by Anna Kathryn Lanier
One of the most famous photographs in the world is of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jimo, four days after three divisions of
U.S. Marines had landed on the island 700 miles south of Tokyo. But the action captured on film was not without a price.
Sixty-seven years ago today at 8:59 a.m., February 19, 1945, the first wave of Marines landed on Red Beach One for a decisive, bloody and month-long battle. Iwo Jimo is a speck on the map, a small dot in the Pacific Ocean. It is five miles long and three miles wide at its widest point. A dormant volcano climbs 556 feet above the ocean floor (this is where the second flag was raised, the one in the famous photograph).
One young Marine is said to have commented that the island is “not worth fifty cents at a sheriff’s sale.”
The Japanese had 21,000 troops on the island, as well as three air strips. The website
http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/7338/usmc.html explains that the island of Iwo Jima was important to the allied forces because of its “distance between mainland Japan and U.S. bases in the Mariana Islands, the capture of Iwo Jima would provide an emergency landing strip for crippled B-29s returning from bombing runs. The seizure of Iwo would allow for sea and air blockades, the ability to conduct intensive air bombardment and to destroy the enemy’s air and naval capabilities.”
For two days prior to the invasion, U.S. battleships bombarded the island and gunboats scouted the shores for the best landing spots. The furiousness of the preliminary operations caused the Japanese commander to mistakenly conclude the actual landing was taking place. He radioed Tokyo that the invasion was underway, and they in turn erroneously informed the Japanese people that the invasion had been thwarted.
Once it began, the battle lasted from February 19 to March 20—35 days. The advance from beach head to victory was one bloody inch at a time. On day 10, the U.S. had only taken half the island. The enemy lay in wait over each hill and in every gully. The causalities, on both sides, were astounding. Fewer than 1,100 of the Japanese survived to be taken prisoner. More than 60,000 U. S. men fought on the island and twenty-six thousand were killed or injured.
The value of the island showed itself even before then fighting had ended. A B-29, on its way back from a mission over Japan and low on fuel landed at one of the landing strips. The Geocities website (which no longer exists, but I referenced a few years back) also gives the campaign’s results: “By war’s end, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 crewman made unscheduled landings on the island. Historians described U.S. forces’ attack against the Japanese defense as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.” In the end, Iwo Jima was won not only by the fighting spirit of the Marines, but by the meticulous planning and support provided by the Navy and Army through supply efforts, medical care, and air and naval gunfire. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors, many posthumously, more than were awarded for any other single operation during the war.”
The now infamous flag raising Joe Rosenthal captured was actually the second flag raising of the day. Geocities’ website goes on to describes the first flag raising: “At 10:20 a.m., the flag was hoisted on a steel pipe above the island by First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, platoon commander, Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas, platoon sergeant, Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, and Private First Class James R. Nicel. This symbol of victory sent a wave of strength to the battle-weary fighting men below, and struck a further mental blow against the island’s defenders.” This flag raising was captured on film by Marine Corps photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery.
Three hours later, the more famous and well-known flag raising was ordered and photographed. Mike Flanagan, in IT’S ABOUT TIME, says about this momentous occasion:
“Time felt suspended on the island of Iwo Jima [which means sulphur island in Japanese] after 72 consecutive days of naval bombardment. Now the Fifth Marines Division had landed to finish the job, flushing out the remaining Japanese defenders from a network of catacombs. On the fourth day of the operation, February 23, 1945, Col. Chandler Johnson called for a large flag to be planted on Mount Suribachi, a dormant volcano. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal perched on a pile of sandbags, set his shutter for 1/400th of a second and snapped the most famous picture of WWII as Rene Gagnon, John Bradley, Mike Strank, Harlan Block, Frank Sousley and Ira Hays hoisted the 20-foot pipe that bore the American flag.”
Another good website for information on this is: http://www.defenselink.mil/home/features/iwo_jima/iwo.html. It includes the video taken by Sgt. Lou Lowery. Also, check out http://www.iwojima.com/.