“There goes the flag!” – The cry from Marines and sailors upon seeing the raising of the first flag
John W. Gardner, educator, public official, and political reformer, wrote, “History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always looks uncomfortable.” Such an observation surely applies to the two historic flag-raisings on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. It was recorded in both still and motion picture and produced the most famous and iconic image of World War II. Yet while the image is well-known, many of the facts about the raisings are not, starting with how many flag-raisings there were (to the general public there was only one), whether or not the second flag-raising was staged (it wasn’t), and, most importantly, the identity of all those who raised the flags, particularly the second one. The last inspired controversy and confusion that continued into 2019.
Located on the southern tip of the pork chop-shaped island of Iwo Jima, the 554-foot extinct volcano Mt. Suribachi ( Japanese for “cone-shaped bowl,” a reference to its summit) dominated the island. Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander of V Amphibious Corps assigned to conquer this distant part of Japanese homeland, underscored its importance, saying, “The success of our entire assault depends upon the early capture of that grim, smoking rock.”
The task of subduing the mountain the Marines code named “Hot Rocks” for the sulfur-scented steam it emitted through vents, was given to Lt. Col. Harry B. “Harry the Horse” Liversedge, commander of the 28th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Division. The Japanese commander of the forces on Mt. Suribachi equally determined to deny the 28th Marines was Col. Kanehiko Atsuchi. He led a garrison of 2,000 crack Japanese soldiers and sailors.
As the 28th Marines prepared their attack on the morning of Feb. 20, D+1 the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, commented, “It’s gonna be a helluva day in a helluva place to fight the goddamned war.” Already the 28th Marines had suffered almost 400 casualties during the drive across the isthmus that severed the Japanese in Mt. Suribachi from the rest of the defenders in the north. The overall commander of the Japanese garrison, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had anticipated such a scenario.
Kuribayashi’s engineers had spent months creating a vast network of defenses on the mountain. Mt. Suribachi’s slopes were honeycombed with a formidable interlocking array of concrete-walled bunkers and blockhouses and camouflaged spider-holes where individual soldiers or sailors could suddenly emerge without warning, shoot, and disappear in seconds. These and other defensive positions, including trenches and countless caves, were all connected by an elaborate tunnel system. The strongest Japanese defenses were fortified by a ring of almost 120 camouflaged concrete blockhouses, pillboxes, and bunkers that guarded the trails leading up the first 100 feet of the mountain. It was Kuribayashi’s hope that the defenders could hold out for 10 days, maybe even two weeks.When the Marines landed, Atsuchi wanted to order a banzai charge. Though he had largely given the colonel autonomous control over his command, Kuribayashi nixed that. He wanted the Marines to pay as great a price as possible, and that meant forcing the Marines to come to attack the defenders protected behind their fortifications.
Meteorologists had warned that, given the season, bad weather would be a chronic problem. As the 28th Marines prepared for the assault on Mt. Suribachi, a light rain began to fall, adding to the morning’s chill. After a combined artillery barrage and air attack by carrier-based Marine Corsairs, the attack kicked off at 0830 hours and quickly bogged down under withering Japanese combined gunfire that had seemingly been unaffected by the artillery and air attack.
Marine tanks had been assigned to accompany the infantry at the line of departure, but the fierce fighting on D-day had exhausted their ammunition and fuel. Resupply and assembly were repeatedly interrupted by accurate Japanese mortar fire, and it was not until 1100 hours that Marine Shermans were able to add their much-needed firepower in support.
The battle up the mountain devolved into a deadly pas de deux in which fortifications were individually targeted, with a choreographed assault beginning with combined rifle and tank fire to draw and hold defenders’ attention while a flamethrower team crawled into position. A couple of streams of liquid napalm shot through an aperture were quickly followed up by a volley of grenades. Finally, a demolition team destroyed the fortification with satchel charges to prevent its further use. Then it was on to the next one, where the process was repeated. By the end of D+1, the 28th Marines had overrun 40 strongpoints and advanced about 200 yards, at a cost in casualties of one Marine for every yard gained.
By the end of D+1, a storm with gale force winds hit the island. Landing supplies and reinforcements became impossible. Though the Marines could not know it, one bit of good fortune had fallen their way that day: At one point in the day’s assault, one of their tanks had scored a lucky hit with a 75 mm round, killing Atsuchi.
When D+3 dawned, Navy ships offshore and Marine artillery near the landing beaches began their bombardment of Mt. Suribachi. Though high winds and heavy seas kept resupply to the island to a minimum, the rain broke long enough to allow Navy planes to finish off the preliminary bombardment with rockets, machine gun fire, and napalm bombs. At 0830, the 28th Marines renewed their slow, bloody advance up the rugged slopes.
First Battalion, 28th Marines, made the most progress that day, eventually reaching Mt. Suribachi’s shoulder on the west coast. Second Battalion, 28th Marines, seemed to bear the brunt of the Japanese defenders’ fury, particularly mortar fire. Richard Wheeler, a rifleman in 3rd Platoon, E Company, later recalled, “It was terrible, the worst I can remember us taking. The Jap mortarmen seemed to be playing checkers and using us as squares.” Later wounded, Wheeler would survive and go on to become an author, writing two accounts of the Battle of Iwo Jima, among other works.
The bad weather worsened on D+3. Rain mixed with the volcanic grit to create a mud that jammed Marines’ weapons. Despite this, by the end of the day, the men of the 28th Marines were close to their goal of conquering Mt. Suribachi. Johnson was determined that it would happen on D+4.
Preparatory bombardment of the slopes of Mt. Suribachi began at dawn and ended at about 0900. The rain that had made things miserable for the Marines began to let up by midmorning. Johnson had ordered two four-man reconnaissance patrols to search for a route to Mt. Suribachi’s summit, and soon he received word from Capt. Art Naylor, commander of Fox Company, that a team from his 3rd Platoon, led by Sgt. Sherman Watson, that included Cpl. George Mercer of Iowa, Pfc. Ted White from Kansas City, Missouri, and Pfc. Louis Charlo, of the Bitterroot Salish Tribe from Montana, had reached the top and returned without incident.
The stage was now set for an immortal moment in history – and enduring controversy.
THE FIRST FLAG-RAISING
Johnson ordered Easy Company Commander Capt. Dave Severance to send a platoon to the top. Severance told 1st Lt. Harold Schrier to take his 3rd Platoon to Johnson’s command post for final orders. There they were issued extra ammunition and Johnson told Schrier he’d have reinforcements that included a radioman, two teams of stretcher bearers, and Leatherneck magazine photographer Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery. It turned out Johnson’s orders were simple: Climb the summit and secure the crater. Then Johnson handed Schrier a 28-inch by 54-inch flag from the attack transport USS Missoula and said, “If you’re able to get up the mountain, I want you to take this flag. … If you can’t make it all the way up, turn around and come back down. Don’t try to go overboard.”
The platoon fell into an irregular column and began their trek up the slope. When the going got steep and more difficult, Schrier ordered flankers to spread out on both sides to guard against possible attack. Though caves were sighted along the way, all was quiet, and within a half-hour they had reached the summit.
An eerie quiet had settled on the summit. It ominously continued as the Marines slowly inspected the crater, finding caves, observation posts, and other evidence of Japanese activity, but no soldiers. Schrier ordered the men to fan out. Half the patrol took up positions inside the rim, fully expecting an enemy counterattack at any moment. The other half cautiously entered the crater, some probing the caves for the enemy, others looking for something they could use as a flagpole.
Suddenly a Japanese soldier appeared out of a spider hole. Harold Keller, firing from the hip, cut him down with three shots. Then grenades were tossed out of some of the caves at the group of Marines. The Marines responded with gunfire and a volley of their own grenades.
During this skirmish, Robert Leader and Leo Rozek found a long piece of water pipe and brought it up to the lip of the summit. Schrier, Sgt. Ernest “Boots” Thomas, Sgt. Henry “Hank” Hansen, Cpl. Charles “Chuck” Lindberg, and Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley quickly attached the flag to the makeshift flagpole. Then, at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1945, with photographer Lowery recording the moment in pictures, a team from 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi.
Far below, Marines who saw the tiny Stars and Stripes waving proudly over Japanese territory for the first time began cheering, “There goes the flag!” Their shouts were picked up and repeated by others on the island and soon by ships offshore, whose klaxons blared. Men cheered themselves hoarse.
Almost immediately after that flag went up, the Japanese tried to tear it down. But repeated attacks were fought back with a combination of gunfire, flamethrowers, and finally demolition charges that sealed the caves.
Meanwhile, below, Johnson made what would become an historic decision. “Some sonuvabitch is going to want that flag, but he’s not going to get it. That’s our flag,” he said. And, observing that the flag was so small it was barely visible, he told his assistant operations officer Lt. Ted Tuttle, “Better find another one and get it up there and bring ours back. … And make it a bigger one.”
Tuttle went off and from LST-779 got a larger, 96-inch by 56-inch flag. Johnson took that flag, handed it to runner Cpl. Rene Gagnon, and ordered him to take it to Schrier and to save the small flag for him. When Gagnon reached the summit, he told Schrier, “Col. Johnson wants this big flag run up high, so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it!”
As for someone wanting to put dibs on the first flag, Johnson was right. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was on the beach at Iwo Jima with Gen. Smith when it was raised. After telling Smith that the flag-raising “means a Marine Corps for another 500 years,” he expressed the desire to have that flag. But by then it was in Johnson’s hands, and he made sure it stayed with the Marine Corps. It eventually reached Washington, D.C., where it – along with the second Iwo Jima flag – is on permanent display in the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
THE SECOND FLAG-RAISING
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was on the beach with Newsweek reporter Bill Hipple when they heard that a unit of Marines had taken the summit of Mt. Suribachi. They linked up with two Marine combat photographers, Pvt. Bob Campbell and Sgt. Bill Genaust, who planned to go to the mountaintop as well. The unarmed civilians were happy to join the armed Marines, as Mt. Suribachi had yet to be secured. At one point on the dangerous journey up, they encountered Lowery, who told them he’d taken photos of a Marine team raising a flag on the summit. They were disappointed at having been scooped and considered returning down the mountain. But after Lowery told them that there was “a hell of a good view of the harbor,” the four decided to continue to the top anyway.
When they arrived, they discovered one group of Marines taking down the first, small flag and another group preparing to raise a larger flag in its place. The photographers quickly found a location about 35 feet away, and with two still photographers (Rosenthal and Campbell) and one motion picture photographer using color film (Genaust) to record the moment, the second flag was raised.
Almost immediately, the question was asked, “By whom?”
Who were the men who raised the flags at Iwo Jima? Specifically, because it was Rosenthal’s photograph that became famous to the public, who were the men who raised the second flag?
With faces obscured or hidden – and with one man almost completely blocked from view – the flag-raisers in Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph are anonymous as individuals, making the photograph a failure according to textbook criteria for a journalistically good photo. But in all other respects, the Rosenthal photograph of the second flag-raising was a success that needed no written explanation. Finally, in this most terrible of wars and on its most terrible battlefield, the nation received what its people needed: an iconic symbol of American military effort in World War II. And, recognizing its value to help sell war bonds, the Marine Corps and Navy went into overdrive to name the second flag-raisers.
The problem began with the fact that there were two flag-raisings. Confusion immediately arose as to who participated in which one, or both. It didn’t help that in the middle of the two flag-raisings a battle was fought.
Neither Rosenthal, Campbell, nor Genaust had gotten all the flag-raisers’ identities, let alone in what order. Adding to the problems of identification was that by the time the Marine Corps wanted the flag-raisers, some had been killed in action. Further contributing to the confusion was an agreement by the Marine Corps not to release photos of the first flag-raising until 1947, unfortunately making that historic event an all-but-forgotten footnote in the public mind.
After decades of forensic searching and countless hours of study, the facts of who participated in which flag-raising are finally known, the last positive identification coming in 2019.
The men responsible for the first flag-raising were 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Pfc. Raymond Jacobs, Sgt. Henry Hansen, Platoon Sgt. Ernest Thomas, Pvt. Phil Ward, PhM2c John Bradley, Pfc. James Michels, and Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg.
The men responsible for the second flag-raising were Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block (correctly identified in 1947, replacing Hansen), Pfc. Franklin Sousley, Pfc. Harold Keller (correctly identified in 2019, replacing Gagnon), Pfc. Ira Hayes, and Cpl. Harold Schultz (correctly identified in 2016, replacing Bradley).
In a letter to his parents dated Feb. 26, 1945, well before he would be swept up in the flag-raising publicity and controversy, Bradley wrote, in part, “I had a little to do with raising the American flag and it was the happiest moment of my life.”
<h4><span style=”color: #993300;”>This story is from <em>Uncommon Valor: The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima</em>.</span></h4>
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