Six war-weary Marines, their backs to the photographer, struggled to plant an American flag amid gunfire, artillery fire and the rubble of war.
Forty years after Associated Press cameraman Joe Rosenthal snapped his renowned picture on Feb. 23, 1945, the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima remains the most famous symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps--and perhaps of American servicemen in battle anywhere. The Corps receives more correspondence about the bloody Pacific Island battle with the Japanese than on any other event in its 209-year existence.
Yet few people know that the flag raising made famous was actually the second on the island and that photos, though far less dramatic, also exist of the first. Few know that both raisings, at the time, were only momentarily noted by Marines fighting for survival in a bitter five-week battle for an island of volcanic rock less than nine square miles in size. Only after Rosenthal's picture was published back in the United States did fame and controversy ensue.
Some Marines even today argue that the memory of the first flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi, the island's extinct volcano, has been slighted because of Rosenthal's picture. The Marine Corps itself commemorates the raisings equally in official histories, but downplays the heroism angle of both events. It says that the most valiant fighting came in the month following Suribachi's capture, when the Corps suffered most of its 23,200 casualties, including 5,931 killed--the highest battle casualty count in Marine history.
To the Corps, the flags were simple morale boosters similar to other, unrecorded events throughout the Pacific during World War II.
But at Iwo Jima there was the picture.
"We got back to Hawaii when the campaign was over, turned on the radio, and heard some song, 'When the Yanks raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima Isle,' " Dave Severance, then a Marine Corps captain, recalled. "We looked at each other, said, 'What the hell is that all about?' and then realized how famous the raising had become."
Severance, now a retired Marine colonel in La Jolla, commanded the company whose men placed the flags on Suribachi. But Severance did not see either one go up. "I was too busy; there was a lot of action going on."
Three Marine divisions invaded Iwo Jima, only 660 miles from Tokyo, on Feb. 19, 1945, to capture the island as an air base for American long-range bombers. Severance's Company E was part of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Marines (regiment) assigned to take the 550-foot-high Suribachi, which dominated the landing beaches only several hundred yards to the west. In three days of hard fighting, the regiment secured much of the volcano's base, but only after the Marines took more than 900 casualties from mortar and sniper fire coming off the mountain.
On the morning of the fourth day, battalion commander Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson ordered a 40-man patrol from Company E to reconnoiter the mountain. The patrol leader, Lt. Harold G. Schrier, was handed a small, 28-inch-by-54-inch flag to carry and place on the summit if he reached it safely.
"I gave the flag to Schrier just as they began the ascent," recalled George Greeley Wells, then serving as adjutant aide to Johnson. Wells, now a New York executive for a map company, had brought the flag from the troop ship Missoula as a result of what he called "a freak conference" in Hawaii the previous November. Johnson had asked his staff officers to describe their duties, and Wells, reading up in the Marine Corps staff manual, discovered that the battalion adjutant was supposed to carry a flag.
Severance said that battalion officers at the conference "were both scared to death and filled with bravado" when they learned that the initial Iwo Jima mission was to storm Suribachi.
"One of us said the first person to the top should get a case of champagne, and Greeley said the first person should put up a flag," Severance said. "But I don't think anyone really thought that Greeley would actually bring a flag."
Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg accompanied the patrol as a flame thrower. "I doubted we'd ever get to the top--we were taking a lot of fire--but shelling by Naval ships had done a hell of a job," Lindberg, a retired electrician living in Richfield, Minn., said.
'Give Her a Salute'
Schrier radioed to Johnson that the patrol was on the summit, and Johnson said to raise the flag if a suitable pole could be found. The Marines used a discarded pipe that had been fashioned by Japanese soldiers to bring air into the caves they had dug into.
"I'll never forget that sight, when Lt. Schrier told us all to 'Give her a salute!' but then the Japanese started firing all around us," said Lindberg, the only survivor today of the six Marines who planted the flag. Only three of the six survived the remaining month on Iwo.
Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery, a combat photographer for the Marine Corps' Leatherneck magazine, posed the men in front of the flag using his Roloflex.