On February 23, 1945, World War II was continuing to rage across the globe. In Europe, brutal winter fighting continued as Germany was being squeezed from two sides: in the west by the Americans and British, who had recovered from the German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, and in the east by the Russians.
In the Pacific, the Japanese were putting up fanatical resistance in the Philippines and elsewhere. And a tiny, just eight-square-mile volcanic speck of an island called Iwo Jima would be the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
The island was of vital strategic importance: The Japanese were using its three airfields as a forward warning station and to launch fighter aircraft against U.S. B-29s that were bombing mainland Japan. The U.S. wanted to secure the island to allow its crippled bombers a safe place to land rather than have to go all the way back to Tinian.
The Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, took over command of the island in June of 1944. He knew that his forces couldn’t win the battle. But his hope was to inflict so many casualties on the Americans that they would be dissuaded from attacking the Japanese mainland.
The island was dominated by Mount Suribachi a large dormant volcano 546 feet in height. It was located on the island’s southern half.
Kuribayashi saw what the Japanese engineers had constructed on the island of Peleliu and took that as inspiration. He had his men construct a maze of tunnels and bunkers on the island; Japanese artillery was pinpointed by spotters on Mount Suribachi.
The American invasion started on February 19. Just one hour after the landings began, Japanese artillery and spotters called in horrific fire on the Marines along the black volcanic sand beaches. Robert Sherrod, the Time-Life correspondent, wrote that the scene was a “nightmare in hell.”
The 28th Marines cut across the island thereby isolating Suribachi. But the 25th Marines 3rd Battalion, sent in to silence the guns at the Quarry suffered horrendous casualties. They came ashore with 900 men, by nightfall they had suffered 83 percent casualties and had just 150 men remaining.
On the morning of February 23, around 10:20 in the morning, four days after coming ashore, about 40 U.S. Marines fought their way to the top of Mount Suribachi and raised a flag. The photograph depicting the moment became one of the most well-known photographs of the U.S. military.
First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division assisted by Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas and Sergeant Oliver Hansen raised the flag. The sight caused the ships in the fleet to blow their horns and the troops below to bellow out with cheers.
The din caused the Japanese troops, who had been holed up in their caves under a bombardment, to come out to investigate. They began attacking the Marines but were quickly neutralized. Schrier was awarded the Navy Cross for leading the attack up Suribachi that morning. Later in March, he would also be awarded the Silver Star for heroism displayed on Iwo Jima.
Schrier’s men were photographed during the first flag raising on Mount Suribachi by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery of Leatherneck magazine. The men were also assisted by Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Privates First Class James Michels and Raymond Jacobs, Private Phil Ward, and Navy corpsman John Bradley. The flag, however, was too small to be seen by the men on the northern slope of Suribachi.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, who witnessed the flag-raising from the ships below, decided that he wanted the flag as a souvenir. The 2nd Bn. Commander, LTC Chandler Johnson, wasn’t happy to hear that. He wanted the flag as a souvenir for the unit. He directed his Asst. Operations Officer, 1LT Ted Tuttle to go to the beach and find a replacement flag. And he instructed him to make it a bigger one. Tuttle went to LST-779 (Landing Ship Tank) where he procured a 96″ x 56″ flag. Johnson gave the flag to PFC Rene Gagnon with orders to give it to Schrier and raise the replacement flag.
Johnson then sent Sergeant Michael Strank, one of Second Platoon’s squad leaders, to take three members of his rifle squad (CPL Harlon H. Block and PFCs Franklin R. Sousley and Ira H. Hayes) and climb up Mount Suribachi to raise the replacement flag. Gagnon, the battalion runner (messenger) for Easy Company, also carried fresh SCR-300 walkie-talkie batteries to take to the top.
Photographers Joe Rosenthal and Sergeant Bill Genaust were climbing the hill and met Lowery coming down. They considered turning around but Lowery insisted the view was spectacular for taking photos. They met Strank and his three men who had climbed Suribachi without incident. Just as the photographers arrived at the summit, the Marines under Strank were finishing attaching the new flag to a hunk of old Japanese water pipe.
Rosenthal was piling rocks to stand on when he nearly missed the picture of a lifetime. With no time to look through the viewfinder, Rosenthal took a snap photo. He had no idea whether he captured the moment or not.
Several years later he wrote, “Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”
Sergeant Genaust was standing right beside Rosenthal and shooting a movie film. He also captured the moment perfectly. His film footage was later shown in newsreels, which can be viewed here.
Tragically, of the six flag-raisers in the picture – Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, and Harlon Block – only Hayes, Gagnon, and Schultz survived the battle. Strank and Block were killed by an artillery round six days later. Sousley was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on March 21, just a few days before the island was considered secure. Genaust was also killed in action a few days after the flag-raising.
Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be processed. Once there an editor who saw it immediately recognized the significance of the shot and wired it to the AP office in NYC. Seventeen hours after Rosenthal had taken the shot, it was everywhere, or in today’s parlance, his picture went viral.
Because of the confusion about the second flag-raising, reports began circulating that the photo taken by Rosenthal was staged. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Genaust’s film shows, the events happened quickly and were in no way staged. But the rumors persisted for years.
Unfortunately, the members of the first flag-raising crew have never gotten their proper due. Many were called liars if they stated that they had indeed raised the flag over Mount Suribachi.
Both flags now permanently reside in the Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, right outside Quantico.
Rosenthal’s iconic picture was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, the only such time an award was granted the same year as the picture was taken. It remains one of the most recognizable icons of American military history. The photo was later recreated by sculptor Felix de Weldon who designed the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA.
The three surviving members went on a Bond selling tour and were featured in a cameo at the end of the 1949 John Wayne classic, “The Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Despite the flag going up at Suribachi, the island was far from secure. It would take nearly another month of bitter fighting before the island was deemed secure on March 26. Iwo Jima was the only battle where American casualties outnumbered Japanese losses. The U.S. suffered 26,040 total casualties with 6,821 killed. The entire Japanese garrison of about 20,000 troops was wiped out with only 216 being taken prisoner.