The Mastermind of Iwo Jima: The Japanese General Responsible for Thousands of Civilian and Military Deaths

Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commanding officer of the Imperial Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, was an innovative leader. Born into a noble Samurai family on 7 July 1891 in Nagano Prefecture, he attended the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, finishing second in his class. Unlike most IJA generals, he spent time in North America. In 1928, as a captain, IJA posted him in America for an educational tour, a great honor for a Japanese officer at that time. For three years, he traveled the U.S. and studied at Harvard University and attended the U.S. Army War College. Because of these experiences, he was convinced: “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight. Its industrial potential is huge and fabulous, and the people are energetic and versatile. One must never underestimate the American fighting ability.” He also trained with the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, and knew the caliber of the American fighting man. Promoted to major in August 1931, he remained in North America for two and half more years serving as a military attaché in Canada at the Japanese Legation until December 1933. 

Returning to Japan from Canada in 1933, he served in the Main Ordnance, Military Service Department of the War Ministry. Then in August 1936, he took over the 7th Calvary Regiment of 500 men and commanded it until August 1937. He obtained the rank of colonel and became Divisional Chief of the Remount Administrative Section, Military Service Bureau of the War Ministry. His specialty within this ministry was horses. He was tasked with increasing the number, size and strength of horses and became the chief organizer for horse husbandry.  During this time, most supplies and artillery pieces transported for armies were moved by horses. It was a critical job for militaries during operations. Although no detailed numbers were given, during Kuribayashi’s tenure at this post until March 1940, he met with success in every area—he produced more and stronger horses. 

Soon after leaving the Remount Administrative Section, he was assigned as Chief of Staff for General Takashi Sakai’s 23rd Army stationed in China. During this time, they were conducting war games and under secret orders to plan the Hong Kong invasion to coincide with the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

He was also responsible for disseminating instructions from an Imperial conference, which took place in Tokyo on 5 November 1941, which implored forces under his and General Takashi Sakai’s command to “behave themselves.” Since “the eyes of the world would be watching,” the Japanese government wanted its troops invading southern China not to repeat “the excesses committed by the Japanese soldiers on the Chinese mainland.” Kuribayashi knew what his government was asking him to command his troops to do—they were not to practice the crimes they had perpetrated in Nanking. However, Sakai and Kuribayashi would fail miserably at passing this directive to their troops. 

One hour after Pearl Harbor was assaulted, the 23rd Army lurched toward The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong on the southern coast of China under the operational code name of Hara-Saku (Haller Work), hitting it from the rear and pushing 12,000 British, Canadian, Indian and Chinese troops toward the sea. Although British Prime Minister Winston Churchill publicly encouraged the garrison to fight to the end, he knew his command could not offer any relief to Hong Kong. 

Kuribiyashi was in charge of the “Hong Kong capture operation.” He played a prominent role with the 38th Division as it penetrated the peninsula. As the Japanese troops poured into the Kowloon peninsula, Chinese parents hid their daughters in basements, attics or closets and then locked the whole family in their tiny home. The citizens knew what awaited them: slaughter and rape.

Later, Kuribayashi helped conduct the amphibious assault of Hong Kong Island on 18 December after his forces had pushed the Allied troops off the mainland to retreat to the island. Preparing for the attack on Hong Kong Island, Kuribayashi issued orders to various military units to coordinate its assault to hit the beaches. As a result, ramped boats gathered on the shores of the mainland and Kuribayashi oversaw the orders to carry at least 10,000 men in an amphibious invasion against the isle traversing a mile of ocean of Vitoria Harbor. 

The Japanese sent their battle-hungry troops across the channel in two waves, totaling 7,500 men. Within a week after landing on the island, the Japanese had deployed at least 20,000 men to destroy the British colony.

By 25 December (known as Black Christmas to the Allied troops), Hong Kong was in Japanese hands thanks in part to Kuribayashi. As the British raised the white flag over Victoria Barracks, the Japanese marched in screaming “Banzai! Banzai!” Kuribayashi had helped deliver a devastating “blow to the British in Asia [and helped] …deprive Chiang Kai-shek’s [China] of a window to the world,” according to Chi Man Kwong at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

Kuribayashi stayed with the 23rd for 18 months of occupational duties during the oppression of the Chinese in this region. His troops slaughtered a minimum of 50,000 civilians and committed 10,000 rapes all with his approval—it was disturbingly reminiscent of the Rape of Nanking. Nonetheless, he climbed the ranks to lieutenant general by 1943 and, in June, he left China and took charge of the most elite of forces, the Emperor’s Tokyo Division (Imperial Guards). 

In April 1944, he was appointed to defend Iwo Jima and, in May, the army officially selected him for the island’s command under direct order from Emperor Hirohito. Kuribayashi knew that defending Iwo was one of the most important responsibilities of the war. 

To meet the U.S. material might, Kuribayashi’s innovative way of defending the island departed from orthodox strategies favored by most of his colleagues and caused consternation among subordinates.  In order to break the old rule of defending at the beach, he needed to train his men in new and more effective tactics. Kuribayashi believed he would inflict a higher kill ratio on the Americans than any other commander by taking his men underground.

Before ever reaching the island, Kuribayashi thought about how to defend islands and realized that the existing strategy was not working. As he took command, he received a report on 29 June from Saipan about the Japanese Army’s lack of success defending the beaches. Studying previous battles, Kuribayashi concluded that beachhead defense and massed surprise attacks where Japanese soldiers screamed “banzai!” (known by the Marines as Banzais) were ineffective. As a result, he devised a plan to fight from underground fortifications, tunnels and pillboxes. In order to build defensive positions, many of which could survive the battleships’ big guns, he would need engineers. 

Using his contacts and skills as an administrator, he was able to divert 300 engineers from deployment to Truk Island. They created the foundation of his new strategy. He obtained an additional 700 engineers from various commands and mobilized the 1,233 engineers from the navy already on the island. As a result, 10 percent of Kuribayashi’s force were engineers who became his new strategy’s guiding force—building an underground fortress. He coined a new motto: “Every soldier is an engineer.”  Using this subterranean castle of death, Kuribayashi wanted the Americans to recognize as they neared Japan’s home islands, they would pay a high price for every square mile of Japanese territory. He was preparing for a battle that would end in a defeat, but he hoped his nation could negotiate peace as a result. 

Moreover, having an in-depth defense, and letting the Marines land without revealing their positions, was key to killing more of them, Kuribayashi reasoned. Distance was a factor in this new defense: Kuribayashi knew he had to get Marines close to him before unleashing his firing positions. He adopted “an all-around defense in depth, utilizing rugged ground in the interior of the island.” His tactics were a “distinct improvement over the tactics on other small islands.” Kuribayashi “had the correct comprehension of reality [and] refused to be awed by precedent” according to Kuribayashi’s Japanese biographer, Kumiko Kakhashi.

Kuribayashi had eight months to prepare defenses before the Marines landed and he profited from it. This 8-square-mile island eventually hosted a network of 11 miles of tunnels and thousands of pillboxes and bunkers. 

This network housed 22,000 troops who learned to live troglodytic lives for months. The tunnels boasted large supply depots with trucks, tanks, hospitals and Command Posts. They had miles of telephone cables, and because they ran underground, it was difficult to sever communications between the Japanese units during battle. Some of the areas traversed almost 100 feet underground, far below where shells from battleships’ big guns could penetrate. “One Brigade headquarters, located near Motoyama, could hold 2,000 troops; it was 75 feet deep and had a dozen entrances” according to historian John Toland. 

Miles of tunnels were made by breaking earth with pickaxes and removing dirt, sand, and rubble in woven bamboo baskets. In some areas, the geothermal heat was so intense the soles of the troops’ juktabi “(spilt-toed rubber-soled shoes) melted, and the sulfur gas gave them headaches and made breathing difficult.” Sometimes they wore their cumbersome gas masks for protection from sulfur fumes. “Dressed in only loincloths, they would work in five- or ten-minute shifts because of the intense heat” (sometimes measuring 176° Fahrenheit). 

Kuribayashi inflicted some of the harshest training in recorded history on his men, and this, unfortunately for the Marines, made the Japanese fighters used to deprivation, hardened them for combat and trained them to use every advantage the sulfur pit offered. They learned how to mete out overwhelming violence against the Marines. Marine Correspondent Dick Dashiell observed: “The quality of Jap soldier which fought so bitterly for Iwo Jima was Nippon’s best, as Marines who were there will verify quickly and grimly.” 

However, Dashiell’s statement is incorrect. Historian Dan King notes, Iwo Jima was Japan’s “Alamo.” Only one actual IJA regiment was on the island. That Kuribayashi’s men fought so well was remarkable because Kuribayashi’s troops were a diverse patchwork of all segments of the military and society. Many were not trained warriors, but came from support outfits, such as transportation. Some were new recruits, while others were hardened China veterans. On average, Kuribayashi got the “dregs of old men and youngsters,” since Hirohito was hoarding his best units for the invasion of the mainland. Sixty percent of Kuribayashi’s force came from the army, while others came from the navy, including 7,500 in the 27th Air Flotilla. U.S. Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet, noted that “in view of the character of the defenses and the stubborn resistance encountered, it is fortunate that less seasoned or less resolute [Japanese] troops were not committed.” In light of this reality, Kuribayashi molded this “randomly cobbled-together” group into a disciplined and focused army. 

As the battle neared, Kuribayashi was increasingly cut off from Japan. With each month, sorties from Japanese-held airfields dwindled as planes failed to return from missions. The number of ships bringing men and supplies declined as U.S. submarines sank them and at least half of Kuribayashi’s tanks were sent to the ocean’s bottom before reaching his command. 

Kuribayashi set a goal for his men to kill 10 Marines before they died: “We shall not die until we have killed 10 of the enemy…. Every man will resist until the end, making his position his tomb.” Kuribayashi’s orders were not mission statements of how to win the battle, but rather orders to inflict such damage on the Americans as they would conclude the cost to defeat and occupy Japan was too high. They were not mission avowals on how to achieve victory, but rather, on how to “not be defeated for as long as possible.” 

Kuribayashi gave orders to his men to block their emplacements’ exits. Their pillbox was to be their tomb—once inside, they were never leaving. To this day, many are still in those pillboxes, buried under sand and vegetation (some estimate there may be more than 11,000 undiscovered bodies on Iwo). 

As he realized he would soon die, Kuribayashi wrote his wife and told her that when the Americans landed on his island, he and his men “must follow the fate of those on Attu and Saipan.” Then he wrote his son Taro: “The life of your father is like a flicker of flame in the wind. It is apparent your father will have the same fate as the commanders of Saipan, Tinian and Guam. There is no possibility of my survival.” To reiterate to his wife that he would indeed never return, on 21 January 1945, just shy of a month before the Marines would land on his beaches, he wrote his wife to stop praying for his survival: “I don’t care where my grave is located. My ashes will not be returned home and my soul will remain with you and the children. Live as long as possible and please take care of the children.” Although fatalistic by then, Kuribayashi’s energy and drive never let up in building out his island defense. 

When the Marines landed on 19 February 1945, his men killed more Allied troops percentage-wise than under any other Japanese commander. His 22,000 men killed 7,000 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers and wounded an additional 19,000 of them. Almost his entire garrison died to the last man. By the end of the battle, Kuribayashi died with his troops in the front lines as a Samurai should—fighting to the end. He shocked Marine Corps leaders. As USMC Lt. General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith said, Kuribayashi “was the most redoubtable Japanese commander” the Marines had ever met and was one “smart bastard.” Kuribayashi turned what most U.S. commanders thought would be a five- to 10-day battle into a 36-day journey into Hell.

For more about the Battle of Iwo Jima, see my new book, “Flamethrower“.

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