On  February 23, 1945, World War II was raging across the globe. In Europe, brutal fighting continued as Germany was being squeezed from two sides by the American and British in the west and the Russians in the east. In the Pacific, the Japanese were putting up fanatical resistance in the Philippines and on a tiny volcanic speck in the Pacific called Iwo Jima, the fight for just an eight-square-mile speck of land was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

The tiny island was of vital strategic importance, as the Japanese used its three airfields to attack U.S. B-29 bombers that were bombing mainland Japan as well as an early warning station. If the U.S. could secure the island, bombers crippled on their way back to Tinian island would have a safe place to land.

The island was dominated by a large dormant volcano 546 feet in height on the southern half that towered over the rest of the island. It was called Mount Suribachi. The Japanese constructed a maze of tunnels and bunkers on the island and their artillery was pinpointed by spotters on Suribachi. On the morning of February 23, about 40 U.S. Marines fought their way to the top and raised a flag around 10:20 in the morning, four days after coming ashore. It became one of the most well-known photographs of the US military.

First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division and 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.

First Iwo Jima flag raising

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 on Iwo.

Schrier’s men were photographed during the first flag raising on 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.

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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 and returned to the HQs. 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, was 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 for the replacement flag raise on top; the three took supplies or laid telephone wire on the way up to the top. 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 thru the viewfinder, Rosenthal took a snap photo and 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 was shooting movie film and captured the moment perfectly as well. His film footage was later shown in newsreels.

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 took 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.

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Unfortunately, the members of the first flag raising crew have never gotten their proper due and many were called liars if they stated that they had indeed raised the flag over 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 the American military in our 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”

Photos: US Archives