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Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima: A Triumph Arising from Tragedy

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima: A Triumph Arising from Tragedy

Written by Andrew Da, Young Historians Program

"Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue." - Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, 1945. <1>

 

Seventy-four years ago, on February 23, 1945, in the Western Pacific Ocean, six U.S Marines strained forward in unity, firmly planting a large American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima . Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, captured this historic moment on film — a photo that ultimately became one of the most recognizable images in American history.<1>

Raising a flag over another country’s land is commonly considered a sign of victory, marking the conclusion of a conflict. However, underneath the triumph depicted in Rosenthal’s image, there was also tragedy: in just five days, American casualties climbed to 6,000 while Japanese resistance remained fierce.<2> For the next thirty-one days, over 70,000 American forces landed on the unremitting hell known as Iwo Jima, and more than 20,000 of them would be injured or killed.<3> The heroic raising of the flag during this tragic onslaught framed Rosenthal’s photo into an inspiring triumph. The flag-raising not only sparked American morale during a difficult period of war but also shaped the Marine Corps’ core values and eventually became an iconic symbol of American patriotism and heroism.

The War in the Pacific

On December 7, 1941, Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor initiated war in the Pacific Theater. While Japanese forces continued rapid expansion in the Pacific, the United States began accelerating vessel production to meet the threat.<4> In early June 1942, the U.S. Navy won its first major victory over Japan at the Battle of Midway. This turning point allowed the United States to halt the Japanese offense in the Pacific, enabling the U.S. to start weakening Japanese superiority in the air and sea.<5> The U.S military launched the “Island Hopping” campaign to take control of key Pacific islands that were occupied by Japanese forces until American bombers could reach the Japanese mainland . Island hopping also allowed the Americans to cut off Japanese supply lines to neighboring islands, leaving them to wither.<6> This strategy heavily relied on the Marines’ ability to sail to those islands and launch frontal amphibious assaults.<7> By 1945, the Marines had already taken a series of Pacific islands, leaving Iwo Jima in the center of America’s crosshairs.

Impregnable Fortress

Located 750 miles south of Tokyo, Iwo Jima, an eight-square-mile volcanic island, held strategic importance to both the Americans and the Japanese.<8> Prior to the invasion of Iwo Jima, the Japanese had built three airfields, using them to harass American naval forces and alert nearby islands of incoming planes.<9> Capturing Iwo Jima would allow Americans to eliminate enemy early warning systems, protect the operation of B-29s, and provide an emergency landing field for damaged bombers.<10> In order to get closer to the Japanese mainland, taking Iwo Jima was a must. Also recognizing the value of the island, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters assigned Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a samurai descendant, to lead over 22,000 men in defending the island.<11> Learning from the prior battles of Tarawa, Saipan, and Guam, Kuribayashi knew that the traditional frontal beach defense without air and naval support would be ineffective against a stronger military force with hundreds of naval guns and aircraft.<12> Kuribayashi implemented a new plan: instead of defending on Iwo Jima, the Japanese would defend from inside the island.<13> Since June 1944, Kuribayashi had selected the best Japanese mining engineers to design underground fortifications. In just six months, using solid rocks and concrete, the Japanese built a sixteen-mile-long system of tunnels and caves that linked bunkers, pillboxes, and gun emplacements across Iwo Jima, transforming the tiny island into an impregnable fortress.<14>

A Defense of Desperation

In addition to the invulnerable underground network, the Japanese warrior’s philosophy of fighting to death without surrender is another reason that made Iwo Jima such a fierce and tragic battle.<15> Well aware that his troops would hopelessly fight alone with no support, Kuribayashi aimed to prolong the American advancement and inflict as many casualties as possible.<16> To ensure mental preparedness and determination for the upcoming battle, he announced “Courageous Battle Vows” for his men to abide by:

  1. We shall infiltrate the enemy and slaughter them.

  2. We shall kill the enemy with a one-shot, one-kill approach.

  3. We shall not die until we killed ten of the enemy.

  4. We shall harass the enemy with guerrilla tactics until the last man.<17>

Additionally, Kuribayashi ordered his men to refrain from large-scale suicidal banzai charges executed in previous battles.<18> Both physically and mentally, the Japanese were ready for the American invasion.

The Landing

While Kuribayashi and his men were busy underground fortifying their defensive positions, the U.S military also prepared for the invasion in full swing. Ten weeks prior to the invasion, Army Air Forces bombed Iwo Jima daily to make the Marines’ landing easier.<19> However, hidden deep in their tunnels, the Japanese suffered little from the bombings. To the Americans, it seemed like no one on the island could possibly survive the raids. On top of this incorrect assumption, U.S. planners underestimated Japanese defense and overestimated American technological and manpower superiority,<20> believing Iwo Jima would fall in just a few days.<21>

On the morning of February 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines — many of whom had not reached twenty years of age — began landing on Iwo Jima, with the Fourth Division on the right, the Fifth Division on the left, and the Third Division in corps reserve .<22> The Fourth Division attempted to seize the first Japanese airfield and advance to the northeast while the Fifth Division focused on taking Mount Suribachi at the southwest end of the island.<23>

As the first waves of Marines landed on the sandy terrain of Iwo Jima, the Japanese, with guns ready, silently hid in their tunnels and observed the Marines assembling on the beaches. Thousands of Marines crowded the lower beaches, completely exposed to their enemies.<24> The initial lack of enemy resistance falsely implied a “fairly easy” landing.<25> Suddenly, a barrage of deadly ordnance and bullets rained down on American forces from camouflaged positions of Mount Suribachi and other high areas of the island. In just a few minutes, the beachhead became choked with damaged vehicles and cluttered with dead bodies.<26> “At that time, I guess the best way to describe it was, ‘all hell broke loose.’” Warren Musch, a retired First Lieutenant reflected, “my first impression when I hit the beach on the island, I could reach out and touch a dead Marine with my left hand, another with my right hand.”<27> With nowhere to take cover, the Marines were pinned down by mortar fire and artillery from invisible enemies. By the end of the first day, 562 Marines were dead or missing and 1,963 were wounded.<28> Every thirty-five seconds on Iwo Jima, one Marine was injured or killed.

The Flag-raising

The Americans learned that the fight against the Japanese was not going to be as easy as previously presumed. Kuribayashi’s resourceful defense forced the Marines to move in closer to take out Japanese positions. Mount Suribachi, a key defensive point that gave the Japanese the advantage to look over the entire island and perform precise mortar attacks, became the most critical position to take.<29> While Japanese resistance grew more aggressive, the 28th Marine Regiment slowly advanced to the base of the volcanic mountain at a rate of 200 yards per day, utilizing flamethrowers and grenades against enemies hidden in pillboxes and bunkers.<30>

On February 23, Colonel Chandler Johnson, commander of the 28th Regiment, ordered a platoon of forty Marines, accompanied by Leatherneck magazine photographer Sergeant Louis Lowery, to secure the summit of Suribachi and raise an American flag atop it.<31> At about 10:30 A.M., the Stars and Stripes fluttered over the volcano. “The flag’s up! The flag’s up!” The Marines down below started to cheer while the ships anchored on the island blared their horns and whistles.<32> In Coast Guardsman Chet Hack’s words: “Talk about patriotism! The uproar almost shook the sky.”<33> This emotional moment was captured by Lowery with his camera . With the flag flying over the mountain, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said to the commander of the assault, General Holland Smith: “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”<34> However, Johnson wanted a larger banner to replace the first flag so everybody on the island could see it. A few hours later, six Marines — Michael Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and Harold Schultz — hoisted up the larger flag on top of Suribachi;<35> this time, Joe Rosenthal pressed the shutter and snapped the most famous photo of World War II.<36>

The two American flags raised on Mount Suribachi each had their own unique significance. Although not as well known as the second one, the first flag-raising held significant emotional value to the Marines on Iwo Jima. It meant that Suribachi, one of the most threatening enemy positions, was finally in American hands.<37> The flag-raising represented gratitude and honor to the Marines who had sacrificed their lives to destroy a pillbox, rescue a comrade, or inch closer to the enemy’s position. It gave an immeasurable morale boost to the Americans still fighting, igniting their hope for victory. General Smith wrote: “This vision of triumph had an electrifying effect on all our forces ashore and afloat. We were in a mood for victory and this glorious spectacle was the spark.”<38> The second flag-raising, however, continues to have a lasting legacy, defining Marine Corps values and inspiring the American public. Rosenthal’s photo won the Pulitzer Prize and has become one of the most legendary photographs of all time.

After the Flag-raising

The capture of Mount Suribachi represented a breakthrough for the Americans — the sight of the flag on the mountain implied that the entire island would soon be taken. However, it was only “the end of the beginning.”<39> The fierce resistance driven by the Japanese tradition of “fighting to death” and “no surrender” tenaciously continued.<40> The brutal battle raged on for another month, while all three Marine divisions unrelentingly pushed through to the north.<41> “Every cave, every pillbox, every bunker was an individual battle, where Japanese and Marines fought hand to hand to the death.” General Smith recalled.<42> No matter how miserable the conditions were, neither side would give up.

Even though the Marines encountered massive challenges with the Japanese terrain and defense, they still held advantages, such as a plentiful amount of supplies and continuous air and sea support. On the other hand, with no outside aid, the Japanese struggled underground with shortages of ammunition, water, and food. Additionally, living conditions inside the caves were inhuman — cockroaches and flies swarmed the soldiers and temperatures reached up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.<43> On March 18, in a letter sent to the neighboring island Chichi Jima, Kuribayashi declared: “Overwhelmed by material superiority we have fought with little more than our empty hands… There is no more ammunition and no more water.”<44> Rather than surrendering in the final few days, the remaining Japanese either committed suicide or attempted a final counter-attack. On March 26, 1945, the island of Iwo Jima was finally secured.

At the end of the battle, U.S. casualties included 6,140 men killed and nearly 18,000 wounded. The Japanese lost approximately 22,000 soldiers, while only 216 were taken prisoner.<45> Nearly a third of all Marines who died in WWII lost their lives on Iwo Jima.<46> The Battle of Iwo Jima was by far the deadliest battle in the history of the United States Marine Corps.<47>

Legacy

From the first day of landing, reports of the distressing battle dominated U.S. newspaper headlines. The devastating casualties on the island horrified the American public, causing many to question the necessity of the battle and effectiveness of the military strategies.<48> However, when Rosenthal’s photo hit the Sunday newspapers on February 25, 1945, the nation quickly responded by uniting in patriotism . The hope and optimism portrayed in the image were exactly what the Americans were longing for. Instantly, the photo became a media sensation. It was reprinted millions of times, emblazoned on postage stamps, and featured in Hollywood films.<49> The Seventh War Bond Drive used the photograph in posters, collecting $26 billion towards the war effort — the largest amount among the eight national war bonds and nearly double the projected total.<50> In November of 1954, the Marines Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, unveiled a seventy-eight-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the flag-raising to honor the Marines who sacrificed their lives for the country.<51> Through this publicity, the Marine Corps gained tremendous public support and respect. This veneration helped the Marine Corps survive the post-war defense budget slash and elevated the Corps from the nation’s smallest military branch to the most elite.<52> In an interview, Rosenthal stated that “ the Marines took Iwo Jima.”<53> It was the Marines who continued to move forward under the hail of enemy gunfire; it was the Marines who covered grenades with their bodies to save comrades’ life.<54> “It was all the Marines who raised the flags on Mount Suribachi.”<55> Rosenthal’s photo represents fundamental Marine values: strength, bravery, sacrifice, teamwork, and getting the job done. Iwo Jima proved “how the Marines did change and adapt to adverse and unknown condition to finally win — never giving up.”<56> Twenty-seven Congressional Medals of Honor, the country’s most prestigious military decoration, were awarded for Iwo Jima — more than any other battle in history — with twenty-two medals going to Marines.<57>

More than seventy years have passed since the conclusion of the Battle of Iwo Jima. As memories fade away and movies gradually disappear, Rosenthal’s flag-raising photograph remains an enduring icon. In his photo, the debris and rough terrain underneath the Marines boots symbolize the cruelty and struggle of war, while the movement of the six Marines straining together to raise the Stars and Stripes epitomizes American hope and determination for victory. The photo conveys the true experience of Iwo Jima: a frontal amphibious assault against an indestructible defense, a tragic loss of human lives to both sides, and an undeniable exhibit of Marine valor.

Despite being the deadliest conflict in Marine Corps history, the Battle of Iwo Jima was a remarkable triumph for the Marines and the American people. The flag-raising on Mount Suribachi transformed the initial public horror over casualties and the controversy over military planning errors into national pride and unity. By invigorating American morale to win the Pacific War, the photo has permanently become an icon for the Marine Corps. Today, this immortal image remains a symbol of American patriotism and heroism that continues to inspire the entire nation.

 

<1> Wheeler, Richard. Iwo. New York, Lippincott & Crowell, 1980. p.163.

<2> Morehouse, Clifford P. The Iwo Jima Operation. Washington, D.C.: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, US Marines Corps, 1946 p.166D.

<3> Ibid., p.154A.

<4> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit: The Memoirs of Major Yoshitaka Horie and the Battle of Iwo Jima. Edited by Robert D. Eldridge and Charles W. Tatum, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011. p.7.

<5> "The Battle of Midway." National WWII Museum, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/battle-midway. Accessed 19 Jan. 2019.

<6> "Island Hopping: Footholds Across the Pacific." National WWII Museum. www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/exhibits/road-tokyo/island-hopping. Accessed 19 Jan. 2019.

<7> Burgan, Michael. Raising the Flag: How a Photograph Gave a Nation Hope in Wartime. Mankato, Compass Point, 2011. p.18.

<8> Buell, Hal. Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue: Iwo Jima and the Photograph That Captured America. New York, Penguin, 2006. p.8.

<9> Ibid.

<10> Orsland, Avin. Email interview. 11 Mar. 2019.

<11> Morehouse, Clifford P. The Iwo Jima Operation. p.8.

<12> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit. p.3.

<13> Robertson, Breanne. Interview. Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps History Division, Marine Corps University. 23 Jan. 2019.

<14> Rogers, David J. Japanese Defenses and Fortifications Tarawa, Iwo Jima And Okinawa 1943 -1945. University of Missouri-Rolla, web.mst.edu/~rogersda/umrcourses/ge342/Japanese%20Island%20Defenses%201943-45.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2019.

<15> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit. p.2.

<16> Warfare History Network. "Iwo Jima: The Most Horrific of All World War II Battles?" National Interest, 15 Dec. 2018, nationalinterest.org/iwo-jima-most-horrific-all-world-war-ii-battles-38897. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

<17> Kakehashi, Kumiko, and Giles Murray. So Sad to Fall in Battle. p.39.

<18> Butler, John A. "Iwo Jima." University of Southern Florida, 2012, Tampa. Lecture.

<19> Smith, Holland M., and Percy Finch. Coral and Brass. New York, Scribner, 1949. p.237.

<20> Burrell, Robert S. The Ghosts of Iwo Jima. College Station, Texas A&M UP, 2006. p.XVII.

<21> Orsland, Alvin. "Hell on Iwo Jima – One Marine's Story." Armchair General, 8 Mar. 2010, armchairgeneral.com/hell-on-iwo-jima-one-marines-story.htm. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

<22> Lucas, Jack and D. K. Drum. Indestructible: The Unforgettable Story of a Marine Hero at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Cambridge, Da Capo, 2007. p.85.

<23> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit. p.101.

<24> Wells, Keith. "Give Me Fifty Marines Not Afraid to Die": Iwo Jima. Abilene, Quality Publications, 1995. p.150.

<25> McLaughlin, Howard N., and Raymond C. Miller. From the Volcano to the Gorge. p.14.

<26> Lucas, Jack and D. K. Drum. Indestructible. p.86.

<27> "Interview with Warren Musch." Interview by Mark DePue. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, 18 Oct. 2012, www2.illinois.gov/alplm/library/collections/oralhistory/VeteransRemember/worldwarII/Documents/MuschWar/Musch_War_4FNL.pdf. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

<28> Morehouse, Clifford P. The Iwo Jima Operation. p.142.

<29> McLaughlin, Howard N., and Raymond C. Miller. From the Volcano to the Gorge: Getting the Job Done on Iwo Jima. Standish, Tower Pub., 2010. p.34.

<30> Alexander, Joseph. Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima. Washington D.C., Marine Corps Historical Foundation. National Parks Services, www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/npswapa/extcontent/usmc/pcn-190-003131-00/pcn-190-003131-00/sec8.htm. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

<31> Burgan, Michael. Raising the Flag: How a Photograph Gave a Nation Hope in Wartime. p.7.

<32> Hammond, Ivan. E-mail interview. 19 Feb. 2019.

<33> Wheeler, Richard. Iwo. p.159.

<34> Smith, Holland M., and Percy Finch. Coral and Brass. p.261.

<35> "USMC Statement on Iwo Jima Flag Raiser." Office of U.S. Marine Corps Communication, Headquarters Marine Corps, 23 June 2016, www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/810457/usmc-statement-on-iwo-jima-flagraisers/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

<36> "Joe Rosenthal and the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima." The Pulitzer Prizes, www.pulitzer.org/article/joe-rosenthal-and-flag-raising-iwo-jima. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

<37> McLaughlin, Howard N., and Raymond C. Miller. From the Volcano to the Gorge. p.231.

<38> Smith, Holland M., and Percy Finch. Coral and Brass. p.180.

<39> McLaughlin, Howard N., and Raymond C. Miller. From the Volcano to the Gorge. p.vii.

<40> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit. p.117.

<41> Wheeler, Richard. Iwo. p.165.

<42> Smith, Holland M., and Percy Finch. Coral and Brass. p.269.

<43> Kakehashi, Kumiko, and Giles Murray. So Sad to Fall in Battle. p.27.

<44> Horie, Yoshitaka. Fighting Spirit. p.105.

<45> Alexander, Joseph. Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima. Marine Corps Historical Foundation.

<46> Ringle, Ken. "The Uphill Battle." The Washington Post, 19 Feb. 1995, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1995/02/19/the-uphill-battle/f5265c77-b6fc-42cd-b2e1-eea6ca4d4677/?utm_term=.191bba9026a1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

<47> Alexander, Joseph. Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima. Marine Corps Historical Foundation.

<48> Vedder, James S. Surgeon on Iwo: Up Front with the 27th Marines. Novato, Presidio Press, 1984. p.221.

<49> Robertson, Breanne. Interview. 23 Jan. 2019.

<50> Kuz, Martin. "Flag Raising Photo Secured Marine Corps' Future Forever." Stars and Stripes, 23 Feb. 2015, media.stripes.com/i/IwoJima70/tablet/iwo-jima--page-3.html. Accessed 11 May 2019. p.3.

<51> Burgan, Michael. Raising the Flag: How a Photograph Gave a Nation Hope in Wartime. p.47.

<52> Kuz, Martin. "Flag Raising Photo Secured Marine Corps' Future Forever." Stars and Stripes. p.3.

<53> Burgan, Michael. Raising the Flag: How a Photograph Gave a Nation Hope in Wartime. p.43.

<54> Lucas, Jack and D. K. Drum. Indestructible. p.85.

<55> Elliott, Ray. E-mail interview. 7 May 2019.

<56> Musch, Warren. E-mail interview. 18 Feb. 2019.

<57> Iwo Jima Fact Sheet. New Orleans. National WW2 Museum, www.nationalww2museum.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/iwo-jima-fact-sheet.pdf. Accessed 11 Oct. 2018.

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