CLOSING IN: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander
U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
The morning of the third day, D+2, seemed to promise
more of the same frustrations. Marines shivered in the cold wind and
rain; Admiral Hill twice had to close the beach due to high surf and
dangerous undertows. But during one of the grace periods, the 3d
Division's 21st Marines managed to come ashore, all of it extremely glad
to be free of the heaving small boats. General Schmidt assigned it to
the 4th Marine Division at first.
The 28th Marines resumed its assault on the base of
Suribachi, more slow, bloody fighting, seemingly boulder by boulder. On
the west coast, the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, made the most of field
artillery and naval gunfire support to reach the shoulder of the
mountain. Elsewhere, murderous Japanese fire restricted any progress to
a matter of yards. Enemy mortar fire from all over the volcano rained
down on the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, trying to advance along the
eastern shore. Recalled rifleman Richard Wheeler of the experience, "It
was terrible, the worst I can remember us taking. The Jap mortarmen
seemed to be playing checkers and using us as squares. The Marines used
Weasels, handy little tracked vehicles making their first field
appearance in this battle, to hustle forward flame-thrower canisters and
evacuate some of the many wounded.
That night the amphibious task force experienced the
only significant air attack of the battle. Fifty kamikaze pilots
from the 22d Mitate Special Attack Unit left Katori Airbase near
Yokosuka and flung themselves against the ships on the outer perimeter
of Iwo Jima. In desperate action that would serve as a prelude to
Okinawa's fiery engagements, the kamikazes sank the escort
carrier Bismarck Sea with heavy loss of life and damaged several
other ships, including the veteran Saratoga, finally knocked out
of the war. All 50 Japanese planes were expended.
It rained even harder on the fourth morning, D+3.
Marines scampering forward under fire would hit the deck, roll, attempt
to return fireonly to discover that the loose volcanic grit had
combined with the rain to jam their weapons. The 21st Marines, as the
vanguard of the 3d Marine Division, hoped for good fortune in its
initial commitment after relieving the 23d Marines. The regiment instead
ran headlong into an intricate series of Japanese emplacements which
marked the southeastern end of the main Japanese defenses. The newcomers
fought hard all day to scratch and claw an advance of 200 net yards.
Casualties were disproportionate.
On the right flank, Lieutenant Colonel Chambers
continued to rally the 3d Battalion, 25th Marines, through the rough
pinnacles above the Rock Quarry. As he strode about directing the
advance of his decimated companies that afternoon, a Japanese gunner
shot him through the chest. Chambers went down hard, thinking it was all
Flamethrower teams look like futuristic fighters as they
leave their assembly area heading for the frontlines. The casualty rate
for flamethrower operators was high, since they were prime targets for
Japanese fire because of the profile they had with the flamethrowers
strapped to their backs. When they fell, others took their
places. Colonel William P. McCahill Collection
I started fading in and out. II don't remember too
much about it except the frothy blood gushing out of my mouth . . . .
Then somebody started kicking the hell out of my feet. It was [Captain
James] Headley saying, "Get up, you were hurt worse on Tulagi!"
the attack of the 28th Marines on the dominating height, a 37mm guncrew
fires at caves at the foot of Suribachi suspected of holding Japanese
gun positions. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110139
Captain Headley knew Chambers' sucking chest wound
portended a grave injury; he sought to reduce his commander's shock
until they could get him out of the line of fire. This took doing.
Lieutenant Michael F. Keleher, USNR, now the battalion surgeon, crawled
forward with one of his corpsmen. Willing hands lifted Chambers on a
stretcher. Keleher and several others, bent double against the fire,
carried him down the cliffs to the aid station and eventually on board a
DUKW making the evening's last run out to the hospital ships. All three
battalion commanders in the 25th Marines had now become casualties.
Chambers would survive to receive the Medal of Honor; Captain Headley
would command the shot-up 3d Battalion, 25th Marines, for the duration
of the battle.
the time of the landing on Iwo Jima, attacking Marines seemed to be
moving uphill constantly. This scene is located between Purple Beach and
Airfield No. 2. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 110177
lone Marine covers the left flank of a patrol as it works its way up the
slopes of Mount Suribachi. It was from this vantage point on the
enemy-held height that Japanese gunners and observers had a clear view
of the landing beaches. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A419744
By contrast, the 28th Marines on D+3 made commendable
progress against Suribachi, reaching the shoulder at all points. Late in
the day combat patrols from the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, and the 2d
Battalion, 28th Marines, linked up at Tobiishi Point at the southern tip
of the island. Recon patrols returned to tell Lieutenant Colonel Johnson
that they found few signs of live Japanese along the mountain's upper
slopes on the northside.
Rosenthal's Photograph of Iwo Jima Flag-Raising Quickly Became
One of the War's Most Famous
The six men who participated in the second or "famous" flagraising on
Mount Suribachi were Marines, joined by a medical corpsman. They were
Sgt Michael Strank; Pharmacist's Mate 2/c John H. Bradley, USN; Cpl
Harlon H. Block; and PFCs Ira H. Hayes, Franklin R. Sousley, and Rene A.
Gagnon. AP photographer Joe Rosenthal recalls stumbling on the picture
accidentally: "I swung my camera around and held it until I could guess
that this was the peak of the action, and shot . . . . Had I posed that
shot, I would, of course, have ruined it . . . . I would have also made
them turn their heads so that they could be identified . . . and nothing
like the existing picture would have resulted."
There were two flags raised over Mount Suribachi on
Iwo Jima, but not at the same time. Despite the beliefs of many, and
contrary to the supposed evidence, none of the photographs of the two
flag-raisings was posed. To begin with, early on the morning of 23
February 1945, four days after the initial landings, Captain Dave E.
Severance, the commander of Company E, 2d Battalion, 28th Marines,
ordered Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier to take a patrol and an American
flag to the top of Suribachi. Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a
Leatherneck magazine photographer, accompanied the patrol. After
a short fire fight, the 54"-by-28" flag was attached to a long piece of
pipe, found at the crest of the mountain, and raised. This is the
flag-raising which Lowery photographed. As the flag was thought to be
too small to be seen from the beach below, another Marine from the
battalion went on board LST 779 to obtain a larger flag. A second
patrol then took this flag up to Suribachi's top and Joe Rosenthal, an
Associated Press photographer, who had just come ashore, accompanied
As Rosenthal noted in his oral history interview, ".
. . my stumbling on that picture was, in all respects, accidental." When
he got to the top of the mountain, he stood in a decline just below the
crest of the hill with Marine Sergeant William Genaust, a movie
cameraman who was killed later in the campaign, watching while a group
of five Marines and a Navy corpsman fastened the new flag to another
piece of pipe. Rosenthal said that he turned from Genaust and out of the
corner of his eye saw the second flag being raised. He said, "Hey, Bill.
There it goes." He continued: "I swung my camera around and held it
until I could guess that this was the peak of the action, and shot."
Some people learned that Rosenthal's photograph was
of a second flag-raising and made the accusation that it was posed. Joe
Rosenthal: "Had I posed that shot, I would, of course, have ruined it .
. . . I would have also made them turn their heads so that they could be
identified for [Associated Press] members throughout the country, and
nothing like the existing picture would have resulted."
Later in the interview, he said: "This picture, what
it means to meand it has a meaning to methat has to be
peculiar only to me . . . I see all that blood running down the sand. I
see those awful, impossible positions to take in a frontal attack on
such an island, where the batteries opposing you are not only staggered
up in front of you, but also standing around at the sides as you're
coming on shore. The awesome situation, before they ever reach that
peak. Now, that a photograph can serve to remind us of the contribution
of those boysthat was what made it important, not who took
Rosenthal took 18 photographs that day, went down to
the beach to write captions for his undeveloped film packs, and, as the
other photographers on the island, sent his films out to the command
vessel offshore. From there they were flown to Guam, where the
headquarters of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific
Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, was situated, and where
the photos were processed and censored. Rosenthal's pictures arrived at
Guam before Lowery's, were processed, sent to the States for
distribution, and his flag-raising picture became one of the most famous
photographs ever taken in the war, or in any war.Benis M.
At sundown Admiral Spruance authorized Task Force 58
to strike Honshu and Okinawa, then retire to Ulithi to prepare for the
Ryukyuan campaign. All eight Marine Corps fighter squadrons thus left
the Iwo Jima area for good. Navy pilots flying off the 10 remaining
escort carriers would pick up the slack. Without slighting the skill and
valor of these pilots, the quality of close air support to the troops
fighting ashore dropped off after this date. The escort carriers, for
one thing, had too many competing missions, namely combat air patrols,
antisubmarine sweeps, searches for downed aviators, harassing strikes
against neighboring Chichi Jima. Marines on Iwo Jima complained of slow
response time to air support requests, light payloads (rarely greater
than 100-pound bombs), and high delivery altitudes (rarely below 1,500
feet). The Navy pilots did deliver a number of napalm bombs. Many of
these failed to detonate, although this was not the fault of the
aviators; the early napalm "bombs" were simply old wing-tanks filled
with the mixture, activated by unreliable detonators. The Marines also
grew concerned about these notoriously inaccurate area weapons being
dropped from high altitudes.
By Friday, 23 February (D+4), the 28th Marines stood
poised to complete the capture of Mount Suribachi. The honor went to the
3d Platoon (reinforced), Company E, 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, under
the command of First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, the company executive
officer. Lieutenant Colonel Johnson ordered Schrier to scale the summit,
secure the crater, and raise a 54"x28" American flag for all to see.
Schrier led his 40-man patrol forward at 0800. The regiment had done its
job, blasting the dozens of pillboxes with flame and demolitions,
rooting out snipers, knocking out the masked batteries. The
combined-arms pounding by planes, field pieces, and naval guns the past
week had likewise taken its toll on the defenders. Those who remained
popped out of holes and caves to resist Schrier's advance only to be cut
down. The Marines worked warily up the steep northern slope, sometimes
resorting to crawling on hands and knees.
Part of the enduring drama of the Suribachi
flag-raising was the fact that it was observed by so many people.
Marines all over the island could track the progress of the tiny column
of troops during its ascent ("those guys oughta be getting flight pay,
said one wag). Likewise, hundreds of binoculars from the ships offshore
watched Schrier's Marines climbing ever upward. Finally they reached the
top and momentarily disappeared from view. Those closest to the volcano
could hear distant gunfire. Then, at 1020, there was movement on the
summit; suddenly the Stars and Stripes fluttered bravely.
Lusty cheers rang out from all over the southern end
of the island. The ships sounded their sirens and whistles. Wounded men
propped themselves up on their litters to glimpse the sight. Strong men
wept unashamedly. Navy Secretary Forrestal, thrilled by the sight,
turned to Holland Smith and said, "the raising of that flag means a
Marine Corps for another five hundred years."
Three hours later an even larger flag went up to more
cheers. Few would know that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal
had just captured the embodiment of the American warfighting spirit on
film. Leatherneck magazine photographer Staff Sergeant Lou Lowery
had taken a picture of the first flag-raising and almost immediately got
in a firefight with a couple of enraged Japanese. His photograph would
become a valued collector's item. But Rosenthal's would enthrall the
Captain Thomas M. Fields, commanding officer of
Company D, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, heard his men yell "Look up
there!" and turned in time to see the first flag go up. His first
thought dealt with the battle still at hand: "Thank God the Japs won't
be shooting us down from behind any more." Meanwhile, the 14th Marines
rushed their echo and flash-ranging equipment up to the summit. The
landing force sorely needed enhanced counterbattery fire against
Kuribayashi's big guns to the north.
The Marines who raised the first flag were Lieutenant
Schrier; Platoon Sergeant Ernest T. Thomas, Jr.; Sergeant Henry O.
Hansen; Corporal Charles W. Lindberg; and Privates First Class Louis C.
Charlo and James Michels. The six men immortalized by Joe Rosenthal's
photograph of the second flag-raising were Sergeant Michael Strank,
Pharmacist's Mate 2/c John H. Bradley, Corporal Harlon H. Block, and
Privates First Class Ira H. Hayes, Franklin R. Sousley, and Rene A.
The 28th Marines took Suribachi in three days at the
cost of more than 500 troops (added to its D-day losses of 400 men).
Colonel Liversedge began to reorient his regiment for operations in the
opposite direction, northward. Unknown to all, the battle still had
another month to run its bloody course.