Monday, February 19, 2024

Gen. Liversedge And The Battle Of Iwo Jima

While Marines fondly remember him as "Harry the Horse" because of his stamina and resilience, he was born in the small California Gold Rush town of Volcano on September 21, 1894. As for a young man, Harry Bluett Liversedge began his career as a Marine in May 1917 when he was 21. He enlisted in the Corps as a Private (E-1). Very soon after enlisting, he was in France with the 5th Marines.

And while it is anyone's guess what sort of young man he was growing up, it's a safe bet to say that he was a typical American youth who celebrated America's greatness. And really, why not? We were in a period of economic prosperity, and the future was one of optimism and hope.

While European Monarchies scorned democracy and kept their peasant class in place, their rule was being threatened by Socialists and Communists who wanted to do the exact same thing and enslave the poor. America had become the champion of democracy and by the beginning of the 20th century, Americans saw the old ways of suppressing the rights of others as something that needed to end.

Europe went to war in 1914. To stop tyranny. the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in 1917. As for a young man, Harry Liversedge began his career as a Marine in May 1917 when he was 21. He enlisted in the Corps as a Private (E-1).

And while I can't find information about his service in France other than the fact that he served with the 5th Marines, possibly at the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918. The 1,087 casualties suffered by the Corps in the first day of fighting was more than it had taken in all its previous battles combined.

I suspect he distinguished himself in battle. What makes me say such a thing? Well, it's not every day a young man enlists in the Marine Corps as a Private, and then just a year and a half later in September of 1918 is commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. That tells us a lot about what he was made of. And yes, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant just two months before World War I ended on November 11, 1918.

Harry Liversedge represented the United States in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, Belgium, and won a bronze medal in the shot put. He served at the Naval Academy at Annapolis and Quantico Virginia, took part in the Banana Wars in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, served at the Marine Barracks at Mare Island, California, and later served in China. So yes, as an exemplary Marine, he steadily moved up the rank structure in the Post-World War I Marine Corps.

As we know, for America, World War II started with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese Navy on December 7th, 1941. As with all our services, the Marine Corps was hit that day. On that Sunday, there were about 4,500 Marines stationed at Pearl Harbor.

There were over 800 officers and enlisted Marines in Marine Detachments aboard ships in Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack. Marine Corps losses resulting from the attack on Pearl Harbor included Marines killed, wounded, and missing in action. The heaviest Marine losses came from the ship's detachment of the USS Arizona. Of the 82 Marines that made up that ship’s Marine Detachment, only 15 survived.

World War II would see several battles in Europe and the Pacific. By January 1944, Colonel Liversedge was placed in command of the 28th Marine Regiment. The 28th Marines would play a key role in Marine Corps History. That would take place during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

On February 19th, 1945, three Marine divisions, more than 80,000 men, were assigned the task of taking the island of Iwo Jima, which was barely 8 square miles in area and dominated by 556-foot Mount Suribachi. The Marines there were up against 22,060 Japanese troops that were dug in and very prepared.

Marine Maj. General Harry Schmidt commanding the Iwo Jima operation wanted 10 days of heavy bombardment, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Marines received only 3 days of Navy shilling before the amphibious assault took place.

The Japanese defense of the island was commanded by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. It is said that Gen. Kuribayashi’s departure from the established Japanese strategy shaped the engagement, leading to a drawn-out, punishing battle. Before Iwo Jima, Japanese commanders stayed with the strategy of defending their position more directly by facing American troops on the beaches in the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands.

This time Kuribayashi opted to hang back and defend from deeper positions, deliberately delaying the Americans and inflicting as many casualties as possible. In doing so he hoped to damage the American will to fight. He had hoped to buy more time so that the Japanese government could better prepare for an American invasion.

On Iwo Jima, the Japanese Army had built an elaborate network of tunnels that sort of honeycombed the island. It's true. On an island that was about 8 square miles in size, Kuribayashi had his men construct about 11 miles of fortified tunnels that connected 1,500 rooms, for everything from ammunition storage, sleeping areas, and medical rooms, to artillery emplacements, bunkers, pillboxes, and more. This enabled Japanese soldiers to wage warfighting from concealed positions. This also limited the impact of American air and naval bombardment.

Because of his tunnel system, Gen. Kuribayashi ensured that every part of the island was subject to Japanese fire. It also aided the Japanese troops to retake bunker positions after they were cleared by the Marines. Later during the battle, it is said that Marines were frequently surprised to find that bunkers that they had already cleared out with grenades or the use of flamethrowers were swiftly reoccupied by Japanese troops. This was all thanks to the Japanese network of tunnels.

While Gen. Kuribayashi planned to keep his soldiers in caves and tunnels until the Marines advanced far enough inland to be decimated by coordinated infantry and artillery fire, he also wanted to take advantage of the Marines landing on a stretch of beach that would turn into pure Hell for the Marines.

That has to do with the actual landing. Marines landed on the soft black sand beaches and soon found that the soft sand made life a living Hell. The beach’s black volcanic sand was ash that failed to provide them with any sort of good footing. It made walking and running almost impossible and equipment bogged down in it. Between the soft sand and the steep 15-foot-high slopes, the Marines were in a place that was almost impossible to escape.

Of course, Japanese Gen. Kuribayashi defending Iwo Jima knew this and waited until the beach was packed with Marines before he unleashed the full force of his heavy artillery.

It should be noted that once the beach was congested full of Marines, landing crafts, and other equipment stuck in the soft sand, the Japanese troops unleashed a heavy artillery assault from all angles. It was a Marine's worst nightmare as bodies of fellow Marines were being ripped apart from a relentless barrage of artillery and machinegun fire. It was right there on that bloody beach where most of our Marines were killed on Iwo Jima.

Col. Liversedge's 28th Marine Regiment was assigned to get across a half-mile stretch to the other side of the island to take Mount Suribachi. And yes, even though such carnage was taking place on the beach, the Marines there slugged it out and kept pushing forward over that 15-foot-high embankment of sand and dirt. It's said that the 23rd, 25th, and 27th Marine Regiments began to measure their advances in yards. Of course, while sometimes they only gained a few yards, they pushed forward.

Then, a mere five days after the battle began, on February 23rd, 1945, Col. Liversedge’s 28th Marines took control of Mount Suribachi. They raised a small American flag. At an elevation of 556 feet, Mt. Suribachi marks the island’s highest point, and the Marines there who witnessed what took place broke out in cheers. The Navy ships offshore blew their horns in recognition and celebration of what took place.

Later that same day, the Marines raised a larger flag. That second flag became the iconic photograph of Marines raising Old Glory atop Mt. Suribachi. Several combat photographers captured what took place, but it was Joe Rosenthal’s snapshot of the men struggling to raise the second flag in a stiff wind that became an enduring symbol of American resolve. It was the most reproduced photograph of World War II, it spurred on a War Bond drive, and it gave Americans the morale boost that we needed.

The first main Japanese line of defense lay beyond a sulfur field filled with man-made and natural defenses. Japanese soldiers hit the Marines with artillery by day. At night, it is said the Japanese would slip behind the Marines' rear and plant mines along roads to stop the Marines from bringing up tanks.

On February 27th, the Marines mounted a massive coordinated assault that broke through the center of the Japanese line and overran the heights adjacent to an airfield. the following day. Fighting continued on the right flank at the Amphitheater, Turkey Knob, and Hill 382, a rise that was dubbed "The Meat Grinder." 

During all this, the Japanese rained relentless artillery and machinegun fire on the Marines from their defensive positions in caves, pillboxes, and bunkers. To address this, Marines used everything including flamethrowers which were seen as the most effective weapon against such dug-in emplacements.

In fact, flamethrowers were used heavily to wipe out as many of the Japanese defensive positions as possible. The M2 flamethrower was considered by Marine commanders to be the single most effective weapon during the battle of Iwo Jima. Each Marine battalion was assigned a flamethrower operator and the weapons became the most effective means of attacking Japanese troops in caves, tunnels, and the hundreds of bunkers, blockhouses, and pillboxes that dotted the island. Of course, American Sherman tanks were also modified with a Mark I flame thrower. Combined with the flamethrowers on the backs of Marines, the Japanese were targeted and wiped out when called in.

While the battle drug on, many stepped forward to go above and beyond the call of duty and do the right thing when needed. Many paid with their lives. While the flamethrowers were by far the most effective weapon against caves, bunkers, blockhouses, and pillboxes on Iwo Jima, Marine Navajo code talkers played a vital part in taking Iwo Jima.

The Navajo language is so complex, that the Japanese could not understand it. It made codebreaking virtually impossible for the Japanese. And here's something else, the six Navajo code talkers on Iwo Jima sent and received over 800 messages. These messages included fire support missions, close air support, evacuation of the wounded, and calls for support to back up entrenched Marines. As incredible as it may be, all of those 800 messages were sent without errors. Since that was done in the heat of battle, that in itself is nothing short of miraculous.

On the northern end of the island, the 28th Regiment fought for control of Hills 362A and 362B. They seized them both by March 3. The 21st Regiment took Hill 362C near the island’s northeast shore. This meant that there was only a small group of Japanese soldiers in that sector holding out at a site known as Cushman's Pocket.

On March 8, Japanese Navy Capt. Samaji Inouye led a nighttime banzai attack to drive the Marines off of their hill. His attack failed, but it did provide the Marines with an opening to clear the Amphitheater and Turkey Knob by March 10. And believe it or not, despite areas still experiencing intense resistance at Cushman's Pocket, resistance on the northwest coast, and a small pocket of resistance on the east coast of the island, Iwo Jima was officially declared secure on March 16.

In reality, Iwo Jima was not secure until the night of March 26. That was the night when a few hundred Japanese troops surprised the Marines by moving behind them. The Japanese attack that ensued killed over a hundred Marines in their sleep. After those attackers were killed, Marines cleaned out and killed or captured the other pockets of Japanese on the island. That horrible night attack, an attack that resulted in Marines being killed in their sleep, was the last major engagement on Iwo Jima.

So while someone was premature in declaring Iwo Jima secure a full 10 days before it really was on March 26, History tells us that the battle for Iwo Jima went on for more than a month after the 28th Marines raised the flag atop Mt. Suribachi. History also tells us that the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history was waged a mere 160 days before the end of World War II and the signing of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

Throughout the 36 days of fighting on that island in the Pacific, over 26,000 Marines were casualties with over 7,000 killed in action. There are reasons why we honor those brave men at the Battle of Iwo Jima. It's said that most acts of heroism go unnoted in battle, especially during such an epic battle as that with thousands of Marines engaged in combat against thousands of the enemy.

But of those who were noted for gallantry above and beyond, 22 Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and 5 were awarded to Sailors. Of those 27 Medals of Honor awarded, 14 Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously. That’s the highest number awarded in a single American battle. And more so, that figure makes up more than a fifth of the total 82 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during the Second World War.

In addition to the 27 Medals of Honor, there were over 200 Navy Cross medals awarded. For you who might not know, the Navy Cross is a decoration second only to the Medal of Honor. Here's something more on that, when read, you would conclude that many Navy Cross citations could have warranted a Medal of Honor being awarded. It is no wonder that Admiral Chester Nimitz said of those who fought on Iwo Jima, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Col Harry Liversedge received two Navy Crosses in his career. Because it is said, "He gallantly led the 28th Marines ashore in the Iwo Jima campaign," his 2nd Navy Cross was for his actions during that battle. Following World War II, Col. Harry Liversedge was promoted to Brigadier General. He died at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on November 25, 1951, at the age of 57.

As for a last note on the Battle of Iwo Jima, that battle would brand the United States Marine Corps and Marines forevermore. The actions of those Marines embody our Corps' values of honor, courage, and commitment. Their actions defined how we Marines think, how we act, and how we fight. Their valor, sense of duty, resolve, and selflessness are why we remember those Marines. These are the reasons why we commemorate their deeds. This is why we hold those who fought and died there in such high esteem.

It's Marines like Gen. Harry Liversedge that set the standard. And this is why Marines work so hard to live up to the legacy that they left for us.

Tom Correa

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