How Marines Fought Through Fear on Iwo Jima

How Marines Fought Through Fear on Iwo Jima

Every marine endured fear during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. As one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theatre of WWII, the island claimed over 26,000 American casualties with around 6,800 dead in five weeks of fierce fighting. Japanese forces fought ferociously to the last man without surrender. Of roughly 20,000 Japanese troops stationed on Iwo Jima, only 216 were taken prisoner.

American marines coped with the horrors of battle and broke through frozen panic through mental fortitude. Effective training and camaraderie among marines empowered them to fight through the fear of death, focus on their duties and effectively defeat the opposition.

In effect, all actions were thought of as necessary parts of a strenuous job that they signed up for and had an obligation to. There was no quitting, especially when quitting meant letting down your fellow troops and endangering their lives along with your own.

Frozen in the thick of battle, marines would muster up the mental toughness and resolve necessary to will themselves out of fear and straight into action.

At one point, Jay Rebstock suddenly stopped and became unbearably thirsty. “Scared shitless,” he “could not move, and I drank almost an entire canteen of water, and only then did my legs move forward.” To prevent freezing in the first place, when he detected the clammy claw of fear Bertrand Yaffe would repeat, “If I can just get [through] the next ten minutes, I’ll be [alright]. Just a few minutes!”
Men of War by Alexander Rose

Some marines thought of home life and their family waiting back in the United States. Thoughts like these could pull a marine out of their frozen fear and spur them back into action with a strong will to survive. For many others though, it was best to detach from everything outside of battle and occupy their minds with the job they were ordered to carry out in the moment.

Francis Cockrel’s worst moments on Iwo came when “I had to lie still for a time, and shells were landing not very far off. I had time to think then: ‘Maybe the next one will come here.'” But he managed to fight off mounting apprehensions by occupying his mind trying to work out how to storm a nearby pillbox. Thinking through the problem Cockrel said, ate up the “time to think about what might happen to you. When known risk is involved, you balance against the… importance of the pillbox; but you don’t paw it around with your emotions.”
Men of War by Alexander Rose

Foreboding signs of peril were trumped by the instilled sense of duty from rigorous training. Focusing on the critical tasks at hand rather than the immediate surrounding dangers worked to distract from fear and get done what needed to be done. In this way, order prevailed over the chaos of battle.How Marines Fought Through Fear on Iwo Jima

[D]espite the fear that gripped him, Wheeler charged forward in the face of enemy rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire. He later explained, “There probably wasn’t a man among us who didn’t wish to God he was moving in the opposite direction. But we had been ordered to attack, so we would attack. And our obedience involved more than just a resignation to discipline. Our training had imbued us with a fierce pride in our outfit, and this pride helped now to keep us from faltering. Few of us would have admitted that we were bound by the old-fashioned principle of ‘death before dishonor,’ but it was probably this, above all else, that kept us pressing forward.”
The Ghosts of Iwo Jima by Robert S. Burrell

Commitment to one another was the ultimate driving force of courage during unforgiving moments of fear, anxiety, and panic. The only thing stronger than the fear of death, was at times, the fear of failing your brothers through cowardice.

“Let me tell you, I was scared stiff. The only thing that helped me go on was the fact that I was committed to the fellows that I trained with. We were told that you go in as a team; that you must watch out for each other. That’s what kept me going, even though I was scared.”
Voices from Iwo Jima by Larry Smith

The same techniques utilized by marines on Iwo Jima can be reapplied to overcome day-to-day challenges outside of the warzone. Seeing through commitments from simple mundane tasks to laborious work helps us avoid disappointment in ourselves as well as in the eyes of our peers. There may not be anything as extreme and hard to endure as pure war itself, but the approach to conquering life’s obstacles can parallel the approaches marines took on Iwo Jima to fight through fear and defeat the enemy.

How Marines Fought Through Fear on Iwo Jima

, , ,
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Those are great ways of dealing with fear. If have always wondered why the soldiers of WWII seemed to be able to deal with the experiences of war much better than the guys who fought in Vietnam. I think your post gives us some insight of what the difference could have been.