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.
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:
We shall infiltrate the enemy and slaughter them.
We shall kill the enemy with a one-shot, one-kill approach.
We shall not die until we killed ten of the enemy.
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.
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 w