On March 16, 1945, after over a year of persistent pressure, US Marines accomplished a sizable WWII feat – they conquered Iwo Jima. That day - the day that the Japanese finally laid down their arms on the small Pacific island - US Marines raised their flag on Mount Surbachi, creating an image that has become visually synonymous with the day's events.
However, there were other striking photographs taken on that historic day. Chief among these is the photo of a US Marine offering a Japanese soldier a cigarette as he lays buried in the black sands of Iwo Jima. The Japanese soldier had been waiting there, ready to attack with a grenade in his hand, when the Japanese surrendered the island.
Though the Marine had to approach with caution – the area could have been booby trapped after all – he eventually made his way over to the enemy combatant. There, the two shared in a timeless ritual of respect and human acknowledgement, the lighting of a cigarette.
The Japanese Soldier Had Been Hiding, Buried, For 36 Hours
Though the Japanese had just surrendered, the US Marine who approached the Japanese soldier had to be careful – it was possible the plea for help was nothing more than a complex booby trap. The Japanese soldier had also had a grenade in his hand for a time, and Marines had convinced him to put it down. So, the Marine who offered him the cigarette slowly approached the Japanese soldier, as he lay still in the black sands of the shell hole where he had just spent the last 36 hours.
However, this Japanese soldier wasn't alone in his covert mission to launch a grenade from an unassuming hole in the sand. According to the WWII Multimedia Database, plenty of "individual enemy soldiers armed with demolition charges and grenades raced out against tanks or groups of Marines but [many] were shot down before they could do any great damage to personnel or equipment."
This Magnanimous Act Occurred On The Same Day The US Secured Iwo Jima
March 16, 1945, the day this photo was taken, was the day the US declared victory over the Japanese in securing the island in the Pacific. Beginning in February 1944, US forces bombarded the island via land and water for 74 days in a row. The Japanese hold on the island was a strong one – it even included a network of caves and tunnels and underground (and undersea) fortifications, which the US had to deal with before it could land there. The island was 23,000-Japanese strong.
Almost one exact year after they began the bombardment, US Marines landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. At the end of that night, "more than 550 Marines were dead and more than 1,800 were wounded." Inch by inch, US forces took over Iwo Jima, performing their now-famous flag raise at 10 am on February 23rd. On March 16, the US took official control of the island.
What Was So Significant About Winning Iwo Jima?
Winning Iwo Jima gave US forces a base near the Japanese coast, something that was sorely needed. The island provided damaged US aircraft a safe landing spot, which enabled them to avoid flying all the way to Mariana Islands. But the victory at Iwo Jima wasn't just a tactical one. The image of the Marines lifting their flag at Mount Surbachi, which was taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal, became one of the most enduring and recognizing images of the war. It even won the Pulitzer for Photography in 1945. Featured in publications around the world, the flag-raise photo, which symbolized the victory, served as a symbol of hope, inspiration, and resilience – the Allied forces had it in the bag. WWII fighting ended a scant five months later, on September 2, 1945. However, President Truman declared the truce treaty officially effective in 1951.