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For 36 days the tiny 8 square mile volcanic island of Iwo Jima became the scene of the bloodiest battle of the entire Pacific War, and produced one of the most iconic images of the Second World War. The Marine invasion, known as Operation Detachment, was charged with capturing the islands two airfields, Motoyama 1 and 2. Iwo was a deadly hornets nest for the American bombers that had been raiding Japan. With early warning radar on the island, the homeland could be notified on the approach of any American bomber formations. As the bombers made their 1,500 mile journey back to their bases in the Marianas, Iwo based Japanese fighters were able to intercept, and attack the bomber formations. With Iwo under U.S. control, raiding B-29 bombers could bomb Japan at will, and enjoy the support of escorting P-51D mustang fighters that would be based on Iwo. Of all the islands fought over during the American “Island Hopping” campaign, Iwo was clearly one nut that had to be cracked. The Americans were not the only ones who appreciated the strategic necessity of the island, as Japanese Imperial Army and Naval forces had turned the island into a fortress. Construction of the islands defenses began in August of 1944, and continued until the American invasion of February 19, 1945. On the island were hundreds of bunkers, pill boxes, gun positions, and some 20+ miles of underground tunnels. By the time the Marines landed, the island was one of the most heavily defended instillations of the Japanese Empire. The battle was the first U.S. attack on the Japanese Home Islands and the Imperial soldiers and sailors defended their positions with great tenacity. Of the 23,000 Japanese defenders present at the beginning of the battle, only 1,083 were taken prisoner.

One of the first main objectives after landing on islands eastern beaches was the taking of Mount Suribachi, a 556 high extinct volcano. Being the highest point on the island, Japanese military engineers had honeycombed it’s insides with tunnels, and heavy gun positions that enjoyed complete observation of the island and approaches. But even after it’s fall on the 4th day of the battle, the Japanese main defensive line was yet to be breached. The island’s commander General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had concentrated his elite forces to defend the islands airfields, as they were the prize, and key to the island. Once the beachhead had been secured, additional Marines and heavy equipment came ashore and the invasion force proceeded north to capture the airfields and the remainder of the island. Most Japanese soldiers fought to the death. Even though the island was officially declared “secured” on March 16th, the battle did not come to an end until March 26th. Yet even after the Marines left Iwo, the United States Army came in to mop up the island. In their search they killed some 1,200 Japanese, and took another 867 prisoner. The number of American casualties on Iwo Jima was greater than the total Allied casualties taken during the Invasion of Normandy, “D-Day”, the 6th of June, 1944.

The tunnels of Iwo Jima proved to be so well constructed and elusive that two Japanese naval machine gunners hid out, and survived underground until 1949, four years after the war had ended. BATTLE RATS : Iwo Jima explores this distant island battlefield, above and below ground. Going into places that few have seen or ventured into since the 1945 battle. See for the first time the extensive Japanese tunnel networks, bunkers and fighting positions as they are today some 64 years after the battle.

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Military Channel | Wednesday, March 3rd at 10 PM ET check your local listings | TRIO Media Group