Forming & Training at Camp Pendleton: January- July 1944
By late 1943 The United States Marine Corps had expanded to over 400,000 men with four Marine Divisions already in action in the drive to close the ring around the Empire of Japan. There was a need for yet another Marine Division trained for serious amphibious assault.
On November 11, 1943, orders were received to form the 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California; however, the official activation did not occur until January 21, 1944, when men & officers from posts & stations throughout the Marine Corps began arriving. A number of these men were veterans of previous Pacific battles, who had recovered from malaria & wounds in early Pacific action and were ready to rejoin the fight. Many of these Marines came from the disbanded elite Marine Raiders and parachute units that had been formed earlier in the war but now were no longer needed. Joined with these veteran Marines were new men just out of boot camps or officer training schools and veteran Marine officers and NCOs’ who had not yet seen Pacific combat.
Training began in mid February ‘44 when General Keller Rockey, a decorated World War I Marine, took command. It continued at an intense pace until early July ’44 when the Division conducted an amphibious assault exercise on San Clemente Island, witnessed by President and Commander-In-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt.
General Rockey would train the division and take it into battle at Iwo Jima. To this day, he is revered by the men he commanded.
The Division adopted a name and shoulder patch which clearly defined its future mission. It was “The Spearhead.”
To the Pacific: Hawaii: August- December 1944
In late July 1944, elements of the Division began shipping out for the Pacific. By September the entire Division was relocated to the high wind-swept slopes of Camp Tarawa on the big island of Hawaii. There training for battle intensified and focused on assault techniques learned from earlier island battles. This training continued from early September until just after Christmas when the Division boarded vessels for assault exercises in the Hawaiian Islands oriented toward a mysterious Island X.
On to Iwo Jima: January- February 1945
After completing these landing exercises and a brief shore liberty in Pearl Harbor, the Spearhead Division sailed for battle. Two days out from Pearl Harbor the target was announced. It was Iwo Jima, an island fortress 750 miles from Tokyo. Iwo Jima was a Japanese home island The Mayor of Tokyo was also the Mayor of Iwo Jima and the Japanese considered Iwo Jima sacred territory. The Japanese also realized that the loss of Iwo Jima would seriously weaken their defense against the American air campaign then beginning in earnest, so the Emperor sent his palace guard commander, a Samurai General, to command the garrison.
The small pear shaped 8 square mile island bristled with Japanese airfields whose planes disrupted the B-29 flights from the Marianas and whose radars gave early warning to Japanese air defenses. We needed to take Iwo Jima for these airfields so P-51 fighters could provide fighter escort to the B-29’s and also to give crippled B-29’s, returning from Japan, a safe haven. With such strategic importance to both sides, a great and fierce battle was in the making.
The huge task force steaming westward across the Pacific to attack Iwo Jima included not only the Spearhead Division, but also the veteran 4th Marine Division. The 3rd Marine Division, then in Guam, joined the task force as a floating reserve but was soon called into action.
With three Marine Divisions fighting side by side, this fierce battle lasted 36 days and resulted in 26,000 American casualties (killed & wounded) including naval personnel lost off shore. The entire Japanese garrison of 20,000, except for a handful, perished. Most of them were forever sealed in the caves and tunnels from which they fought to the last man. The remains of the majority of these fanatical defenders, including their commanding Samurai, General Kuribayahi, have never been recovered.
Battle of Iwo Jima: February 19- March 26, 1945
On February 19, 1945, The Spearhead Marines landed on Iwo’s eastern beaches under the guns of the mountain fortress, Mt. Suribachi.
The D-Day mission was to cross the neck of Iwo Jima, cut off Mt Suribachi, secure the southern end of Motoyama Airfield #1, and begin the drive northward on the wide western beaches. Advancing rapidly over the volcanic ash beaches in the face of savage resistance, the 5th Division accomplished this mission. On their right flank, the 4th Marine Division was ashore in strength and was prepared to secure the airstrip and the high ground north of the landing beaches by the end of D-day. By nightfall the two Marine Divisions were firmly ashore which assured that the island would eventually be taken. The question remained how long would it take and what would be the cost?
Four days after landing, the Flag was raised on Mt Suribachi by six Marines from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division. The photo of the flag-raising by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal became the most celebrated war photograph of all time. This iconic image of six Marines raising the flag became a postage stamp, a national monument in our nation’s Capital, and the subject of books and movies. A combat motion picture, taken of the actual flag raising was a signature closing scene throughout the nation for TV stations’ late night sign off during the 50’s & 60’s.
After Suribachi fell, the 5th Division continued a bloody yard by yard advance northward, alongside the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Finally, after suffering great losses, the 5th Marine Division secured the last enemy redoubt known as Bloody Gorge, and on March 26th, the surviving Marines of the Division took time to say goodbye to their buddies buried in the division cemetery at the foot of Mt Suribachi. They then began boarding ships for return to Hawaii; however, the fighting was not over.
During the early morning hours of March 26th some 200-300 fanatic and determined Japanese survivors managed to sneak onto the main airfield and launch a devastating attack against the bivouacs of the sleeping Army P-51 pilots. The rampage continued through a newly arrived Army field hospital, a nearby Seabee unit, and into an assembly area occupied by the 5th Marine Division’s Pioneer Battalion and three Companies of the main Supply Service unit fot the Marine forces, 8th Field Depot, that were all waiting to board ship. Many of these Marines had turned in their ammo as required before boarding ship, but they launched a counterattack into the rampaging Japanese force with bayonets and whatever they could find. Leading this attack was Lt Harry Martin, armed only with his personal pistol. Lt Martin gave his life, but the Pioneers prevailed and the entire Japanese force was destroyed. Lt. Martin was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the last of seventeen awarded to 5th Marine Division Marines and Navy Corpsman on Iwo Jima.
Of the twenty-seven Medals of Honor awarded during the 36-day battle of Iwo Jima, fourteen were awarded to 5th Division Marines, and three to Navy Corpsmen of the 5th Division.
The Battle of Iwo Jima took an immense toll. Over 2,000 5th Marine Division Marines and Navy corpsman were killed in action or died of wounds and close to 8,000 were wounded. This was one of every two men in the Division. The line infantry battalions had only a few of the original men they landed with when they boarded ships to leave. Three of the six flag raisers in Rosenthal’s famous photo were killed in action later in the campaign.
Back to Camp Tarawa: April – August 1945
Returning to Hawaii the Iwo Jima survivors were warmly greeted by the people of Hilo before returning to Camp Tarawa where they rested, joined new men, and begin preparing for the dreaded invasion of Japan. Fortunately that was not necessary following the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrendering of Japan.
Occupation of Sasebo, Japan: September – December 1945
On September 22, 1945, 5th Marine Division units began landing in the naval port of Sasebo in Northwest Kyushu. It was a stand up landing on dry ground, As the division went ashore they found the Japanese cooperative, relieved that the war over, and the Marines were likewise relieved they no longer had to contend with a fanatic determined enemy. Completing their occupation duty, which included the surrender and destruction of Japanese arms, the Division began returning stateside in mid-December.
Coming Home and Deactivation: December 1945 to February 1946
Division units began arriving at Camp Pendleton in January 1946. Shortly after arrival, Reservist were demobilized and returned home, Regulars remaining in the Corps were reassigned. The 26th Marines had been detached to the Palau islands to take the surrender of Japanese troops there and were still deployed. They would not return until mid February, but on February 6th the Division Headquarters was closed and the 5th Marine Division deactivated, just a little over two years after being activated.
Born of the necessity of war, the World War 2 missions of the Division were over, but the memory of what the Division did and what its men endured on Iwo Jima remains forever with those men who survived and came home.
This 5th Marine Division fought as few Divisions were ever called on to fight and the courage of these men became a legend in its own time. The image of their courage is enshrined forever at The Marine Corps Memorial in Washington.
Activation at Camp Pendleton: June 1966- November 1969
In March 1966 the Secretary of Defense ordered the activation of the 5th Marine Division and in April the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines were formed at Camp Pendleton, This was followed by activation of the 13th Marine (5th Artillery Regiment). On June 1st the 5th Marine Division activated their Headquarters at Camp Pendleton. This was followed by the reactivation of the 27th Marines and their 1st Battalion at Kaneohe Bay in Oahu, Hawaii.
Deploying to Vietnam
The 5th Marine Division did not deploy or fight as a division in Vietnam, but two of the division’s regiments were deployed between 1966 and 1969. These regiments, the 26th and 27th Marines plus elements of the 13th Marines (artillery) served admirably as components of the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions.
They participated in a number of key battles and operations during this period, including the epic defense of Khe Sanh where the 26th Marines earned a coveted Presidential Unit Citation and the attention of the nation from January to February 1968. The 26th Marines heroic defense of this surrounded outpost and other tough fights in Vietnam by 26th & 27th Marines lived up to the legacy the 5th Marine Division established in the battle of Iwo Jima.
In late 1968 and into 1969 units deployed to Vietnam returned to Camp Pendleton. On November 26, 1969 the 5th Marine Division closed its Headquarters and deactivated once again.
The 5th Marine Division lives in the history of our nation in WW2, and is represented by the Marine Corps Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, depicting the Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945.
It lives particularly strong in the hearts of its now aged surviving Iwo Jima veterans and those children of 5th Marine Division Marines lost on Iwo Jima. It lives with the sons and daughters of Iwo Marines who came home and contributed so much to their families and our nation over the years. It lives in the newsletters and reunions of the Association when old stories are told over and over again. The reunions are a convening of a unique family.
(Contributed by John Butler, son of LtCol. John A. Butler who was KIA on Iwo Jima on March 5th, 1945, while commanding the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division.)