By Bryan Mark Rigg
Iwo Jima Medal of Honor Recipients
As I studied the 27 Medals of Honor given to those who fought at Iwo Jima, I never raised any skeptical eyebrows for the 26 given to Marines and Corpsmen once I learned how difficult and tough the fighting was on this small isle in the Pacific. However, I always felt somewhat puzzled about how one of the Medals of Honor was given to a captain of a tiny ship that participated in the action against the Japanese garrison two days before the invasion commenced. However, when I reviewed the Naval officer’s personnel file in the National Archives, it became one of the few folders I read multiple times and over a few days. I was astounded by the bravery and leadership this man displayed under fire and I was also surprised that much of the information that I read about him, apparently, had not been published. A lot can be found on U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Rufus G. Herring on the internet, but the information below tells a story about him that few have ever read. During this time that we reflect on those men and women who secured our freedoms against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan 75 years ago, I want people to know more about Herring and his sacrifice for our nation. In order to do so, I must give some background on how America attacked Japanese-held islands, especially Iwo Jima, so that one can truly appreciate what Herring did.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Orders
As with other islands during the Pacific War, Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs or Navy Frogmen) cleared the offshore waters at Iwo on 17 February to remove obstacles that would prevent the landing. The Japanese garrison commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had given strict orders not to fire on the Americans until the Marines were on the beach en masse. In a rare violation of his orders, several 5-inch “trigger-happy Nipponese gun crews” hidden deep inside Mt. Suribachi fired at the support vessels for the Frogmen, mistakenly thinking they represented the main landing. They hit the cruiser USS Pensacola with numerous rounds, killing 17 and wounding 120 of her sailors. Japanese gunfire further eviscerated the 14 gunboats (LCIs (G)) supporting the Frogmen. These LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) vessels were 158-feet long, 23-feet wide and weighed around 350 tons carrying a crew of between 25-60 men—on this day, the gunboats had roughly 60 men each since they were there to defend the Frogman operation and not carry troops. To give perspective, these ships were between 1,000 to 1,200 yards away from the beach being hit by weapons capable of hitting targets miles away (5-inch guns can hit targets within 13 nautical miles, for example).
Enemy fire sank landing craft LCI (G) 474. LCI (G) 473 became disabled from the hits it took and had to be towed out of battle. LCI (G) 441 took several shell strikes losing 40 percent of its crew in combat, but its captain, Lt. j.g. Forrest W. Bell engaged the enemy and kept fighting, later receiving the Navy Cross for his actions. The Japanese killed or wounded 30 percent of LCI (G) 466’s crew and LCI (G) 449 suffered 60 percent dead and injured. Most of the ships were on fire or flooding, but their officers and men kept them in the fight by counter-flooding compartments, keeping the ships under steam and returning fire with their cannons, rockets and machineguns (most of these boats had two 40mm guns, four 20mm guns, six .50-calibre machineguns and ten MK7 rocket launchers).
On LCI (G) 449, Lt. j.g. Rufus G. Herring bravely captained his ship near Yellow Beach 1 and directed counterfire against positions on the beach (he and his crew had participated in the battles of Saipan, Tinian and Guam, so they knew each other well and were very familiar with their ship’s capabilities). The second round of shells from the Japanese shore batteries that came at him and his men shattered his vessel and knocked out most of his guns hitting his LCI with 5-inch shells, large mortars of 37mm and 25mm and machinegun fire. In less than a minute, two large fires spread throughout the ship and Herring’s crew had suffered 20 dead and 19 wounded (some dead bodies were on fire). His pilothouse was shattered and one of his crewmen was seen still seated in his chair behind the radio, but now headless. The decks of his ship were covered with spent shells, shrapnel, blood, guts and body parts. Although Herring had lost consciousness twice, almost lost his left arm from being hit in the shoulder by shrapnel (surviving a blast most likely by a 37mm shell blowing him out of the conning tower and onto the lower deck), lost partial use of his right foot due to shrapnel, lost the hearing in his left ear (“perforation of the left drum”), lost copious amounts of blood, and lost 60 percent of his crew as they received the brunt of the onslaught by the Japanese shore batteries, he never relinquished command and continued to shout orders to put out the fires and carry on the fight. When he was unable to fight any longer, he successfully steered his vessel out of the line of fire using his one good arm. A large shell fragment protruded like a bizarre, and mutated dorsal fin from his shoulder. Doctors later wrote of his arm/shoulder injuries: “The wounds included a large avulsed wound of the deltoid area, a deep 4” laceration along the posterior left axillary border, a 3” laceration of lateral aspect of left arm, another over the 5th metacarpal dorsal aspect left hand and other lacerations and puncture wounds.” In layman’s terms: “he was fucked up!”
Leaning against the ship’s rail, Herring took the helm since the helmsman had become a casualty, maintained communication with the engine room and piloted his ship away from the battle to safety, saving what remained of his men and LCI (G) 449 (he did not give up the ship). Once he safely had his ship moored next to the 450-foot minelayer USS Terror (CM 5), and he made sure two medical officers and two Corpsmen took care of his men, he lost consciousness again. For his heroics, Herring would later receive the Medal of Honor.
When the Japanese opened fire on the gunboats, giving away their positions, they exhibited their only instance of breaking fire discipline earmarked for invasion forces except for antiaircraft units that continually tried to take down planes.
On this day, the U.S. Navy deployed 14 LCIs and many of its gunships, as just described, took direct hits and much damage. The flotilla suffered 202 casualties with 47 of them being KIAs or MIAs (25 percent of the sailors of this tiny fleet became casualties). The U.S. Navy “would lose more ships and men than on D-Day in Europe” assaulting Iwo this day, according to Marine sources. Even so, every ship did its best to support one another and fight back; in fact,14 ships fired a total of 9,000 rounds of 40mm, 12,000 rounds of 20mm and 350 rockets against the Imperial Japanese on the beaches. Seeing their “little brothers” taking so much punishment, the fleet started to move its battleships and cruisers in close to the beach.
After the U.S. Navy located those enemy guns and calculated distances and placement, its big ships unleashed a fury of shells. The USS Nevada, a survivor of Pearl Harbor, instantly “began counterbattery against the weapons firing at the gunboats.” Nevada and many others “fired back with a vengeance and snuffed out the concrete casemates one-by-one,” according to the National Archives.
Costly Forbidden Firing
The forbidden firing was one of the few errors against Kuribayashi’s orders his men made. This error, although killing several sailors on the unfortunate gunboats, saved thousands of Marines’ lives since the Japanese guns would have taken a “very heavy toll of men and supplies from the outset of the ship-to-shore movement.” In fact, “this was unquestionably the most significant role ever played by the bold underwater swimmers and their close-covering gunboats in the course of the Pacific War.” Unlike the almost three dozen amtracs that were sunk assaulting Guam, it was estimated that only five amtracs were sunk assaulting Iwo in the early waves, another benefit of having located and destroyed these Mt. Suribachi guns. While these sailors and Frogmen did not know it, they had become attractive bait and when the Japanese bit, they allowed the Navy ships to make the beach a little easier to assault than it otherwise would have been two days later. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Marines had Herring and many of his brother Sailors to thank for making their jobs a little easier in conquering one of the toughest Japanese held islands they would ever experience.
For more about the heroes of Iwo Jima, visit bryanmarkrigg.com.