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|
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.
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 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.”