On February 19, 1945, Operation Detachment commenced and the landings on Iwo Jima began.
Seventy-five years ago, U.S. Marines came ashore on a desolate eight-square-mile volcanic island dominated by Mount Suribachi and located roughly halfway between the Marianas and Tokyo. Iwo Jima’s value lay in its airfields. B-29 Superfortresses that were damaged or low on fuel could land there, and Army Air Forces fighters based on the island could escort the bombers to their targets in Japan. Three Marine divisions—more than 70,000 men—had the task of seizing the island. But an operation that U.S. commanders forecast would take a week to complete would stretch out to five weeks, and the Marines’ determination and sacrifice on Iwo Jima would become enduring touchstones for the Corps.
Before that time, the Marines didn’t know that the Japanese would be in a labyrinth of tunnels, bunkers, and caves, prepared over many months in anticipation of their landing. They could wait out the massive bombardments of the Navy ships. One tunnel was 90′ deep.
They had seriously underestimated the Japanese defenses. The battle would last 36 bloody days. For every square mile of that island, more than 800 Marines would lose their lives.
In the end, only 216 members of the garrison were taken prisoner. The rest of the troops died in combat or killed themselves — though an estimated 3,000 of them refused to surrender and continued to live in the island’s massive underground fortifications, conducting raids and guerilla-style attacks.
Iwo Jima, with
3 2 airfields, was an important base to the Japanese who could intercept the US aircraft on their way to the Japanese mainland. To the US, it was seen as an important staging area.
When the above picture was made 5 days after the commencement, Joe Rosenthal didn’t think it was anything special.
He sent it to the Associated Press along with 30 of the other 60 photos he made.
Someone at the AP saw it for the symbolism it conveyed and 17 1/2 hours later on a Sunday it was on the front page of most of the country’s papers.
It became the iconic photo of WW2.
Franklin Roosevelt saw it and wanted those Marines in the picture to tour the country on a bond drive. The country needed money to fund the war.
While they were climbing Suribachi, they could hear muffled explosions under the ground. The Japanese were committing suicide with grenades in those tunnels.
After this flag raising, there would be 31 more days of bitter and vicious fighting before the Marines could declare the island secure. During that time, 3 of The Six who raised this flag would be killed.
People would later accuse Rosenthal of having the Marines pose for that picture – it looked too perfect. But Joe could refer them to a movie that was made at the same time by a Marine combat photographer, SGT William Genaust.
Genaust would lose his life 9 days later trying to help what he thought was a wounded Marine.
On March 4, 1945 just nine days after the flag raising, Sgt. Genaust was helping the Marines capture Hill 362A. Upon hearing what was believed to be a wounded Marine calling for help from a cave, Genaust and another Marine entered the cave and when Genaust turned on his flashlight, the Japanese hiding in the cave opened fire killing the two Marines instantly.
Other Marines fired into the cave with flamethrowers but were unable to get the bodies of the two Marines out before bulldozing the cave shut to prevent any Japanese from escaping.
Bill’s body is still in that cave, as are the remains of the other Marine. Recently, efforts have been renewed to get them out.
Here is the film he made – in rare (for 1945) color – 6:33 long. The flag raising starts at 1:47, but the entire film is worth your time.
There were 27 Medals of Honor awarded for actions on that island – more than any other battle. And that was just for those actions that had witnesses.
Only God knows about the others.
This flag wasn’t the first that was raised. Earlier that day, a smaller one was raised. But the brass wanted a larger flag to go up, so the sailors and Marines on the ships and around the island could see it.
That’s the picture Rosenthal got.
When that flag went up, at first a few ships sounded their horns, and soon one could hear the horns of all those many ships below in the distance.
After the battle 5 weeks later, when the surviving three were picked for the bond tour, there was some confusion as to who was there.
To those remaining three it was just another assignment – to raise a pole with the flag on the top of Suribachi. They didn’t consider themselves to be special. They saw heroism all over that island during those weeks.
But they got what they thought were the remaining three. One, it was determined just a few years ago, was not Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, but another Marine, Private First Class Harold Schultz.
Schultz survived the war and lived until 1995, and in all the intervening years never publicly said a thing. There was one time when he told his step-daughter, Dezreen MacDowell, that he was one of The Six. Over dinner they were discussing the war in the Pacific.
Navy Corpsman Bradley, it was recently determined, was involved in the first “flag raising”. One of the three, Ira Hayes, let alcoholism get to him on the tour and was sent back at his request to his unit. He had asked on that tour that his name be kept private, but the organizers wanted the public to know their names.
His remaining life was sad.
When Ira learned that President Roosevelt wanted him and the other survivors to come back to the US to raise money on the 7th Bond Tour, he was horrified.
To Ira, the heroes of Iwo Jima, those deserving honor, were his “good buddies” who died there. At the White House, President Truman told Ira, “You are an American hero.” But Ira didn’t feel pride. As he later lamented, “How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?”
The Bond Tour was an ordeal for Ira. He couldn’t understand or accept the adulation . . . “It was supposed to be soft duty, but I couldn’t take it. Everywhere we went people shoved drinks in our hands and said ‘You’re a Hero!’ We knew we hadn’t done that much but you couldn’t tell them that.”
I wonder how many Marines John Bradley comforted as they were dying?
In the book Flags of Our Fathers, his son James wrote that growing up he knew virtually nothing of his father’s wartime service, having only discovered it in an attic trunk after he died. As children, every Memorial Day the children were instructed to answer the phone and if the caller was a reporter, say that their father was unavailable and “fishing in Canada”.
Who would want to talk about what they had witnessed in those 35 days?
For the remainder of their lives?
In his one interview with the media, John Bradley had this to say:
” . . . “People refer to us as heroes–I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there–and we certainly weren’t heroes–and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.”
Of course The Six were heroes, but no more than any of the other Marines or Navy Corpsmen who were on that volcanic rock.
As for Harold Schultz, when he was having that dinner with his stepdaughter, she told him that he was a hero.
“Not really. I was a Marine,” he said.
It would have been better had we not known the identities of The Six. Because those 6 represented all those who fought on that island.
I think The Six would agree.
Here is a nice write up from Lex on the 60th anniversary.
Here’s a few rare pictures during the battle.
02/19/20 1417 – The story of the last surviving Medal of Honor Awardee from Iwo Jima, and what he did.
And here’s some pictures after the battle.
A lot of flyboys owed their lives to the Marines…