cleats or stanchions so as not to tumble overboard. We welcomed the night, with its cooling winds. When I studied our convoy, it seemed to reach from horizon to horizon. I was happy those days at sea.

On this night, February 18, 1945, lights danced across the sky and thunder rolled over the water. The U.S. ships and planes of Task Force 54 were completing the preparatory bombardment of the island, whose three airstrips were used by the Japanese to launch Kamikazi attacks. Watching these pyrotechnics, I marveled at the contradiction between the beautiful and the lethal.

“That’s Sulfur Island,” said a sailor, pointing into the void. “What,” I asked, “is sulfur island?” “That’s your island — Iwo Jima.”

It was the proverbial eve of battle. That night I slept below deck.

The next morning the assault swept over the island like a tsunami. We were not being washed ashore like flotsam; we were in order and under control. In my mind I likened it to a great calvary charge of yore. We transferred from the large LSTs to small amphibious tractors called alligators. Then under a rain of mortar shells, we had to jettison ammo we were bringing ashore for following landing waves and, if need be, a final fight on the beach. It was an insane morning.

At the water’s edge the beach seemed clear as we left our craft. The sands of Iwo were, in fact, coarse black ash. We scampered for the assumed protection of the terraces. The wet sand was swept smooth by the tide. Then I saw it: a leg — a clean, perfect limb with a new field shoe, clean sock. It ended at the knee. There was no blood. It appeared to have been dropped there like a loose canteen by someone on the run. I wanted it to be Japanese, but I knew they didn’t wear boondockers.

On the terraces, each attempt to dig in was nullified by the exposure of mines. While seeking cover in the top terrace, I was buried by a shell that lifted the top off the terrace and deposited it on the reverse slope where I was huddled. My mates dug me out, and I had nothing worse than the shakes and a bleeding ear. The beach rapidly filled with men and equipment. The destruction was cataclysmic. Working off the beach, we began to penetrate the cross-island defense. I was hot and quite bewildered.

We crawled on our bellies much of the day, attempting to isolate the southern end of the island. We found remnants of enemy trenches where we could move more or less upright. But these trenches were deadly. Machine guns were trained at where they crossed at right angles. Grazing fire accounted for many of our casualties.

But where were their dead? We had been overrunning them all day, but they were practically invisible. I reasoned that the Japanese were making a maximum effort to retrieve their dead and wounded. This was unnerving. It was a bi-level war. I visualized their subterranean fortifications like the ant farms we had as children: cutaway sections of earth with a multitude of galleries and branching tunnels with incredible hidden activity. Was it something like that beneath us?

My fire team was intact. The squad was in contact with the platoon, but beyond that I had no information. Somehow we had fought our way to the far coast. Now, the southern end of the island was separated from the northern end. After dark, orders came to dig in for the night. That was not possible for some of us. We were pinned down on a rocky outcropping, exposed. The enemy was already infiltrating our positions, and we awaited the nocturnal attack. I wondered if I could play dead all night.

The flare opened with a pop, hissing and sputtering. A great oscillating chandelier bathed us in a chiaroscuro of light. I dared not move. Our ships continued to pump a stream of star shells over the island. Their timing was impeccable and maddening. The Navy illuminated us but also blinded us. In this eerie light the volcano assumed a particularly menacing presence. This is a truly evil place, I told myself. Only this morning I had thought Surabachi looked beautiful, like the woodcut prints of Hiroshige and Utamaro.

The counterattack never materialized. Dawn arrived; I had survived my first night ashore. War correspondent Robert Sherrod, who was on the island, wrote, “The first night on Iwo Jima can only be described as a nightmare in hell.” I wondered if he was on a rocky ledge too.

Daybreak was cold and rainy. Easy Company was ordered back to the battalion. This movement gave us an opportunity to see the complex of large caves: garages with machine shops and other hidden handiworks. The attack on the volcano continued: a frontal assault, encirclement of the base and occupation of the mountain.

Our air support was heartening. Like angry wasps, our planes swarmed over the volcano with the ripple of rockets and the roar of napalm. A strafing Corsair roared low over us. Instantly I felt a searing pain in my back. “I’ve been hit!” I clawed at my back . . . and removed two spent .50-caliber cartridge cases. The plane had spewed a hot trail of these and two had gone down my collar. The men laughed: “Close, but no cigar! And no Purple Heart either!”

As the day wore on, the wind and the weather worsened. The beach was chaotic, a landscape of rubbish, both human and material. I shared a crater with the sergeant. I thought him laconic. This was my first experience with a classic rolling artillery barrage. I recognized it as a work of devilish craftsmanship. It was so well executed that the sergeant could predict the arrival and impact point of each shell as the gunners moved the barrage back and forth and up and down over our position.

Once he yelled: “Duck, this one’s ours.” We heard a great thump. A dud shell buried itself at the edge of our hole. Dazed, I tried to cover my astonishment with a pithy remark about the quality of duds made in Hong Kong. The sergeant seemed disappointed in me. “Just be grateful those buggers don’t have proximity fuses,” he said, “or we would be out of business.”

We took turns watching our wires and trip flares for an expected attack. There was an attempted suicidal Banzai attack, but one of our destroyers caught the attackers in its searchlight on the plateau east of the volcano and cut them down. The next morning we passed through this terrible carnage as we worked our way toward Tobishi Point. (We were later told that there were some 400 dead on that killing field.)

It was a wet, gloomy day; a repeat of the previous day. The fighting was as intense as ever, but we had a feeling that we had broken them. I was badly shaken by a comrade’s death; he was a frightful sight after throwing himself on a charge to save a fellow Marine.

We were now encountering increasing numbers of dead Japanese and swarms of great green flies. We figured the Japs were no longer able to reclaim their dead; we were thinning them out! Those men of the 312th Independent Infantry Battalion looked like first-class troops. We could testify how well they could fight. The remains evidenced peasant vitality. From the scattered memorabilia that festooned the battlefield dead, we concluded that these were veterans with service in China and Southeast Asia.

Japanese dead were a problem for us. Booby-trapping was endemic, and some of the dead were feinting. It became necessary to shoot their dead to be sure they were. I found this coup de grace repulsive. I despised these people for their cruelties and treachery, but I respected them as brave and resourceful warriors. I would have chosen to salute their dead, not execute them. They left us little choice. If we had not held these people in such contempt, we might have greatly feared them.

It became a day of satchel charges and flame-throwing. We were cut off on a narrow ledge between the mountain and the slopes plunging down into the sea. The enemy had unexpectedly burst out of volcanic caves. It was a standoff. I dozed off and slept surprisingly well. Then it was a day for consolidation and resupply. News came up from the beach that last night there had been a great sea battle. There were conflicting reports about carriers lost and damaged. We also learned that our regimental command post had received a direct hit, killing the regimental surgeon. Our regimental commander was spared.

It rained most of the day and night. A lot of effort was expended trying to trap rainwater. Our issued drinking water always tasted of gasoline. Water was a serious problem on Iwo Jima. At night the Japs would attempt to steal our canteens.

Raising the flag

The battle for Suribachi was not fought on the volcano but on the approaches to it, a furious pounding lasting some five days. The actual occupation of the volcano was little more than a series of skirmishes. The capture of Suribachi with its two flag-raisings was the emotional climax of the battle, although it took place on the fifth day of a 10-week operation.

Late on February 22, the noncommissioned officers were summoned to the company command post. We were told that a 40-man combat patrol from the third platoon would climb Suribachi. That was it! I was heartened to see our captain alive and well. I admired his cool and thoughtful demeanor. At the time I had no idea that he had received word that his infant son had died. He kept it to himself. He was like that.

The weather had cleared the next day. I looked up to the summit. The sharp contours had been reduced to earth slides. There was no need for the grappling hooks and climbing ropes we had struggled with in training. Our colonel raised his fist. The 40-man patrol began the climb Indian file, five paces apart. It was hard going and we stopped to catch our wind. In about 40 minutes we were at the top of the world, some 550 feet above sea level. There had been no chatter and no shots fired. It wasn’t what we expected; the Nips had their heads down that morning.

The rim of the crater was a scene of utter desolation. In my boyish euphoria, I raised my M1 and roared “I claim this volcano for the United States of America!” Half in jest, yet aware of the significance of capturing a piece of Japanese homeland, I urinated into the crater. Others followed. The dour platoon guide snarled “Knock it off, you guys.” Then he told me, “The colonel wants to see what’s up here, so draw one of your panoramic views of the crater area and be quick about it!”

I sat on at caldera’s edge and began my 360-degree drawing. Removing pages from my message book, I strung them together with surgical tape from the corpsman. I drew on the back side of the paper. Shooting azimuth with my compass, I calibrated our position, the topographical features and the remains of enemy works. A runner took the drawing to the battalion command post. I never heard of it again.

Patrols were sent out and mopping up began. My fire team was one of those ordered into the crater of the volcano. Our descent drew spasmodic exchanges of fire, but we suffered no casualties.

Topside they needed a flagpole. Length of water pipe lay at the bottom of the caldera, where a rainwater retention system had been scrambled by constant bombardment. With help, I passed a long section of pipe to waiting hands at the top. This became the flagpole. We were pulling ourselves out of the crater as the first flag was raised. When I saw the flag snapping in the breeze, I had some doubts . . . every Nip on the island will zero in on it.

We were too busy to make much of the occasion. I never heard the tumult of whistles, foghorns and bells from the fleet or the cheers that rose across the island at the first sight of the Stars and Stripes over Suribachi. My duties kept me from seeing either of the flag-raisings or the pictures being taken by the news photographer. Sometime later, a Marine photographer gathered the patrol under the flag and took our picture. We raised our helmets and weapons in mock imitation of Japanese news photos. It wasn’t until two months later in the hospital at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor that I understood the importance of the event when I saw the famous photo of the flag-raising in Time magazine. There was no doubt, it was visual history.

Our high perch was not inviolate. Artillery spotters were the first to arrive with war dogs for local security. (We wondered what we were for.) They were trying to pinpoint enemy batteries that were all but invisible. The spotters’ hushed litany of telephone counts of muzzle-flashes became an audio accompaniment during the long nights.

It must have been noon that the Catholic chaplain arrived. An altar was hastily erected, and Mass was first celebrated on the volcano. Communion was distributed and a blessing was given to all. This edifying experience left me with a deep sense of gratitude and peace.

The afternoon trickle of visitors was mostly voyeurs. One character, red and puffing, identified himself as a correspondent from the Times (of London, of course). He sat among us, asked a few questions and looked irritable. He found it singular that no one, officers or enlisted, wore any rank markings. We had the distinct impression that he didn’t approve of the way we conducted the battle. Finally, he made a remark I did not hear clearly, about a very untidy battlefield. Then he nodded and went down the mountain. We looked at each other . . . an untidy battlefield?!

That night I discovered that my feet glowed in the dark. I recalled that in our descent into the caldera, I had walked in some soft mud. It must have been phosphorescent. I hid my feet under a poncho. I shared a hole that night. The hole was foul with sulfur. During the night we could feel muffled explosions beneath us. We knew that our friends in caves below were disemboweling themselves with grenades like good samurai. Time stood still on the mountain. We had kept the Japs from returning, and the spotters were safe.

We came down from the volcano after six days to rejoin Easy Company. We were to relieve elements of the 27th Marines in the north. It was a heartbreaking trek northward. Easy Company went down the center of the island, the three airfields to our right and the western beaches on our left. We were under constant rocket and mortar fire. The earth was eviscerated, issuing sulfurous gas mixed with the sweet odor of putrefying flesh. Red ants scampered everywhere. In places the ground was too hot to lie on, even for momentary cover.

I vividly recall a sad sideshow. Below our position, low rocks protruded a few feet above the water. Japanese swimmers set up mortars there and lobbed rounds into our worried flank. We would chase them off; others would replace them. Eventually, one of our prowling destroyers brought her 40s to bear, raking the outcroppings unmercifully. Those who tried to swim away were hosed in the water with 20 millimeters. It was like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. I felt sorry for those men. They never had a chance.

We were somewhere between Airfield Number Three and the western beaches in the vicinity of Hill 362A. Dirty and tired, we made plans for the night. There had been many head wounds, and morale was slumping. I realized that there were only two of us NCOs left in the platoon. By nightfall there would be only one.

Feeling fatherly about the new replacements, I wanted them to get a little rest. Half of mine had been lost to artillery the night before. I was concerned that there was movement in an adjacent enemy bunker. I rehearsed my moves: pull the pin, pop up for a line of sight and throw a strike into the embrasure . . . be exposed for only a fraction of a second. I chose a phosphorus grenade. Go! The damn ring didn’t pull the pin! The spoon didn’t fly! What the hell — a dud? The fraction of a second delay became an eternity.

The impact was heart-stopping. I felt electrocuted. I heard the supplication within me: sweet Mother of God, no, no, oh please, noooo. The violence pinned me to the ground on my back. I thought my right arm was gone. . . the grenade must have prematurely detonated. I tried to check my right hand . . . I was paralyzed.

Someone dragged me out of the line of fire. The pain was unbearable. A disembodied voice told me, “I got that little bastard for you.” I heard the ensuing gunfire as the company deployed. Someone screamed a warning about goddamn spider-traps here — the underground holes, covered with movable lids masquerading as grass or soil, that hid Japanese shooters. (So that was it: a bullet in the ole brisket, and the sniper was hiding in a spider-trap up behind the bunker.) The remnants of Easy Company held, and they got me out after dark.

The trip to the aid station was interminable. The three litter bearers were forced to wait out flares. Moving at night in Marine lines was dangerous. Now I was concerned about friendly fire. The pain came in waves; I slipped in and out of consciousness. Once I was dropped when a bearer was shot in the wrist. Later, I was loaded onto a Jeep . . .

The field hospital was a long covered trench or tunnel; it could have been a cave. Electric lights had been strung the length of it. The wounded were lined along one wall, allowing a walkway down the other side. Somewhere I had acquired a large tag on the front of me, which I sensed a doctor was trying to read. “Abdominal gunshot, huh?” Then he wrote with a grease pencil on my forehead. “I’ll get you something for the pain, mate.” He rolled me over and exhaled; I caught the cigarette breath. “Won’t have to dig that bugger out. It’s gone clean through ya.” A corpsman put a needle in me. I noticed others also had cryptic writing on their foreheads. They dripped blood into my other arm. God, I was tired. I passed out or fell asleep. Whatever, it didn’t matter, it hurt so. . . .

The smell of wet ash . . . the sound of the surf close by . . . I opened my eyes . . . it was pitch dark. I sensed someone lying next to me. . . . Someone was moving around! Fear scalded my wounds. A dark form was over me. A voice whispered “Don’t be frightened, son. I’m a Catholic priest, I’ll anoint you before they take you out to the ship.” (Was this the last rites?)

“Thank you, father,” but there was no voice in me. Soon he was gone.

I closed my eyes. My body felt buoyant — like floating in the warm sea at Hilo. The pounding of the surf increased.

The last thing I remembered was remembering that pacific meant peaceful.

Robert Leader, a Notre Dame emeritus professor of art, was serving in the Marines as a 20-year-old corporal during the invasion of Iwo Jima.