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LCDR Frank Belcher: Trip to Iwo Jima

LCDR Frank G. Belcher was Enterprise's Flight Briefing Officer from December 1944 to September 1945. On March 9 - the last day Enterprise was stationed off Iwo Jima - LCDR Belcher and several other officers from the Big E toured the island. The following report was written by LCDR Belcher upon his return.

A party of Officer-Observers from the Enterprise visited Iwo Jima yesterday, 9 March, and returned to the ship with souvenirs and first hand accounts of the battle for the Island as it stood on the 19th day since the Marine's initial landing on 19 February.

Officers from USS Enterprise CV-6 hold a captured Japanese battle flag on Iwo Jima. NAG-90 commander CDR William I. Martin is at left.

On approaching the island, our impression was of the desolation of the place - an island of volcanic rock and sand, almost completely barren of vegetation, and seemingly covered with craters from the terrific pounding by naval gun-fire, field artillery and mortar-fire, and aerial bombing.

As we passed over volcanic Mount Suribachi, whose crater sticks up like a sore thumb 554 feet above the sea at the southwest tip of this otherwise fairly flat island, the first thing we saw was the American flag flying from a staff erected on the peak, and below it - a flock of bull-dozers and graders chopping out a road around the precipitous sides of the cone. The "Sea-Bees" very evidently had landed in a big way, and were in evidence almost everywhere - hard at work on the two airfields now in the hands of our forces, building roads, drains, and loading and unloading installations, storage facilities for supplies, etc., on the beaches.

The southern airfield, upon which we landed, had already been lengthened and graded. We were amazed at the activity on this field, where a surprising number of Army fighters were seen. The fighters were taking off and landing continuously, and could be seen and heard making almost uninterrupted strafing and bombing attacks on the remaining Jap positions at the northern and eastern sides of the Island only a couple miles away. In addition to the Army fighters, there were any number of Marine TBFs, Navy and Army transports, and "Grass-hopper" spotting planes coming in and going out almost continuously - there were PB4Y-2s, too, and even a B-29 on the field. In fact, there was such an enormous amount of air activity going on over and on Iwo, it was hard to understand why the remaining Japs, dug-in such a short distance away, hadn't decided to call it all off and give up. Certainly the sight of all those airplanes operating from their erstwhile own island must be mighty discouraging to them. Around the field wrecked Zekes, Bettys and other Jap aircraft in quantity still lie in heaps where they were hit or have been pushed aside.

From the airfield we were conducted by jeep through about 3 miles of zero-zero volcanic dust to a vantage point east of the Number 2 Field where we inspected some of the enemy strong-points, caves, and tunnels which cost so many of the lives of our assault troops to take. Some of these are now used as command-posts by the Marines. From here we went on foot up to the top of a ridge where a large Jap RDF installation now lies in ruins. This part of the island appeared to be all sandstone, cut up into rugged gullies and ravines, and ideal for the countless caves and network of tunnels the Japs had built as part of their defenses. A little beyond was the site of a big Jap radar, now completely smashed and battered. From here we could look down on the Number 3 Airfield, under construction by the Nips when they were "so rudely interrupted". The front lines were then only a couple of hundred yards from us and the occasional "zing" of a Jap sniper's bullet ricocheting somewhere in the neighborhood plus one or two mortar bursts not far off to our right where pretty forceful reminders that it was best to keep low. From this point we watched Marine TBFs bombing the enemy positions and Army fighters attacking just ahead of the Marine's front lines. They told us the Marines weren't satisfied with bombs falling 200-300 yards out in front of them - they constantly ask for even closer bombing support!

A US encampment on Iwo Jima, well into the Marine occupation. Mount Suribachi is in the background.

Just below us was a ravine - or what remained of an enemy underground position - and in it we could count at least 20 still unburied Japs. Above, to one side was a twin 25 mm position, the two gunners lying beside it. In gullies all around us there were Jap bodies, and parts of uniforms, personal effects, gas masks, helmets, rations, machine guns, full cartridge-clips, and all kinds of paraphernalia was strewn in every direction. The odor of death permeated everywhere, and left us with little envy for the Marine troops who had been living for a week in nearby fox-holes and who would probably still be here for several days yet to come.

It was here we began to understand how the enemy had been able to stand up so long against the terrific weight of our forces' assault. Apparently the defenses of Iwo Jima and its intricate network of underground tunnels, caves and installations were the result of long time preparation. Pill-boxes, block-houses, and other strong points built of huge sandstone blocks and reinforced concrete walls and roofs 3 and 4 feet thick were designed to withstand the heaviest sort of bombing and pounding by gun-fire. Now of an originally estimated large number of Japs on the Island, all but a small number are left, and the remainder occupy the most complicated system of underground tunnels and positions yet in the last remaining mile around the northern and eastern side where they evidently expect to hold out until the last man is eliminated. In those underground caverns they are relatively safe from bombing, mortar and heavy gun fire. These caves and tunnel entrances must be sealed up almost one by one - always with the knowledge that there is probably at least one other entrance (or outlet) to it somewhere else. Snipers continue to come up out of the ground in back of our lines, and the whole problem is rapidly getting to be one of killing them all off one by one. Very few prisoners have been taken or probably will be taken. But we will gain the most important stepping-stone yet in our war on Japan, and its potentialities as a home base and staging base for heavier bombing raids than ever on the Empire (only 640 miles away), and possibly even for a long-range fighter escorts [sic], was brought home to us today when we saw the numbers of U.S. aircraft already operating from one runway of only one of the airfields.

They are still fighting on Iwo Jima; the dust and dirt and living conditions the men over there have to put up with made those of us from the ship feel not a little embarrassed to think of our comparative conditions ship-board. But they're not complaining. They're going ahead with finishing up a tough job. They're grateful for the air support from the "jeep" carriers during the past 3 weeks, and grateful to the Enterprise pilots for keeping enemy raiders "off their neck" at night time. And while they may not know it yet, it's a pretty safe bet that when it's all over, this victory will prove to be one of the most important of the entire war in hastening the final end.

Article provided by Arnold Olson, Public Affairs Officer, USS Enterprise CV-6 Association.

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