Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Soldier of Monarchy: General Tadamichi Kuribayashi

The man who led one of the most iconic and fierce struggles in the latter days of the Empire of Japan was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, an accomplished soldier, writer and diplomat who had a level of understanding of the enemy Japan faced that most of his fellow officers did not. He was born on July 7, 1891 in Hanishina District, Nagano Prefecture to an old samurai family. Given his family background, a military career was only natural for Kuribayashi, though in his early days at school he was most known for literary talents as a writer of speeches, poetry and inspirational works. He was also known for being somewhat rebellious and was almost expelled from school for organizing a students strike. In fact, he had initially planned on becoming a journalist but was finally persuaded by his instructors to attend the Imperial Japanese Army Academy after graduating from Nagano High School in 1911. He graduated in 1914 as a cavalry officer and went on to the Army Cavalry School in 1918 to further perfect his skills. He showed such promise that he went on to the Army War College and had an outstanding record, graduating in 1923 with high praise and receiving the coveted military saber from His Majesty the Taisho Emperor of Japan.

In 1928 Kuribayashi was sent as a deputy military attaché to the United States in Washington DC and during his two year stay in America he studied at Harvard University. He gained a valuable perspective there and was most impressed by the massive economic and industrial strength of the United States. He later said that, in his travels around the country, “…I knew the close connections between the military and industry. I saw the plant area of Detroit, too. By one button push, all the industries will be mobilized for military business.” Later he held a similar post in Canada but it was his time in the United States that gave him a first-hand understanding of the enemy Japan would ultimately face in World War II. He was one of the few Japanese military figures who understood just how massively outmatched Japan would be in any war with the United States and hoped that such a thing could be avoided. After returning from Canada, he served on the General Staff in Tokyo, continued to do some writing and by 1940 had been promoted to major general. When war broke out in December of 1941 he was serving as chief of staff of the 23rd Army tasked with the conquest of Hong Kong.

When the war came, Kuribayashi was one of the few men in the Japanese military who understood what the consequences would be. On numerous occasions he had said to his family that, “America is the last country in the world Japan should fight”. This, combined with his occasional remarks supportive of a negotiated peace, led some of the more radical militarists to accuse him of being a defeatist and lacking in support for the Japanese war effort. However, Kuribayashi was as loyal and committed a soldier as Japan ever had and his views were based on his understanding of American military might. He knew that it was a war that would be virtually impossible for Japan to win given the overwhelming American superiority in resources, manpower, economic and industrial output compared to Japan. Others had the bare facts but Kuribayashi had actually seen it for himself and fully grasped just how massive the imbalance was between Japan and America and he did not want to see the Empire of Japan wiped out in a war in which there was practically no chance of success. Nonetheless, once that decision was made, he was absolutely committed to doing his duty and would fight the Americans with the utmost of his abilities.

Kuribayashi directing the placement of fortifications
During the war, General Kuribayashi gained the reputation of being a ‘soldier’s general’. He visited his wounded men in the hospital, something which was rare at the time, showed great concern for keeping his troops properly supplied and was determined not to waste their lives needlessly. In 1943 he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of a training division with the Imperial Guard and the following year was given the field command of the 109th Division. A few days later he was informed that he would be tasked with the defense of the island of Iwo Jima and was even granted an imperial audience before being flown to the island to assume command. When Kuribayashi arrived on Iwo Jima he already had a plan in mind for how to inflict a costly defeat on the Americans. However, he had been kept in the dark about the overall strategic situation for Japan and did not know, at the time, that he was essentially being sent to certain death with the assignment. The plan Kuribayashi had was of a type that would have been familiar to someone like American General George Patton. His idea was to set up a defense in-depth in the interior of Iwo Jima to lure in as many Americans as possible and pin them down with withering fire at which time the Imperial Japanese Navy Combined Fleet would swing in from the sea and Kuribayashi and the navy would crush the Americans between them.

After arriving, Kuribayashi told Major Yoshitaka Horie, “When the enemy comes here, we can contain him, and then our Combined Fleet will come to slap his face. That is to say, our role here is a massive containing action.” However, Horie then informed him of recent events that Kuribayashi did not know about. The Combined Fleet had been practically annihilated at the Battle of the Philippine Sea only ten days before and the Imperial Japanese Navy would never launch a major offensive operation again. Additionally, Japanese naval air power had been wiped out as well with over 5-600 aircraft destroyed. Kuribayashi had been unaware of any of this and only upon learning of it did he realize that there was practically no hope for a Japanese victory on Iwo Jima. Still, it was his duty to try and that is what he would do. He inspected the defenses of the island himself, laid out new defensive positions and determined to fight on Iwo Jima regardless of the odds against him and to kill as many Americans as possible. His only hope was that if he could inflict horrendous losses on the American forces, the public in the United States might lose morale and be more agreeable to abandoning the war and making peace with Japan.

This was the only option Kuribayashi had and his reasoning was sound. However, the nature of World War II in the Pacific for the United States meant that it would not work. This, after all, is something that would happen to American overseas conflicts yet to come and which most people today are familiar with. However, this is partly exactly why President Roosevelt was adamant that Japan strike the first blow in bringing the United States into the war. That event galvanized the public and ensured that the mentality of the American people would be different than it would be in later conflicts such as the war in Vietnam for example. In a war that America chose to fight, even for laudable reasons, extreme loss of life could be enough to cause public support for the war to drop and force the government to pull out and end hostilities. However, in this case, because Japan had attacked American territory, regardless of the reasons, that was not going to happen in World War II. Losses in the Pacific islands campaign would be extreme for the United States but support for the war would never drop but a greater ferocity encouraged. That is not to say though that General Kuribayashi was wrong in his decision. Under the circumstances there was no other decision he could make other than to surrender without fighting at all.

Any Japanese strategy in the island campaigns were crippled from the outset by American naval superiority. Even if Japan had inflicted devastating losses on American forces, even to the extent of forcing the enemy off of an island like Iwo Jima, would have been only temporary setbacks for the United States which could have simply bypassed such islands, keeping them from being re-supplied until the Japanese garrison was forced to surrender or die of starvation. This was similar to the strategy used by General Douglas MacArthur of bypassing strong points and attacking weak points, leaving heavily fortified areas to wither in isolation. Unlike warfare on land, when it came to the Pacific islands, everything depended on maintaining naval superiority which, in turn, also guaranteed air superiority so that there was no way an island garrison could fight a war of attrition against an enemy that controlled the seas and skies around the combat area. Kuribayashi surely understood this but he was determined to do the best he could in an extremely difficult situation. As long as the Americans were intent on taking Iwo Jima he could at least delay the American offensive and buy time for the major, most heavily populated Japanese home islands. Every day he held out was one more day before American forces could invade Honshu or increase the bombing of the Japanese heartland.

General Kuribayashi made the best of a bad situation and learned from previous Japanese defeats to mount a more successful defense. Accepted thinking, in resisting an amphibious assault, was to put your strength up front and try to stop the enemy on the beaches when they were the least organized and the most vulnerable. However, General Kuribayashi decided against this. On Saipan, Guam and Tinian he had seen this tactic fail because of American naval superiority. Anything he placed on the beaches would be pulverized by the American battleships offshore so, instead, he placed his men farther inland in an intricate network of underground fortifications. Taking those fortifications would be a long, bloody and frustrating affair for the attacking Americans. Kuribayashi also knew that he could expect no help from Japan and he had to use his men and supplies conservatively. Lack of food, water and the prevalence of sickness because of a lack of proper supplies was a major problem for the Japanese from the outset. On February 19, 1945 the first elements of the U.S. Marines began landing on Iwo Jima. Because of the great care and preparations taken by General Kuribayashi, it would be a grueling affair for the American forces, lasting five weeks and ultimately costing the American forces over 6,000 killed and over 19,000 wounded. The Japanese garrison of just over 22,000 men generally fought to the death with only 216 being captured.

General Kuribayashi ordered his men not to fire on the Americans as they came ashore but to draw them in close and then fight fiercely to the last man and urged his troops to set as their goal to kill at least 10 Americans before giving up their life. Given the popular perception of the war in the Pacific, it is important to note that General Kuribayashi did not favor what Americans called the “banzai charge”. The aggressive temperament of Japanese warriors repeatedly led them, in other battles, to launch suicidal charges when the situation became desperate. However, this meant that they would be out in the open and thus easily wiped out by superior American firepower. What Kuribayashi did was far more effective, urging his men to stay in their defensive positions and force the Americans to expose themselves to danger in trying to pry them out of their holes and earthworks one by one. Marine General Holland Smith noticed this and paid his enemy a typically Marine style of compliment saying of General Kuribayashi, “I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese General running this show is one smart bastard.” The Japanese resisted fiercely and took a heavy toll on the attacking Marines as the fight for Iwo Jima dragged on for days and weeks. General Kuribayashi was among the last still holding out.
Knowing that the end was near, he wrote,

“The battle is entering its final chapter. Since the enemy's landing, the gallant fighting of the men under my command has been such that even the gods would weep. In particular, I humbly rejoice in the fact that they have continued to fight bravely though utterly empty-handed and ill-equipped against a land, sea, and air attack of a material superiority such as surpasses the imagination. One after another they are falling in the ceaseless and ferocious attacks of the enemy. For this reason, the situation has arisen whereby I must disappoint your expectations and yield this important place to the hands of the enemy. With humility and sincerity, I offer my repeated apologies. Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor's favor, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies. I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor's domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory. I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my inmost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity.”

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi died on or around March 26, 1945. As there were virtually no survivors, the exact nature of his death has been subject to some speculation. Some accounts say he was killed in action during an attack on an enemy camp, others say he committed seppuku near his headquarters after facing north and bowing three times toward the Imperial Palace after which his assistants shot themselves after burying him. Whatever the exact circumstances were, General Kuribayashi had died like a hero and more than fulfilled his duty to resist and defend Iwo Jima to the very end. He had taken a heavy toll on the U.S. Marines and Iwo Jima was the only battle in which total American casualties were greater than total Japanese casualties. He had also earned the respect of his enemies, Marine General Holland Smith wanted to give Kuribayashi a proper burial with military honors but his body could not be found. In his memoirs, General Holland wrote, “Of all our adversaries in the Pacific, Kuribayashi was the most redoubtable.” And, while public support for the war certainly did not fall off because of the battle, the staunch resistance of Kuribayashi did have an impact as many in the United States later questioned suffering such heavy losses to capture an island that was not very strategically significant. General Kuribayashi had been tasked with fighting a hopeless battle but he fought that battle with the greatest skill and heroism possible, accomplishing as much as could have been accomplished in such a situation. He stands as a figure worthy of the utmost respect and admiration.


  1. What a great man. A patriot and a servant of His Majesty, as every man should be. While we are at it, MM, I would like to recommend for you to read about a hero from my country (The once Glorious Empire of Brazil), the Duke of Caxias. He is, in some ways, very similar to General Kuribayashi. I honestly think his history is of great interest of yours.


    1. He was that. I recommend you read the profile I wrote of him four years ago.


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