The Flag on Iwo

February 24, 2020

2020 is a year of 75th anniversaries of the cataclysmic events of 1945, the last year of World War II. Yesterday, February 23, the Marines who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Pacific atoll of Iwo Jima had theirs. Last year, the Marine Corps Historical Division at Quantico, Va., ably reported on the battle for Iwo, and on the controversy over the identities of the Marines who helped raise the flag.

On June 15, 1944, Navy aircraft of Task Force 58, the Navy’s primary force in the Pacific, attacked Japanese fortifications on Iwo Jima (the Japanese called it Iwo To). The purpose of those attacks was to determine how well the island was defended at the time. Once the Mariana Islands fell to the Marines in August 1944, the U.S. started long-range air attacks against Japan’s home islands. From Marianas airfields, those raids meant the bombers had to make a 3,000-mile, 16-hour round trip. Japanese radar on Iwo could warn the home islands of the coming raids. Iwo Jima, only 660 miles south of Tokyo, had to be taken.

The invasion by the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, originally scheduled for Jan. 30, was put off to Feb. 3 and then to Feb. 19. Marine General Holland M. Smith demanded 10 days of pre-invasion naval bombardment. The Navy advised that the ships available had to conserve shells for the upcoming Okinawa invasion. He was given three.

On the 19th Marines started landing on color-coded beaches, aiming at capturing two Japanese airfields.  It didn’t go as expected. The Japanese commander had abandoned the usual tactic of defending beaches. Since July 1944 he had built 16 miles of tunnels and bunkers across the island, some blasted through solid rock and equipped with lighting, ventilation, and a water supply system. For the first time in the Pacific, the Japanese laid antipersonnel landmines and buried 500-pound aerial bombs along lanes from the beach. The Japanese commander accurately predicted the sites and direction of the landings.

The Marines’ armored vehicles bogged down in the sloping, loose volcanic soil just off the beaches, which made it nearly impossible to dig foxholes.  As the Marines moved forward from the beaches the Japanese opened fire, using machine guns in pillboxes and artillery that popped out of covered firing pits, then retracted. American dead littered the beach. Despite the heavy losses, the Marines were able to land some 30,000 men that first day.

Over the next three days Marine losses mounted even while they advanced, destroying Japanese positions at the base of Suribachi. On D+4, Feb. 23, Lieut. Col. Chandler Johnson, commander of 2nd battalion, 28th Marine regiment, 5th Division, sent a reinforced patrol, about 50 men, to climb the slope and if possible raise a flag at the top. First Lieut. Harold Schrier got his men to the summit without encountering resistance. They attached a small 3×5-foot flag to a piece of water pipe and raised it about 10:20 AM.

The flag was seen on the beach below and by Navy ships offshore. Marines cheered and ships’ horns sounded. A photo was taken by Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Lowery. As Lowery headed down the mountain, he was met by Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal. Lowery told Rosenthal he could get some good shots at the top.

About two hours later, the Marines raised a second, larger flag, and Rosenthal snapped the photo that has become immortal. The flag-raising did not represent victory on Iwo Jima. The battle raged on. The 4th Division faced hellish opposition at the northern end of the island.

By D+4, the day the flags were raised, 2,778 Marines had been killed or wounded. The Marines landed their strategic reserve, two regiments of the 3rd Division. By February 27 the Marines had encountered the main Japanese force near airfield No. 2. The Marines by now were aware of the extensive tunnel system that concealed the enemy, which made it impossible to conduct forward reconnaissance. Instead they moved forward to try to attract fire in order to identify enemy positions. The Marines began to use bulldozers and flamethrowers to dislodge the dug-in Japanese. The fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, caused grievous losses.

By early March the Marines were effectively eliminating remaining resistance, but fighting continued. On March 16, without consulting the senior Marine commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Navy’s senior flag officer, declared Iwo “secure,” even while the Japanese kept fighting.   The Army regiment expected to act as an occupying force was deployed early for combat alongside the Marines. Losses continued around “Bloody Gorge” at the north end of the island. The Japanese launched a final attack on March 26, breaking through an Army-Air Force perimeter and causing heavy casualties among pilots and aviation support personnel. The Marines repulsed the assault. Soon after the Army started mop-up operations that continued into June.


In 2019 the final Marine Corps investigation of the identities of the Marines who participated in the second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi concluded that those who appear in the Rosenthal photo are: Corporal Harlon H. Block; Corporal Harold P. Keller; Sergeant  Michael Strank; and Privates First Class Harold H. Schultz, Ira H. Hayes, and Franklin R. Sousley. All six are identified specifically by their positions in the photo.

Strank and Block were killed in action on or about March 1. Sousley died on or about March 21.

In 36 days of combat, the Marine Corps suffered some 24,000 casualties, including 7,000 killed. The Japanese lost nearly their entire 21,000-man force. Only 216 Japanese were taken prisoner—men who either were knocked unconscious or wounded.

In an interview in 1975 with Benis Frank of the Marine Corps History Division, Joe Rosenthal said: “I see those batteries opposing you are not only staggered up in front of you but standing around as you’re coming ashore. The awesome situation! Before they ever reach that peak. … that a photograph can serve to remind us of the contribution of those boys—that was what was important—not who took it. This was a very important contribution to our survival—and they did it. … The important thing is [that] what it is and it does to reflect and remind people that these guys were there.”

The Hour

February 17, 2020

The young Dominican nun strummed her guitar and sang in a haunting soprano:

Here’s my heart, Lord                                                                                                                  Here’s my heart, Lord                                                                                                                    Speak what is true.

You are strong. You are sure                                                                                                            You are life, You endure                                                                                                                    You are good, always true,                                                                                                              You are light breaking through                                                                                                     

She sang three stanzas, enchanting the modest crowd at our parish church with her melodic, softly turned notes. Although the front fifteen or twenty rows of the church were filled with families with small and medium-size kids, the building was silent.

I sat midway between the altar and the exit, among people I didn’t know.  Families with young children inhabit a different universe than Sandy and me. We get to the early Sunday Mass, the one with no music, the one with the gray heads.  These younger folks show up later, after the Cheerios and Rice Krispies, the cartoons and morning baths, the earnest discussions of which outfit to wear, and so on. The way it used to be for us.

wp-15818754850791435497654860909292.jpgThe evening was advertised as a “Family Holy Hour.” I went alone, out of curiosity, Sandy had something else to do. I saw one older couple without kids and an unaccompanied woman. The Dominicans who teach at the nearby Catholic elementary school and the high school near Quantico were putting this on. The parish church was only the venue for the evening. The pastor was there, but as a guest, more or less.

One of the nuns, in her flowing, immaculate white habit, led a decade of the rosary. We heard another song, as beautiful as the first. One of the nuns stood and invited the families to come to the altar and receive the pastor’s silent blessing. She swept her arm forward, the parents in the front row rose and ushered their kids up. They knelt before the priest.

The sister moved up, row by row; at her gesture, families moved to the altar. No one hesitated. Unsure whether I qualified, by myself, as a family, I hung back for a few moments. Finally I moved forward. The woman who had come alone did also. Finally all the nuns, seven or eight of them, knelt together. The pastor led Benediction; we repeated the Divine Praises: Blessed be God, Blessed by His Holy Name, and the rest.

The young nun then stood again and played, this time in sweet, resonant tones that sailed to the rafters. The crowd stood, some sang along, a few young girls swayed with the rhythm. We heard no Scripture readings, no arcane theology, no sermons, only a powerful current of faith in the message of Christ in all its simplicity and clarity, from these women who have given their lives to delivering it. It was there, offered for all, present or not present: unpretentious, uncomplicated, unmistakable.

We stood. It was over. We filed out into the chilly rain. Really, it was no night to be out. But all these folks, with their children, decided they had to be in this place.

Two of our kids went to the Dominican-run elementary school nearby for a couple of years, until the logistics of getting them there became impossible. When we advised the school we had to withdraw them the principal called me—at work—to persuade me to change my mind. The Dominican education is unique, she said. Of course she was right. For years, the nuns who taught at the school lived a few blocks away from us, in a quite ordinary split-foyer. We’d see them, from time to time, on their way to work—that is, to school.

By an odd coincidence, the Dominicans here in northern Virginia belong to the community that has its HQ in Nashville, where we lived for eight years after we got married, and where three of the kids were born. While we were still there the daughter of a cousin of mine entered the order. We visited her at the spectacular St. Cecilia Motherhouse, on a hill west of the city. We walked through the stunningly beautiful halls, getting smiles from those impressive, intimidating white figures hurrying by.

wp-15818752722241938161832280547004.jpgNashville’s Country Music Marathon course passes the Motherhouse. When I ran the race about 10 years ago the nuns were outside cheering the runners and waving a sign with that line from 2 Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” At that point, around mile 18, it helped.

When my cousin passed away five years ago, I flew down. The funeral was sad yet joyous, as my younger cousin, Sister Bernadette, who had run high schools in Birmingham and Cincinnati, drafted the Motherhouse string ensemble to give her dad a funeral Mass worthy of a bishop, maybe a Pope.

Today other religious orders contract. Catholic dioceses nationwide still reel from scandal. So-called “evangelicals” broadcast their obeisance to the Republican doctrine of Trump worship. Meanwhile, the Dominicans are booming, with communities in 17 states and in Canada, Europe, Australia. Their mission is faith, teaching it, living it. As we walked slowly toward the church exit after their Holy Hour, they smiled and said goodnight. No speeches. No brochures. No collections. Only faith.

“Fly the Aircraft”

February 10, 2020

These cold gray days summon memories. Some memories teach lasting lessons.

Not so long ago, my former boss, a senior Navy aviator who following retirement from active duty headed a small division I worked in at the Office of Naval Research, used the sentence above, time-honored in Navy aviation, to describe his expectations for our team’s response to looming disaster. Looking back at some of the fixes we found ourselves in at ONR between 2005 and 2014, disaster seemed to loom every week.

“Fly the aircraft” describes the responsibility of a pilot who experiences an in-flight system failure that threatens his or her aircraft’s ability to stay airborne. It means simply: do your job, maintain control, execute the mission. Pilots understand it. For non-pilots, a hint of its meaning shows up in a slightly different context in the opening scene of the 2016 movie “Sully,” about the emergency landing of a U.S. Airways flight on the Hudson River in January 2009. Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, recognizing his aircraft has lost both engines, assumes full control with the terse words: “My aircraft.”  His co-pilot replies: “Your aircraft.”

So: this past week: Political cowardice, obscene bluster. Coronavirus. Blizzards, tornadoes, floods across the country; multi-trillion-dollar federal debt. Reminds me of my ONR stint: an out-of-control program director, eventually relieved of duty; backstabbing office politicians; egregious violations of federal human research protections law; indifference, even hostility, of Navy commanders and department heads to policies intended to protect research subjects.

Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft

When I think back about it—not often—I remember the lowlights. Sometimes the enemy was shuffling incompetence by mid-grade officers and civilians; often it was gibberish emails and interminable, sleep-inducing staff meetings. “A task transferred (i.e., pitched to someone else) is a task completed” was the operative mindset at HQ. Some of it was sitcom material: Our field “specialists” routinely produced incomprehensible trip reports. A staff attorney recruited the head of the legal department to raid our budget to increase her salary. Then the floodtide of petty stuff: calling Penn State University “U-Penn” and spelling Colombia, the country, the way the name of the Ivy League school in New York is spelled, etc., over and over.

I recall the positives. My boss, brilliant and creative, a Yale Ph.D. and former astronaut, left our team priceless moments, many of which prompted bursts of laughter in the face of bureaucratic insanity. Those walking by our closed-door meetings wondered: Are they seriously disturbed? Good training, he used to say.

“Fly the aircraft”: accomplish the day’s tasks in the face of the BS. Our antidote was carefully thought-out, professionally executed staff work. Often it took hours of rewrites and do-overs. We didn’t lose our cool, send backbiting emails, or lobby outsiders. The default tactic for our team was to take responsibility for the “s—shows” as well as for the winners.

Recognize truth, confront it. Complete the task. When storms threaten, face them sooner, not later. The truth is ground reality, in the dictum, Factum non verbum. What is truth? For a majority of U.S. Senators today, truth is fear of a Trump tweet. Out in the real economy, millions still seek good work, despite the politically jacked-up statistics. The truth is that all work that satisfies an employer who pays for the labor is good work, no work is humble, all work can be a beginning. “Fly the aircraft” applies for those who sit in comfortable corporate offices and those who agonize, alone late at night in front of a laptop, looking for exactly the right word to express truth in honest English, in their job applications or first novels.

I look back now at those nine years as a uniquely bizarre experience, a descent into the Challenger Deep of government management animated by ponderous clichés and governed by policies and procedures routinely ignored. Not to throw stones only one way: I saw the same things on the industry side, where contractors connived to milk the government in ingenious ways, often with amazing success.

This is just my cynicism. Yet that time also offered precious lessons, or one, anyway, in the legacy of a leader who supported good people and knew how to confront crisis. After he retired because of a medical emergency, I pondered the meaning of the aircraft metaphor. I summoned memories of my college-years immersion in Hemingway’s fiction, looking for echoes of common ground. Hemingway pared away adjectives and used three space-bar spaces between words to isolate the meaning of each. He produced spare, austere fiction that won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Many think he pointed to hard truths. Others say he created only delusions.

Eventually Hemingway failed, with a shotgun. But when we think about things that matter, we wonder why we think they matter. We seek truth and joy, but we may instead find doubt, ambiguity, darkness. We hope we respond with integrity. First, faith. Second, good training. Then: “fly the aircraft.”


February 3, 2020

Sandy and I shoved off about ­­­7:00 AM for Wintergreen, the mountain-ski community in Nelson County, deep in the Blue Ridge. High time we got out of town, we thought, after frantic weeks of writing projects, home and car repairs, and our new hobby, throwing stuff out.

Part of the idea was to find a place for a family trip this summer. The kids agreed on a week in June. They vetoed a beach trip, so we thought—the mountains. We wanted to go anyway. We wanted to breathe the cool air of the Shenandoahs, to feel the silence, and the mystery.

For years we’ve headed toward the mountains on the way to southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It’s a pretty trip for most of the way, down U.S. 29 through rolling farmland and wine country. South of Culpeper you start seeing the long Shenandoah ridge to the west, reminding you you’ve left the northern Virginia suburbs, a happy sensation. Then you hit Charlottesville. The area, built around Monticello and the showcase University of Virginia campus, once was considered attractive. Now you face miles of highway construction and retail sprawl into the city still living with the failure of its police force  to control the “Unite the Right” riots of August 2017, made famous by President Trump.

So this time we chucked the usual route and circled around, I-95 to Fredericksburg, then west on U.S. 3 toward Orange. We passed history: Chancellorsville and The Wilderness, two of the most cataclysmic Civil War engagements, somber under gray skies, the artillery pieces green with age. But the route is serene, taking us south through Piedmont Virginia and its wide pastures and rural places. We drove west on I-64 for 20 miles, the Shenandoahs now looming around us, high rows of dark, jagged peaks showing a topping of snow.

wp-15805922414542595106280375077063.jpgFrom the interstate we turned onto U.S. 250 and 151, then headed up, winding into the mist as snow drifted silently, coating the forest. We arrived after four miles of nervous chugging up the sinuous route to the top with a line of impatient drivers behind us. The air was crisp with a bite to it as we hiked stiffly from the parking lot to the lodge. Skiers in their sleek coveralls were everywhere, clomping in their cleated boots, hauling their gear to the lifts, sipping coffee next to the slope, impervious to the cold. We shivered and hurried indoors to the Starbucks. After thawing out we wandered through the lodge’s chic boutiques, which offer the cutest ski togs. Not for us, now or probably ever.

The mountains always are spectacular, here they create the allure that justifies plopping a massive resort community in the middle of nowhere. The Wintergreen people have been careful to hide the gas station, supermarket, and other enterprises in stone and log buildings. Everything is quite pricey. Wintergreen, like lots of similar places on mountaintops or along picturesque beaches, attracts people because it’s out-of-the-way, expensive, discreet.

We’ve visited a couple of times, three years ago, when the running group rented a house for a weekend, then two summers ago, when Sandy and I got a townhouse for two nights. We hiked the Appalachian Trail, which runs right past the place, and sat outside gawking at the mountains, which in summer fade into that famous Blue Ridge haze. A crackling late-night thunderstorm made the magic more intense as lightening flickered around us, illuminating the peaks for a hundred miles. The forest trails around us were classic Appalachia, jagged white granite, fixed where it had formed eons ago.  We saw few others except in the restaurant. People go to Wintergreen to hike or hide, to find some kind of respite, to catch their breath from modern life.

We gulped some coffee and ventured outside to watch the skiers race down the slopes, covered mostly with fake snow. It was cold, but not New England- or Rocky Mountain-type cold. We heard folks chattering in various languages. Wintergreen has achieved a certain cachet with the ski set, I guess, at least for those who can’t get to Vail or Aspen or Killington. But they were having fun. All that moving around must keep them warm.

After watching for a while we got around to our chore, looking for a place for that June week. The rentals are scattered all over the mountain, some with spectacular, scary views of the valley, others secluded in the forest. We plotted several on a map and drove around trying to find them. It was mostly guesswork; street addresses generally aren’t released.

We’ve pulled off this family vacation plan three times, in different places, the last one was four years ago. Our older grandson then was two, the younger guy hadn’t been born. Their parents, our second daughter and son-in-law, have moved to South Carolina. Our son and daughter-in-law, near Philly, have moved on to bigger jobs. The youngest daughter lives in Colorado, the oldest was living in New Orleans. They all have busy, complicated lives. They’ve started taking their own vacations, building their own traditions.

wp-15805923349898030615402816750557.jpgThe logistics get complicated, time slips away. Projects and chores crowd the days and weeks. Our street, the neighborhood, the everyday places, expand as if they were our entire world.

But the street we’re on has no wilderness silence, no deep forest trails, no silhouettes of ancient peaks stretching to the horizon.

By late afternoon the sky had darkened, we started for home. At some point along the twisting road down the mountain we pulled over and got out and stared at the sharp cliffs and deep valley below, barely visible through the snowy mist. In the chill we asked ourselves whether some elusive truth lay within the unearthly wonder around us. We wondered if the raw beauty of nature in its rugged, mystical, God-given form offers some transformative power, power to overcome indifference, pettiness, human frailty.

After a few minutes we felt the winter wind rising above us, the evergreens whispering and swaying. We got back in the car and left this southern mountaintop—a dark stopping place on a complicated journey.