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The Flags On Mt Suribachi

By Col. Dave E. Severance USMC (Ret.)

(Battle of Iwo Jima Video)

The details in the following story have, for the most part, originated with Second Lieutenant G. Greeley Wells, USMCR, who was the Adjutant of the Second Battalion, 28th Marines, during the preparation for the assault on Iwo Jima and during the battle. Additional information is based on Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal's interviews and conversations. As the Battalion Adjutant, once ashore Lieutenant Wells became the quasi-aide to the battalion commander, and was with him or near him whenever Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson was in the command post (CP).


Sometime near the latter part of November 1944, members of the staff and company commanders of the Second Battalion 28th Marines met in the Battalion War Room to be briefed on their upcoming combat mission. In the center of the room was a sand table model of the island of Iwo Jima (scaled on the basis of about one foot equal to one mile on the island). There was outwardly displayed apprehension (now known as "shock and awe") when it was revealed that the 28th Marines were tasked with capturing the southern portion of the island, including a 545 foot high inactive volcano, Mount Suribachi. There were some rather bravado remarks made, one of which suggested the first unit to the top should receive some type of reward. One such prize mentioned was champagne. I recall thinking there would not be a requirement for a large quantity of the beverage for the few who might make it to the top. Lieutenant G. Greeley Wells, the Adjutant, then remarked that the Marine Corps' Staff Manual required a unit adjutant to carry a flag on any combat operation. Greeley suggested that the first ones to reach the summit of the volcano could raise his flag. All seemed to agree, and there was no more talk of "rewards." The next time I heard the flag mentioned was on 23 February 1945 after the 28th Marines had captured the base of the volcano.

At about 9 am on February 23, 1945, a 4-man patrol from Company F, 28th Marines, led by Sergeant Sherman Watson, and including Corporal George Mercer, Private First Class Ted White, and Private First Class Louis Charlo climbed the northeastern slopes of Mt Suribachi. They observed no enemy activity during their climb, at the summit, nor on their descent. As the four man patrol descended, Lieutenant Colonel Johnson ordered me to provide him with a platoon to be led by my executive Officer, First Lieutenant H. George Schrier. The patrol was comprised of about 25 men from my third platoon, approximately 12 men from the machine gun platoon, and several from the 60min mortar section. When the patrol arrived at the Battalion CP, Colonel Johnson gave Lieutenant Schrier a small flag brought ashore from the USS Missoula by Lieutenant Greeley Wells, and told him that if the patrol was able to reach the summit, he was to raise the flag. The patrol encountered no resistance, and at 10:20 am tied the small flag to a piece of pipe, located by Corporal Robert Leader and Private First Class Leo Rozek, and raised the first of two American flags. The six Marines who raised the first flag were: First Lieutenant H. George Schrier, Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas, Sergeant Henry Hansen, Corporal Charles Lindberg, Private First Class Louis Charlo (Co F) and Private James Michels. Leatherneck Magazine photographer, Sergeant Lou Lowery, was on hand to photograph the action. Unfortunately he was out of film, and had to photograph the scene after the flag had been raised. In doing so he rearranged the position of several members thus taking a photo that was, in effect, posed. Almost immediately after the flag was raised, three or four enemy soldiers rushed out of their caves, firing rifles and throwing grenades. One was a Japanese officer waving a broken sword. The enemy soldiers were quickly cut down by the patrol members. Photographer Lowery, while dodging a grenade explosion, jumped down the slope of the volcano sliding for 15 to 20 feet. His camera was broken but his exposed film was not harmed.

Word had been passed throughout the commands that a patrol was climbing Mount Suribachi and would raise a flag. As the flag was raised the troops on the island cheered, and the ships offshore blew their horns and sirens. The event gave a real boost to the morale of the troops in the midst of a grim battle. Soon after the first flag was raised, Colonel Johnson heard that Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal (who, together with LtGen. H. M. Smith, had just landed on the beach) had expressed a desire to have the small flag as a memento of his visit to Iwo.

Colonel Johnson responded by exclaiming, "Hell no! He can't have our flag. We put it up there, and we are going to keep it." He then sent Second Lieutenant Albert T. Tuttle to the beach area to find another flag. He planned to use it to replace the original flag, thus he would be able to save the first flag as a battalion souvenir. Lieutenant Tuttle told me in later years that as he was leaving the command post, the Colonel called out to him, "See if you can get a larger flag. Lieutenant Tuttle obtained a large ceremonial flag from LST-779.

I received an order to provide a detail to string telephone wire to the Suribachi patrol and sent Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Ira Hayes, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley to the Battalion CP. Company E runner, Private First Class Rene Gagnon had been sent by Lieutenant Wells to secure fresh radio batteries for Schrier's patrol, and Gagnon joined Sergeant Strank's detail for the ascent. As they were about to depart, Colonel Johnson handed Gagnon the ceremonial flag, and then told Sergeant Strank to have Lieutenant Schrier replace the small flag and send it down to him.

Climbing the volcano at about the same time as Strank's detail, but at some distance behind, were Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal, and two Marine photographers, Sergeant William Genaust and Private First Class Robert Campbell. About half way up the volcano the photographers met Lou Lowery who was coming down to look for another camera. Lowery told the group that he had already photographed the flag being raised, but there was a terrific view to be seen if they continued to the top. The three photographers talked among themselves and decided to continue their climb. As they reached the summit they saw a group of Marines attaching a large flag to a second pipe (located by Private First Class Ira Hayes and Private First Class Franklin Sousley) and were told that the small flag was to be replaced and kept as a souvenir. Rosenthal and Genaust backed away to a position about 30 feet from the flag pole site and prepared to film the large flag being raised. Campbell moved into another position where he could capture the movement of both flags. Genaust started filming with his movie camera, using color film, as the Marines prepared to raise the second flag. Rosenthal was caught by surprise when the large flag started up and was lucky to snap one exposure, which was to become famous and win a Pulitzer Prize. The time was shortly after 12 o'clock noon. No official record of the time has been found, but Joe Rosenthal recalls that he had descended the volcano and was sitting down at the 28th Marines' CP when he glanced at his watch. It was 1:05 pm. Rosenthal's photograph would later be the inspiration for the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

It would take over a year and a Congressional investigation to accurately identify the six men who raised the second flag. They were: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Ira Hayes, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, Private First Class Rene Gagnon and Pharmacist Mate Second Class John Bradley. Hayes, Gagnon and Bradley survived the battle. All three have since died, John Bradley from Antigo, Wisconsin, being the last survivor of the group. He died January 11, 1994. Both flags are on display at the Marine Corps Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, District of Columbia.

Colonel Dave E. Severance, USMC (Ret)
Former Commanding Officer, Company E, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division
Date: October 6, 2004

I approve the details of this story.
G. Greeley Wells
Former Adjutant, Second Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division
Date: October 1, 2004

There are some interesting statistics from the Battle for Iwo Jima.

On March 26th,1945, Iwo Jima was declared "secured". The Marines handed the island over to the Army so the Army Air Corps could use the air fields. Then many of the Marines sailed off to another party on Okinawa.

February 19th was the start of the invasion of Iwo. That seems so long ago. But for the Marines and sailors who assaulted Iwo, every one of the 36 continuous days of that battle seemed nearly that long.

About 77,000 US Marines from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions converged on tiny Iwo Jima in late February. LtGen Tadamichi Kuribayashi had fortified Iwo for a full year before the invasion, and had an estimated 22,000 troops dug in under the island. US forces began bombing Iwo in June 1944, 8 full months before the invasion. Naval bombardments then shelled the island mercilessly around the clock for four consecutive days prior to the invasion.

Iwo set a number of "firsts":

It was the longest concentrated bombardment of any target in the history of mankind up to that date.

It was the largest total tonnage of bombs and artillery ever delivered on a single target to that date.

It was the largest armada of ships ever assembled for an invasion up to that date (about 700 ships).

It was the largest number of invaders to ever invade any island up to that date (each of those new records was broken by the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945).

It was the first (and last) time Seabees accompanied Marines in the first waves of a beach invasion (they swore they'd never do THAT again!).

It was the first and last time any Marine unit landed on D-Day and served an entire campaign without being relieved by another unit.

It was the only time in Marine Corps history when the number of invading casualties exceeded the number of defending casualties. More than 19,000 Marines were wounded on Iwo, and 6,821 died there. As such, it remains the costliest battle in Marine Corps history.

One-third of all marines killed during WWII, died on Iwo Jima.

Let me repeat that: ONE THIRD of all US Marines killed during WWII, died on Iwo Jima.

All but about 200 Japanese defenders died on Iwo.

Marine LtGen Harry Schmidt and LtGen H. M. Smith led Task Force 56. It made up V Corps, composed of the 3rd MarDiv (MGen Erskine), 4th MarDiv (MGen Clifton Cates) and 5th MarDiv (MGen Rockey). The 5th Division had been formed expressly for the battle of Iwo Jima. It was disbanded following the battle.

Among the participants were names of distinction:
1. Son of the sitting Commandant LtCol AA Vandergriff Jr (3/24)
2. Future Commandant 1stLt Robert E Cushman, Jr (2/9)
3. Future Commandant Clifton Cates (CG 4thMarDiv)
4. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal
5. LtGen "Howlin' Mad" Smith, and
6. The first enlisted Marine Medal of Honor recipient of WWII, "Manila John" Basilone. Basilone had received his MOH from Chesty Puller, for action on Guadalcanal. He was KIA on Iwo on D-Day.

The invasion planners felt confident the battle would take 7-10 days. It took 36. LtGen Kuribayashi's body has never been found.

The final two Japanese defenders surrendered 4 years after the battle. In January of 1949 two Japanese soldiers surrendered themselves to the occupying US Army garrison on Iwo. They had hidden in the 11 miles of tunnels and bunkers under Iwo, successfully raiding the Army supplies for food and water at night. They had found a Stars and Stripes newspaper which showed pictures of GIs celebrating New Year's Eve in downtown Tokyo, 1948-49, and knew Japan had lost the war. They reported in full uniforms, well fed, and surrendered clean, fully-functional weapons.

Iwo Jima stands as an icon for every Marine who has earned the Eagle, Globe and Anchor since 1945. The men who fought there are true heroes to our nation and our Corps.
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