It is not often you hear of Japanese war heroes during the War in the Pacific. Due to their reputation, many cases of Japanese bravery went unnoticed as the years went on. Often set aside to instead forget about the tragedies and brutal events that took play throughout the Second World War. However if any account of bravery is to be known, it is the actions of a single tank commander of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Battle for Iwo Jima. A man who took personal responsibility and dared to do the unthinkable to protect his comrades when all had seemed lost. The Battle for Iwo Jima had been one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the war. Japan's last hope of defense against the invading American forces, who needed the island in order for its long range bombers to reach the home island of Japan.
26th Tank Regiment
|Takeichi Nishi during the 1932|
Los Angeles Olympic Games.
One of the commanding officers on Iwo Jima was Baron Takeichi Nishi, in charge of the 26th Tank Regiment and its 600 personnel. Takeichi Nishi had been Japan's 1932 Olympic Gold Medalist in equestrian show jumping during events at Los Angeles. and regarded as a celebrity in both Japan and the United States. He had been assigned as the commander of the 26th Tank Regiment in Northern Manchuria for the preparation for a possible Soviet invasion. Nishi and the 26th were stationed in Mudanjiang, which held one of the key logistical railways for supplying the Imperial Japanese Army; should the IJA lose control of the railway, the Soviets would be able to make significant territorial gains. In spite of this risk, the tides of war began to shift; Nishi and the 26th Tank Regiment were eventually ordered to Iwo Jima, to bolster the garrison of Lt. General Kuribayashi on the island fortress. Prior to this deployment, Nishi had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in recognition of the distinguished conduct of the 26th Tank Regiment in Manchuria. Yet this award was effectively hollow; the 26th Tank had no actual combat experience. The same was true of many of the units already on Iwo Jima, which Nishi and his regiment were being sent to reinforce.
Defending Iwo Jima
Preparations for the defense of Iwo-Jima were made under the command of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose forces were told hold the island at any cost. Kuribayashi had been personally selected by Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō to be the head commander of Iwo Jima due to his reputation as the prior commander of the 2nd Imperial Guards Division. Kuribayashi knew the United States outmatched Japan in all fields; when the defense would begin, there would be no equal ground for engaging the Americans in the field. To counter the Americans, the Japanese defenders would attempt to use attrition to defeat the invasion force. In preparation for the execution of this strategy, the garrisons on Iwo Jima constructed 10 miles of underground tunnels throughout the island. These linked roughly 6000 fighting positions, including pillboxes and caves for gun-emplacements.
|An example of a dug-in tank.|
The 26th Tank Regiment only had 23 tanks stationed on the island by the time the American forces arrived. Originally, there were 28 tanks (Mostly Chi-Ha Kais) assigned to the defense of Iwo Jima, however on July 18th, 1944, a cargo vessel carrying the tanks had been sunk by an American submarine, the USS Cobia. Takeichi Nishi had been forced to wait for a new set of tanks to be supplied to the island. Only 23 units were able to be scrounged up for Nishi and the 26th to use in the defense of Iwo Jima. Among these 23 tanks, there were twelve Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks and eleven Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks. Of the Chi-Ha’s, only 3 were Kai models with the 47mm Anti-Tank gun. Takeichi Nishi decided to use the tanks as pillboxes on the rocky terrain of Iwo Jima. Their weak armour could not match the American M4 Shermans, however they were still a threat to infantry with their guns given appropriate protection by the geography.
The tanks were scattered across the island in various
positions to ambush the American forces as they moved inland.
By the end of 1944, the island’s garrisons reached 12,700 troops of various reserve divisions who mostly had been kept in China during the war, with little experience. 3,000 naval troops were also stationed on the island. It came as a surprise to Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi when the year had ended without any offensives by the Unites States. Japan had expected the island to come under attack sometime during 1944, but nonetheless no such attack happened. It wasn't until the middle of February that the American navy had came with a force of over 110,000 troops to take over the island from the already well-prepared Japanese. The naval bombardments began a few days before the landings were to commence. On the 19th of February, the landing forces stepped foot on the island, and the battle of Iwo Jima had begun.
|4th tank Battalions combat report.|
The American landing forces were met with stiff resistance the moment they came off the beachhead, however it only took 4 days for the American marines to capture Mount Suribachi and establish a major foothold on the island. Dug in within the various underground tunnels, the Japanese kept themselves hidden in order to take advantage of the American marines as they advanced further inland. The Americans had also deployed armoured units in the form of LVT's and M4A2, Shermans to support the advancing marines. However, due to the size and attraction the tanks caused on the island, the marines often pushed without the help of tank support. This led to infighting between company and tank commanders. Instead, most of the tanks moved to the northern airfields without heavily relying on infantry to safeguard the way for mines.
|A Taken Out Chi-Ha Kai on Hill 382.|
Sherman tank crews were forced to rely on their comrades and fellow tank crew’s for advancing inland. Due to the lack of available engineers on Iwo Jima, the crews had to manually leave their tanks to scout out the rocky terrain to judge how viable crossing would have been. This became apparent to the Japanese 26th Tank Regiment on February 20th, when a marine regiment alongside a tank company assaulted Hill 382 against the Japanese positions supported by tanks of the 26th. The engagement lasted until the 27th when the marines took the hill. Losses on the American side amounted to eight M4A2 Shermans, with another four damaged. The 26th Tank Regiment’s losses are unknown, but all the tanks supporting the defenses of Hill 382 were destroyed. The remaining Japanese tanks and crew retreated further North to Hill 362c. However, while the majority of the 26th retreated, a pocket of tank crewmen decided to stay behind and garrison a cave to ambush the oncoming American forces as they pushed past Hill 382.
On the 28th of February, American marines were unexpectedly attacked by Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks, in a desperate measure to prevent the advance. While surprising the infantry, the tanks were not an issue due to American bazooka’s quickly disabling the attack.
After the battle of Hill 382, the remains of the 26th Tank Regiment positioned themselves on Hill 362c, one of the last remaining Japanese defenses on Iwo Jima. At this point, there were only 2 tanks left to defend the island. Lieutenant Colonel Takeichi Nishi had been reported as Killed In Action by the time the Japanese had finished gathering on Hill 362c. The American forces had kept the battle on hold temporarily as forces recuperated and were reinforced with supplies and replacements. The 21st Marines and 4th Tank Battalion were ordered to push for a final assault against the Japanese, and take Hill 362c from the defending forces. The United States had successfully captured most of the Island, and only a small pocket of Japanese troops were left. However, the last few Japanese knew that the island mustn't fall at any cost.
The assault on Hill 362c began on March 6th. The 21st Marines scheduled for a naval bombardment on the hill in an attempt to scare the Japanese out of their defenses. The first shells landed at 0845 hours and lasted for quite some time. Once the shelling had ceased, almost abruptly the Japanese began to return fire on American positions. As infantry attacks would not work, the 21st asked for the 4th tank battalion to attempt an assault on the hill. Three M4A2 Shermans were sent across the field to attack the Japanese positions mid-day.
|Photograph of Sec Lt. Otani Michio.|
During the defensive, Japanese morale had been shaken despite their self perseverance. The remaining troops did not have the sufficient arms to defend against the oncoming Sherman tanks. However, the 26th Tank Regiment had one remaining Type 97 Chi-Ha Kai on the hill. Its crew being almost entirely killed with the exception of the commander, Second Lieutenant Otani Michio, who had been able to keep the tank covered during the bombardments. Otani Michio had been short on remaining munitions, and the tank being damaged beyond further repair at this point, was left to hold off an American tank column alone.
Otani Michio had the three tanks in his sights as they advanced. His Chi-Ha Kai covered by the terrain, his 47mm anti-tank gun had been able to successfully take out a Sherman within 100 meters of his position. Afterwards, Otani fired his remaining shots at the second Sherman tank, however unable to effectively penetrate and destroy due to the angle of fire the tank was positioned in. The crew had likely bailed due to damage of the repeated hits to the side. It is unknown what happened to his tank, however the gun was no longer useable after firing upon the second Sherman. Shocking his comrades, instead of retreating, Otani instead decided to exit the tank and sprint towards the second Sherman he had fired at. An unprecedented move, Otani managed to get on top of the damaged Sherman.
The damaged Sherman, crewless, gave Otani the opportunity to deal with the remaining M4A2. Otani occupied the gunner position of the second Sherman, and opened fire on the third tank. Due to the blind spots and lack of visibility of the Sherman as reported by the 4th Tank Battalion, Otani managed to make his move without worry of counter fire. Firing the 75mm cannon, he was able to successfully disable the last Sherman. By this point the marines had already gotten to the field and began to engage the Japanese position. Otani managed to exit the sherman, and return to safety as his comrades provided fire support.
|Only Known Photograph of the Engagement|
with Otani and the Shermans, by American troops.
His actions gave his fellow troops exceeding morale, and forced the 21st Marines to plan another route of attack. The marines decided to launch a night assault on the Hill, something the Unites States hadn’t done during the Pacific Theatre. On the midnight of March 6th, the 21st’s attack was a success, as most Japanese troops ended up sleeping, unexpecting the American marines to attack under the moon. Once aware of the marines’ actions, the Japanese began engaging the American infantry to desperately protect the Hill. The night assault had been a resounding success, and on the dawn of March 7th, left the already dwindled Japanese even smaller in number. Their morale battered, the tides turned again in the Marines favour.
|The Sherman model Otani Captured.|
Still residing on Iwo Jima.
It has become a tourist attraction.
By March 9th, the Unites States’ 21st Marines managed to successfully capture Hill 363c from the Japanese. The American forces during the engagement lost a total of 827 troops. The battle report lists 4 missing in action, likely had being the Sherman crew the Japanese engaged after bailing from their tank whom Otani had damaged. Not long after the battle for Hill 363c, Japan had officially surrendered the Island to the Unites States. Just over 200 Japanese troops had surrendered. Second Lt. Otani Michio had been one of them, and was recognized as a hero by his comrades.
He was regarded as a war hero once he and fellow prisoners returned home when the war had finally ended in September of 1945. Due to his actions not reaching home until the war's end, he was never officially recognized for his feats in battle. The tank he managed to occupy remains on the island today, as a monument for his actions on the 6th of March, 1945.
Hello everyone. Finally I've been able to finish and post this historical article! Hopefully now that this is done, I can also get other projects finished so I can share them here. I'll plan on doing a tank article next to get back in the cycle, and yes... I haven't forgotten the O-I series with Part 3, its coming soon!