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.”