When the Marines stormed Iwo Jima 70 years ago, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden, USMC (Ret), was among them. He endured 36 days of battle and watched as the American flags were raised. This month, at 93 years old, the MOAA Life Member and recent inductee into the Florida Veterans' Hall of Fame will travel to Iwo Jima one last time to mark the anniversary of the battle's end. Before his journey, he spoke with MOAA to describe what it was like to be on the beach the day of the U.S. invasion.
Interview by Mark Cantrell
Q: Iwo Jima is a very small island. Why was it so important?
A: Iwo Jima is 650 miles from Tokyo, right on the flight route that B-29s flying from Tinian, Saipan, and Guam [in the Mariana islands] had to take when bombing the city. [Mitsubishi A6M] Zeros based on Iwo could attack our B-29s as they were on their way to Tokyo and [attack] again as they were coming back. So our aim was to get rid of the Zeros and put our fighters on the island to support our bombers. As a bonus, 2,400 B-29s made emergency landings on that field [on Iwo Jima], amounting to 24,000 aircrewmen's lives saved. Also, when we captured Iwo Jima, it was a terrible shock to the Japanese people, because we had captured a piece of the Japanese homeland.
Q: The Japanese had managed to get very well dug in before we arrived, correct?
A: Many of the tunnels [on Iwo Jima] were old sulfur mines where the Japanese could move underground from one end of the island to another. Our bombs wouldn't penetrate and get them down there. As one Marine explained it, “The problem with Iwo Jima is that we were on it, but the Japanese were in it.”
Q: Do you think the Japanese knew what their chances were?
A: I think general [Tadamichi] Kuribayashi, who commanded the Japanese forces, knew they were doomed from the moment he took command. They couldn't resupply and were on a half ration of water and rice daily. It was a miserable existence for those who were defending, but they had all dedicated themselves to the emperor and pledged that they would each kill 10 Marines and then take their own lives. It turned out to be an awful bad deal for them no matter which way you slice it.
Q: You were a 23-year-old captain when you came ashore. Tell me about that.
A: I was part of the second troop wave, in a Landing Vehicle Tracked, an LVT. [The vehicle] had no cover; it was just open. When we hit the beach, we bumped into a 15-foot sand berm and got stuck, so we had to bail out and jump in the nearest bomb crater we could find.
Q: The Japanese used a different tactic from prior amphibious operations, right?
A: General Kuribayashi had already figured out that trying to stop us on the beach was futile. So he let us get ashore easily, on the flat ground between Mount Suribachi and the high ground to the north, which put us in a perfect killing zone. His goal was to kill so many Marines that the American public would rise up in indignation. Well, he underestimated the American public, I can tell you that. We had 100,000 troops fighting in an 8-square-mile piece of real estate. It was also the first time that we as the attackers suffered more total casualties than the defenders did.
Q: The media reported at the time that when the first flag was raised, all the troops got up and cheered. You've explained in previous interviews that it didn't happen that way.
A: My company was down on the first airfield area, up against a very strongly defended blockhouse, and any man in my company who stood up to cheer was a dead Marine. The 5th Marine Division had the mission of sweeping straight across the island to cut off the mountain from the rest of the troops so they could knock out a lot of those gun positions and observation posts. The airfields were another prime objective. There were lots of points of vicious fighting, up around the rock quarry and Cushman's Pocket and those areas. It took four or five days to get through some of them, with very high casualty rates. I had 231 Marines under my command when we landed on the 19th. When we walked off the island 36 days later, there were only 99 of us.
Q: And I understand you caught some shrapnel and were evacuated?
A: That's correct. I was hit by a bunch of little pieces that got between my helmet and utility collar, and the backs of both of my hands [also were hit]. But on the hospital ship, those beautiful angel nurses cleaned me up, and I told the doctor, “I'm not badly wounded; I'd like to go back with my company.” He refused, so I went to see the colonel in charge and talked him into letting me and another captain from the 14th Marine Regiment go back on a C-54 that was going to Iwo to deliver blood plasma and mail. The next day, I had my ears blown out by another explosion. This time I just went back to the regimental command post, got my hearing back in a couple of nights, and went back to my unit and stayed until it was over.
Q: You went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. When did you first return to Iwo Jima?
A: I started going back in 1972, when I was chief of staff, U.S. Forces Japan. Then I joined a group that went back for the 40th anniversary in 1985. In 1994, I went to Japan to set up an annual memorial with two objectives: I wanted it to be done jointly with the Japanese, honoring those on both sides, and I wanted high-level government representation at the memorial. Both objectives were satisfied, and it's just gotten better ever since.
Q: Have you ever been surprised that old enemies could come together like that?
A: I finally realized they were just like us. At a ceremony in 1995, the widow of general Kuribayashi said in her speech [something to the effect of], “Former enemies, now friends. Together we must not let this kind of warfare happen again.” And I say as often as I can that the U.S. and Japan have the strongest bilateral relationship among free nations in the world today. So it took me a long time to be converted, but I finally made it, and I'm very proud of the fact that I have a lot of Japanese friends.