On  February 23, 1945, World War II was continuing to rage across the globe. In Europe, brutal winter fighting continued as Germany was being squeezed from two sides: in the west by the Americans and British, who had recovered from the German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, and in the east by the Russians. 

In the Pacific, the Japanese were putting up fanatical resistance in the Philippines and elsewhere. And a tiny, just eight-square-mile volcanic speck of an island called Iwo Jima would be the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

The island was of vital strategic importance: The Japanese were using its three airfields as a forward warning station and to launch fighter aircraft against U.S. B-29s that were bombing mainland Japan. The U.S. wanted to secure the island to allow its crippled bombers a safe place to land rather than have to go all the way back to Tinian. 

The Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, took over command of the island in June of 1944. He knew that his forces couldn’t win the battle. But his hope was to inflict so many casualties on the Americans that they would be dissuaded from attacking the Japanese mainland. 

The island was dominated by Mount Suribachi a large dormant volcano 546 feet in height. It was located on the island’s southern half.

Kuribayashi saw what the Japanese engineers had constructed on the island of Peleliu and took that as inspiration. He had his men construct a maze of tunnels and bunkers on the island; Japanese artillery was pinpointed by spotters on Mount Suribachi.

The American invasion started on February 19. Just one hour after the landings began, Japanese artillery and spotters called in horrific fire on the Marines along the black volcanic sand beaches. Robert Sherrod, the Time-Life correspondent, wrote that the scene was a “nightmare in hell.”