The first European to arrive at Iwo Jima was Spanish sailor Bernardo de la Torre who named it Sufre Island, after the old Spanish term for sulphur (azufre in modern Spanish). At that time Iwo Jima and other islands were the limit between the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the far East.
In 1779, the island was charted as Sulphur Island, the literal translation of its official name, during Captain James Cook's third surveying voyage.
The name "Sulphur Island" was translated into Late Middle Japanese with the Sino-Japanese rendering iwau-tau (硫黄島, modern Japanese Iwō-tō), from Middle Chinese ljuw-huang "sulfur" and táw "island". The historical spelling iwautau had come to be pronounced (approximately) Iwō-tō by the age of Western exploration, and the 1946 orthography reform fixed the spelling and pronunciation at Iō-tō. An alternative, Iwō-jima, modern Iō-jima, also appeared in nautical atlases. Tō and shima are different readings of the kanji for island (島), the shima being changed to jima in this case.
Japanese naval officers who arrived to fortify the island before the U.S. invasion mistakenly called it Iwo Jima. In this way, the "Iwo Jima" reading became mainstream and was the one used by U.S. forces who arrived during World War II. Former island residents protested against this rendering, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's Geographical Survey Institute debated the issue and formally announced on June 18, 2007, that the official Japanese pronunciation of the island's name would revert to the pre-war Iō-tō. Moves to revert the pronunciation were sparked by the high-profile films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The change does not affect how the name is written with kanji, "硫黄島", only how it is pronounced or written in hiragana, katakana and rōmaji.
The island has an approximate area of 21 km2 (8 sq mi). The most prominent feature is Mount Suribachi on the southern tip, a vent that is thought to be dormant and is 161 m (528 ft) high. Named after a Japanese grinding bowl, the summit of Mount Suribachi is the highest point on the island. Iwo Jima is unusually flat and featureless for a volcanic island. Suribachi is the only obvious volcanic feature, as it is only the resurgent dome (raised centre) of a larger submerged volcanic caldera.
80 km (43 nautical miles, 50 mi) north of the island is North Iwo Jima (北硫黄島, Kita-Iō-tō, literally: "North Sulfur Island") and 59 kilometres (37 mi; 32 nmi) south is South Iwo Jima (南硫黄島, Minami-Iō-tō, "South Sulfur Island"); these three islands make up the Volcano Islands group of the Ogasawara Islands. Just south of Minami-Iō-jima are the Mariana Islands.
Iwo Jima has a history of minor volcanic activity a few times per year (fumaroles, and their resultant discolored patches of seawater nearby), but so far no sign of a big eruption coming.
Iwo Jima has a tropical climate.
The island was first visited by a westerner in October 1543, by Spanish sailor Bernardo de la Torre on board the carrack San Juan de Letrán when trying to return from Sarangani to New Spain.
Before World War II Iwo Jima was administered as Iōjima village and was (and is today) part of Tokyo. A census in June 1943 reported an island civilian population of 1,018 (533 males, 485 females) in 192 households in six settlements. The island had a primary school, a Shinto shrine, and one police officer; it was serviced by a mail ship from Haha-jima once a month, and by Nippon Yusen ship once every couple of months. The island's economy relied upon sulfur mining, sugarcane farming, and fishing; an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with poor economic prospect, Iwo Jima had to import all rice and consumer goods from the Home Islands.
Even before the beginning of World War II, there was a garrison of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the southern part of Iwo Jima. It was off-limits to the island's civilian population, who already had little contact with the naval personnel, except for trading.
Throughout 1944, Japan conducted a massive military buildup on Iwo Jima in anticipation of a U.S. invasion. In July 1944, the island's civilian population was forcibly evacuated, and no civilians have permanently settled on the island since.
The invasion of Iwo Jima began on February 19, 1945, and continued to March 26, 1945. The battle was a major initiative of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. The Marine invasion, known as "Operation Detachment", was charged with the mission of capturing the airfields on the island, which up until that time had harried U.S. bombing missions to Tokyo. Once the bases were secured, they could then be of use in the impending invasion of the Japanese mainland.
The battle was marked by some of the fiercest fighting of the War. The Imperial Japanese Army positions on the island were heavily fortified, with vast bunkers, hidden artillery, and 18 kilometres (11 mi) of tunnels. The battle was the first U.S. attack on the Japanese Home Islands and the Imperial soldiers defended their positions tenaciously. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers present at the beginning of the battle, over 19,000 were killed and only 1,083 taken prisoner.
One of the first objectives after landing on the beachhead was the taking of Mount Suribachi. At the second raising of a flag on the peak, Joe Rosenthal photographed six Marines raising the United States flag on the fourth day of the battle (February 23). The photograph was extremely popular, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography that same year. It is regarded as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war.
After the fall of Mount Suribachi in the south, the Japanese still held a strong position throughout the island. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi still had the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, two artillery, and three heavy mortar battalions, plus the 5,000 gunners and naval infantry. With the landing area secure, more troops and heavy equipment came ashore and the invasion proceeded north to capture the airfields and the remainder of the island. Most Japanese soldiers fought to the death. On the night of March 25, a 300-man Japanese force launched a final counterattack led by Kuribayashi. The island was officially declared "secured" the following morning.
According to the U.S. Navy, "The 36-day (Iwo Jima) assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead." To put that into context, the 82-day Battle of Okinawa lasted from early April until mid-June 1945 and U.S. (five Army, two Marine Corps Divisions and Navy personnel on ships) casualties were over 62,000 of whom over 12,000 were killed or missing, while the Battle of the Bulge lasted 40 days (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) with almost 90,000 U.S. casualties consisting of 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 captured or missing.
After Iwo Jima was declared secured, about three thousand Japanese soldiers were left alive in the island's warren of caves and tunnels. Those who could not bring themselves to commit suicide hid in the caves during the day and came out at night to prowl for provisions. Some did eventually surrender and were surprised that the Americans often received them with compassion — offering them water, cigarettes, or coffee. The last of these stragglers, two of Lieutenant Toshihiko Ohno's men (Ohno's body was never found), Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, lasted 3-and-one-half years, surrendering on January 6, 1949.
The U.S. military occupied Iwo Jima until 1968, when it was returned to Japan.
On February 19, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the day that U.S. forces began the assault on the island, veterans from both forces gathered for the Reunion of Honor just a few meters/yards away from the spot where U.S. Marines had landed on the island. During the memorial service a granite plaque was unveiled with the message:
On the 40th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans met again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades, living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray together that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never be repeated.
It is inscribed on both sides of the plaque, with the English translation facing the beaches where U.S. forces landed and the Japanese translation facing inland, where Japanese troops defended their position.
After that, the Japan-U.S. combination memorial service of the 50th anniversary was held in front of this monument in March 1995. The 55th anniversary was held in 2000, followed by a 60th reunion in March 2005 (see U.S. National Park Service photo below), and a 70th anniversary ceremony on March 21, 2015.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) operates a naval air base on the island at North Field (IATA: IWO, ICAO: RJAW). The airstrip is 2,650 meters (8,700 ft) long and 60 meters (200 ft) wide. Its orientation is 07/25. The JMSDF is in charge of support, air traffic control, fueling, and rescue. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force also uses the base. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force is in charge of explosive ordnance disposal, and maintains a garrison of 400 troops on the island. Two abandoned airfields from World War II are nearby, Central Field to the south of the current air base, and an unfinished Japanese airfield to the north of the base, which was improved after the U.S. invasion of the island.
The U.S. Navy's Carrier Air Wing Five, based at the United States Naval Air Facility Atsugi when not embarked/deployed aboard USS Ronald Reagan, also uses the base for field carrier landing practice (FCLP). The U.S. Navy still has a 1,639 acres (663 ha) disused communication facility (Iwo-Jima Communication Site) on the island, while the U.S. Coast Guard's Iwo Jima LORAN-C transmitter facility was transferred to Japan in 1993 and demolished in 1994.
Civilian access to the island is restricted to those attending memorial services for U.S. and Japanese fallen soldiers, construction workers for the naval air base, and meteorological agency officials. The Japanese troops stationed on the island register their residential addresses in Ayase, Kanagawa or Sayama, Saitama for voting, tax, and social security purposes. Officially, there is no population on the island.
Iwo Jima appears to be one of a number of Japanese islands which has been used by the United States to host nuclear arms, according to Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin, and William Burr writing for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in early 2000. This is despite a Japanese policy of not allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. Whether the site is used for this purpose is unknown, as great secrecy surrounds the United States’ siting of nuclear arms bases; but on December 12, 1999, U.S. Under Secretary for Defense Policy Walter Slocombe told The New York Times, "Our position is that there have been no violations of our obligations under the security treaty and related arrangements."
Norris, Arkin and Burr concluded however:
There were nuclear weapons on Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima (Iwo To), an enormous and varied nuclear arsenal on Okinawa, nuclear bombs (without their fission cores) stored on the mainland at Misawa and Itazuke airbases (and possibly at Atsugi, Iwakuni, Johnson, and Komaki airbases as well), and nuclear-armed U.S. Navy ships stationed in Sasebo and Yokosuka. […] Chichi Jima, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa were under U.S. occupation, that the bombs stored on the mainland lacked their plutonium and/ or uranium cores, and that the nuclear-armed ships were a legal inch away from Japanese soil. All in all, this elaborate stratagem maintained the technicality that the United States had no nuclear weapons "in Japan."