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Charles W. Lindberg: Iwo Jima First Flag-Raiser

Charles W. Lindberg’s life changed 10 days after he was evacuated from Iwo Jima. While lying in a military hospital in Saipan, between operations to repair a forearm shattered by a Japanese bullet, Cpl. Lindberg saw a photograph that set the tone for the next 50 years of his life. “Someone asked me if I wanted to see the first flag-raising,” Lindberg recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ I looked at it and I said, ‘Oh no, that’s not the way we did it.’”

The-24-year old corporal didn’t know it at the time, but he was looking at a photo taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. It was the image of five Marines and a Navy corpsman struggling to hoist a large American flag. “The photo” won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize; President Franklin D. Roosevelt the badly needed support of the American people to finish off Japan; the treasury coffers $220 million in war bond sales; unwanted fame for Pfc. Ira Hayes and PHM2c John Bradley; welcome fame for Pfc. Rene Gagnon; and the U.S. Marine Corps a symbol that would memorialize its grit and tenacity forever.

There was just one problem: Rosenthal’s photograph depicted the second flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. Four hours prior to that event, Lindberg and five other members of Company E, 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division, had quickly raised a smaller flag on a 20-foot piece of iron pipe – then fought off Japanese resistance for three hours until the mountain was secure. Had Company E not mopped up the mountain, the second group may never have been sent up the hill by Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, who ordered the flags switched to prevent any souvenir hunters from stealing the first flag.

From such an innocent switch grew the biggest avalanche and magnet of publicity the U.S. military has ever known. Timing was a factor, too. The photographer who accompanied Company E up the mountain on the morning of Feb. 23, Sgt. Lou Lowery of Leatherneck magazine, did not get his film off Iwo Jima until several days after the first flag-raising. Meanwhile, as a civilian member of the international media, Rosenthal was able to have his film rushed by ship to Guam, where it was developed and flown to the United States.

 

Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg on Mt. Suribachi, looking for cave entrances on the crater’s rim. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LOU LOWERY

Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg on Mt. Suribachi, looking for cave entrances on the crater’s rim. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LOU LOWERY

 

America’s propensity for creating big events and heroes took over. The second flag-raising became larger than life, and so did its three surviving participants. Lying in his hospital bed in Saipan, and later Oahu, Lindberg grew more and more chagrined with the developments in the States – as did his surviving fellow platoon members. “You can’t feel good about it,” he recalled. “We kind of did the dirty work and somebody else got the credit for it. Actually, in my own opinion, there shouldn’t have been any names there amongst the flags. Every man on that island put those flags up; we didn’t do it by ourselves. No way did we do it alone. But when those other names came out, I said, ‘To hell with it: I’m going to get the names out.’”

 

 

Like others fortunate enough to make it through the war, Lindberg made a life for himself far from any battlefields. He met his future wife at an American Legion dance in 1946 and married her a year later. He began a career as an electrician and they raised a family – three sons and two daughters; between them, the three boys served in the Boy Scouts and all four branches of the military. It was just as happy and ordinary as any other family in which the patriarch sharpened his determination during the Depression, strengthened his callused, paw-sized workingman’s hands on fence posts, farm tools, flamethrowers, and electrical equipment, then settled into semi-retirement.

However, because of a fateful moment in 1945 and the controversy that surrounded it thereafter, Lindberg’s life was not ordinary. He spent many of his hours sharing the story of the first flag-raising with the public, often speaking at schools to teach children about the sacrifices made by veterans at Iwo Jima and elsewhere.

This interview is the product of three different interviews conducted between 1995 and 2005, the longest by Bob Yehling. Two years after the final interview, on June 24, 2007, Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg passed away and was laid to rest at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. His tombstone records his Purple Heart and Silver Star medals, and reads, in its last lines: “Iwo Jima First Flag Raiser.”

 

Uncommon Valor: Before Iwo Jima, you served with the 2nd Raider Battalion at Midway, then on Guadalcanal, and after that on Bougainville. On Guadalcanal, you were on the famous “Long Patrol.” Can you describe that?

Charles W. Lindberg: We were sent back into the jungle. We spent 32 days behind enemy lines. We traveled all the way from where we landed [at Aola Bay] up to Henderson Field. And our job was to harass, destroy anything we could – supplies. We took a toll of the enemy, over 480, and we destroyed a lot of stuff. We destroyed a cannon up there [nicknamed Pistol Pete] that was firing on the airfield and they couldn’t find it. We found it. We only lost 17 men.

 

You were involved in some of the first actions of the war as well as one of the last. How did it help you in the heat of the moment at Iwo Jima to have been seasoned by other World War II assaults?

Well, let’s put it this way – you keep your cool. Stuff never worried me. I take it as it comes, and I don’t wonder why, and I don’t get nervous. You just go ahead and do it – do what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s nothing you can do about what happens. That’s my theory of the whole thing.

 

Based on your experiences at Guadalcanal and Bougainville, what did you expect as far as resistance from the Japanese while you were on the island?

I didn’t expect any resistance. When they tell you they bombed it for 74 days around the clock, and that was steady, continuous, and they bombed it before that too … and then the shelling they gave it the [first] day I saw it, planes were coming in from all directions, battlewagons were pounding the mountain … I thought, “What could live through that?” But we got a helluva surprise when we got on that beach. They knew what they were doing. To fight us like that took a brain, and that Japanese general [Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi] had it.

 

When you were in your training in Hawaii, did you maneuver extensively in terrain similar to that on Iwo?

Oh yeah. On Hawaii, we trained extensively for that, with flamethrowers, bazookas, demolitions, charges of all types. We went through a lot of training before we ever knew where we were going.

 

What were your movements on D-day, as you recall?

I know we were trying to bury ourselves at first [in the sand], because mortar shells were falling all around us. But we were still trying to go forward. We got up to that first ridge there, and I’m sitting alongside [Richard] Wheeler, and he pokes me and says, “Hey, I’m going to get my first battle star.” And I look at him and say, “Hey, we ain’t off this island yet.” I tried to poke my head up [over the ridge] and a mortar shell blows up in front of me and takes a nick out of my helmet, and I come sailing back down and I says, “See what I mean?”

 

How long were you on the beach?

I’d say upwards of an hour. Then we started trying to climb the ridge, get on top of it, but it was rough going. It was hard to climb in the first place with the volcanic sand, and I was carrying 72 pounds on my back. But we did get up and start moving across the island, because we cut Suribachi off from the rest of the island.

The real work started then, because we were given the task of taking the mountain. I don’t think we had a block and a half or so to go from where we landed to the mountain, but for all that distance, there was bunker upon bunker. And the caves? You’d go by one, and they’d come up behind you. It took us to the evening of the 22nd to get to that mountain and surround it, and we had casualties you wouldn’t believe. In our platoon alone, there were 17 Purple Hearts, one Silver Star, three Navy Crosses, and one Medal of Honor. Just one platoon. That’s to get the mountain. That’s out of 40 men!

 

What was the first night, D-day night, like on the island?

Creepy. I mean, we didn’t know what to expect. What I really appreciate was the people puttin’ the flares up all night, keeping that island lit all night so you could watch. Nobody slept. There was stuff landin’ all night. Mortar shells were landin’.

 

On Feb. 23, didn’t someone go up to the top of Suribachi before you?

That morning, Sgt. Watson, [Louis] Charlo and another guy went up almost to the top. They reported nothing, no sign of anybody. They came back down, and this was around 0900 when they reported to Col. Chandler Johnson. That’s when he handed [1st Lt. Harold] Schrier that flag, and he says, “If you get to the top, raise it. If you run into too much opposition, come back down.” So we started out.

 

So the morning of the flag-raising, how long did it take you to get up there?

I’d say a half or three-quarters of an hour. We had no opposition whatsoever. We saw some things up there, and guys would throw grenades into the entrances of caves, but they looked like they’d been beat up someway. We found other caves on the side of the mountain and found nothing in there … beautiful places to live, though. Looked like they had regular homes in there! I figured we’d run into an awful lot of resistance up there, but if they’d come out … well, I never did understand why they didn’t do that. We were lucky. Very lucky.

 

When you actually went into the caves, did you have any idea the construction was that extensive?

I was amazed. They really cut it in. You go into just a narrow hole to get in, and you creep in about 6 or 7 feet, and it starts to enlarge. It gets larger and larger, and then you get inside and they had dug trenches in the dirt so you could walk down there, and they had places cut in for beds. Incredible as could be.

 

When you got up to the top, how much time elapsed before you raised the flag? What was going through your mind at the time? Obviously, you wanted to raise the flag, but you were in the middle of a war.

Well, trouble was, we put our skirmishers out on the ridge of the volcano, and we didn’t see anything. Immediately Schrier gave the order to get that flag up. So two of them found this piece of water pipe up there, a long one too. As a matter of fact, there was one bullet hole in the thing, just right to tie our rope on, to tie the flag to. Kind of strange. But we tied the flag onto the pole [at 1030], and carried it to the highest spot we could find and up it went.

 

Preparing to raise the first American flag atop Mt. Suribachi. Lindberg is at top left, helping tie the flag to the piece of pipe that would serve as the flagpole. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LOU LOWERY

Preparing to raise the first American flag atop Mt. Suribachi. Lindberg is at top left, helping tie the flag to the piece of pipe that would serve as the flagpole. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LOU LOWERY

 

Then the noise came from down below, the ships started blaring horns, the troops started cheering. It was just like a big “Whoooomm” coming over that island. It gave you a funny feeling, you know … My God. We didn’t think nothing of it at first, you know, just raise the flag up and go about our work. But when that noise started, oh my God …

 

How did you feel?

Oh, this chill that runs through you, the thrill … I don’t know what it was, patriotism or whatever, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever had that kind of a feeling before, or after.

It didn’t last long, though. All of a sudden, some shots were fired off to our side there. Someone had come out of a cave, so we had to move against ‘em.

 

After the flag went up, how long were you engaged in skirmishes?

I think the time it took us to actually make sure the mountain was secure was three hours. The caves were mostly on the [north] side facing down toward the island, but then we had to go around the crater. We were followed up a little later by F Company, if I remember right. I seen them coming up to the top while we were coming around the side. So we had more people looking for ‘em. It was pretty well secured by 1:30 in the afternoon.

That’s when I decided to go back down and reload our [flamethrower] tanks, in case we had a counterattack that night or something. So we left the mountain. That’s when Col. Johnson gave the word to replace that flag. He said the Marine Corps was notorious for being souvenir hunters and he didn’t want anyone to get that flag. It was the first American flag to fly over Japanese home territory in World War II, and he wanted to preserve it. He wanted it replaced. I didn’t even know that.

When I came back up the mountain, the flag had been changed. I didn’t pay any attention to it. We came back about 5:00 in the afternoon, after loading and grabbing what little chow we could find. I saw the flag, but it didn’t even dawn on me that it was a bigger flag.

 

You were wounded and evacuated shortly after the flag-raising.

We stayed on the mountain until the last day of February. We left the mountain that day and the next morning, 1 March, we were on the north side, working on Hill 362. I caught a bullet through the arm, and was evacuated.

 

The comment was made by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that the flag-raising ensured that there would be a Marine Corps for the next 500 years. As one who was right in the middle of it, what do you feel that the act of taking Suribachi, and raising the American flag, did for the Marine Corps?

Well, taking the island itself was the main thing. There’s a lot to say about the toughness it took to get that island. When you tell somebody that we lost nearly 6,000 Marines, one thing it explains about the Marine Corps: that they don’t back up. There’s a job to be done, and it is done. When I try to explain the casualties, I explain it the way it was told to me: A third of the Marines killed in the war were killed at Iwo Jima. On 8 square miles of land. That makes you wonder, but then when you counter it with what it did … outside of saving these B-29 pilots and stuff like that, think what it did, you know, getting these planes to Iwo Jima and then attacking Japan and things like that. We had that there. A lot of lives saved, too.

It was a real morale breaker for the Japanese. What I’ve heard from their messages and stuff like that, they were supposed to stay there until … they were to hold it at all costs, in other words. I think it broke their back, in a way, once we got that island and were able to increase the bombing of Japan.

 

How do you feel today about having been in the first flag-raising team?

I feel quite proud that I was a member of the first flag-raising. To raise the first flag over Japanese home territory in World War II, I’m proud of that. I didn’t do it alone, but I’m proud to be one of the bunch.

I’ve got nothing to hide in that, you know: I raised the real flag. I feel proud every day that I can tell somebody that.

 

How did you find out that there were two flag-raisings – and that the second raising commanded all the attention in the United States?

I was sent back to Saipan. I was there [in a military hospital] for a couple of weeks. One day, someone asked me if I wanted to see a picture of the “first flag-raising.” And I said, “Yeah.” I looked at it and I said, “Oh no, that’s not the way we did it.” I didn’t know it, but I was looking at [ Joe] Rosenthal’s picture.

They switched me to Oahu eventually. I didn’t know how long I was in the hospital there until I saw this magazine, Yank magazine, with a picture of one flag on each side of the page. Then I knew what happened: Lowery’s pictures weren’t released right away. Rosenthal … he took his pictures onto the ships, they got flown right back to Guam, they were instantly developed there, they saw the picture – beautiful picture, yeah it was a beautiful picture – and to the States it went, and took the country by storm. Nobody ever knew there was a first flag.

 

One thing I read was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed something like that to raise morale in the United States. Do you find that to be true?

In a way, yes. But in my situation, I didn’t like it. And you can’t blame me for not. Anyone connected with that flag like I was, they didn’t like it either.

 

Was it one of those things where the significance of raising that flag grew on you as time passed?

No. It wasn’t then. When it started, I think, was in Hawaii, when I saw the two pictures. Then they switched me to Great Lakes Hospital [in Chicago], and then I was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina. I found out Lowery was back at Leatherneck magazine in Washington, and I wrote a letter to him, and he sent me a bunch of pictures and stuff. That’s when I started trying to explain to people what happened. I didn’t get too far; the other flag raising was too popular. They were going all over the country on the war bond drive.

 

It just got caught up in a publicity machine.

That’s right.

 

It’s something that’s obviously pretty close to you to this day. When did you start really getting it into gear as far as setting the record straight?

I’d say in the ’50s I really got the equipment and stuff to go after it right, you know, and got to talking about it. I never was too good at talkin’. I’ve learned a lot since. I got started more when I came down here.

 

How do you feel about that now? It’s pretty obvious that the record’s being set straight, at least to a certain degree. Does that make you feel partial vindication?

I think that maybe it’s accomplished something, anyway. It gets this out the way it should be. I know I’ll keep talking about it as long as I live, keep going out … it’s history. There are Marines that don’t even know it! It bothers me when I hear that; I’d think that they’d be the first to know.

But like I said, lately I’ve been getting invited all over the place to talk about this flag. Of course, I’m the last one left, too.

 

You have a funny story connected to the day you received the Silver Star Medal.

I didn’t get it until I was down in Charleston, South Carolina [in 1946]. I was in a fight with a sailor the night before in a nightclub down in Charleston, and I gave him a pretty good beatin’, you know, and broke his nose and a few things.

Next morning, I’m all swelled up with a black eye and everything else. I get the word to report to the colonel. I said, “Oh my God, I’m gonna get a court-martial now.” Here I am, about a month from getting out of the service. So I get dressed the best I could, and I go up there, and I get to the door of the office, and I see two Marines standing on each side with pistols. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is going to be it now.” I was really feeling scared.

 

Some of the Marines who raised the first American flag over Mt. Suribachi gather around for a photo. Lindberg is at far left. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LOU LOWERY

 

I get inside of this big room, and there’s officers lined up on both sides.

A sergeant marches me up in front of the colonel, and the colonel starts reading, “The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star Medal …” I just about fainted.

 

After what you saw, the intensity of the battle that you fought, how do you explain that to someone who will probably never have any idea of what that intensity was like?

You can never explain it right … it’s impossible. You can tell ’em what happened, then let their own judgment take over.

In retrospect, how did you come to regard the enemy and the way they defended the island?
Well, the way I got it figured, from Guadalcanal to Iwo, is that the closer you got to Japan, the better the fighter. I think we got into the Imperial Army on Iwo. On Guadalcanal, the fighters were a little small, didn’t seem to be the fighters like on Iwo. Even Bougainville seemed a little tougher [than Guadalcanal]. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the way I feel about ’em. But they were awfully tough fighters on Iwo Jima – of course, half of them were crazy with the kamikazes and stuff like that.

 

During the war, how much time did you spend overseas?

About 2 1/2, 3 years.

 

Was that a pretty typical tour, to go over there, come back, and then go over again?

No, not at all. Very few people ever went back overseas. I only went because they were forming the 5th Marine Division. If it weren’t for that, I think I would’ve stayed [in the U.S.].

 

What was your first action on Guadalcanal like?

Oh, I was a little skittish, but you get used to it in a hurry. That was all jungle, and you couldn’t hardly see your way through, anywhere you were going. We did a lot of walking, and it was hot. Miserable. You lived on mostly rice and tea and chocolate bars. That’s why I hate rice today.

This [2nd] Raider Battalion was a good bunch. I joined it right out of boot camp. I had my mind set on paratroopers, but at the end of boot camp, they marched us down to the end of the parade grounds and a big trailer sat down there. Here were these three guys sitting up there: Col. [Evans] Carlson, Jimmy Roosevelt, son of the president, and a Capt. West. Carlson was recruiting for the Raider Battalion. He says, “I want men who ain’t afraid to die, I want men who ain’t afraid to kill, I want men who’ll walk 50 miles a day.” So I immediately raised my hand. I don’t know why; I can’t tell you to this day.

Carlson was one of the finest leaders I ever saw. He was kicked out of the service, I understand, before the war. He’d fought the Japanese in China, and he came out and told people that Japan was going to attack the United States. That’s why he was kicked out of the service. They did attack, and he was brought back in as a major, and then he went to colonel, and he was forming these raider battalions.

He was a jungle man. Man, he knew his business. He took us through those places on the island, and he knew everything he was doing. He was a wonderful man. He was good to his men. When I first joined the Raiders, he took us up to Jack’s Farm, near San Diego, and we were living in pup tents. I saw a house there, and I said, “Oh, that’s where the officers stay.” About 10, 11 o’clock here comes Carlson and Roosevelt and the others … and they get into pup tents. I thought, “What kind of a strange outfit?” Next morning I’m in the chow line with ’em. Same chow, Roosevelt right in there, Carlson … You know, that gives you quite a morale builder when the men are the same as the officers. He’s the only officer in the Marine Corps I ever saw do that. He was well-liked.

 

What are the biggest differences, from boot camp on up, that you see in the Marine Corps training since you were in?

They train ’em longer now. They give ’em 11 weeks; they gave us five. They have better stuff to train ’em with, the rifle ranges and the weapons … to me, the weapons they have now are fantastic. I fired a few of them out at [Camp] Pendleton. It’s a remarkable change from an M-1 to an M-16. Some of their laser deals … wow, it’s fantastic. They’re showing me how you can hit a target 3 miles away. I’ll tell you, I was pretty impressed.

 

What do you think of the Marine Corps today as far as its tradition and what is expected of its servicemen and women? What do you think of it as a service branch?

I’m very proud of the Marine Corps. I think they do what they’re supposed to do. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. They don’t back up. I think they go through some of the hardest training of any of the other services. They’re proud. I can see that on these guys coming out of boot camp; they’re just as proud as can be when they come marching down that aisle.

I had the honor of being the reviewing officer of a parade one time for graduation. I felt like I shouldn’t be up there, I’m just a corporal, but they had me do it. It’s something to watch those guys march, and they’re just as proud as can be. I think the Marine Corps will last another 500 years.

 

What do you see as the legacy of Iwo Jima, for our country and our people? What’s the most important thing for this country to remember?

To be on their guard. We were caught at Pearl Harbor; caught bad. People were wining and dining when they should’ve been on the ball. We should never have a let-down like that, and you can never tell what can happen. If we’d have been on guard, this [World War II in the Pacific and the Battle of Iwo Jima] would’ve never happened. People don’t know how close we came to being taken at Pearl Harbor. If they’d have kept coming after Pearl Harbor, they would’ve captured it; we didn’t have anything left! We were just very fortunate.

Also, if people just look at the Battle of Iwo Jima, what it cost us … that should be a good lesson, too. We lost a lot of men.

 

This story is from Uncommon Valor: The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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