“Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” — U.S. Navy Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, March 16, 1945
In February 1945 approximately 20,000 of the fiercest Japanese warriors were burrowed underground on Iwo Jima island awaiting their enemy. At the same time more than 70,000 equally intense, possibly more determined American warriors were headed towards that same island, a mere dot on a map. Undoubtedly, the memory of Pearl Harbor crossed many Marine and Sailors’ minds as more than 450 ships bore down on the island. What was about to take place was a 36-day test of grit, determination, strength, strategic planning, military power, and, most of all, the human spirit. As history shows, the American spirit prevailed.
Iwo Jima – The Island
The island itself was of no real importance. According to the U. S. Marine Corp, Iwo Jima is an 8-square mile volcanic island known only for its sulfur deposits. They indicated that as an island, it was worthless. The only value it had was its strategic location to mainland Japan. If the U.S. occupied the island, they could perform long-range bombing missions and have an emergency landing strip for crippled B-29’s. The strategy was that with Iwo Jima in U. S. control, Japan’s naval and air capabilities could be severely disabled or destroyed.
To the Japanese Iwo Jima was of vital strategic importance as well. They knew that if they lost this island the Americans and their allies would move on to Okinawa, the last line of defense before mainland Japan. As such, they were prepared to defend Iwo Jima with all they had, including their lives. And they did.
D-Day. The day that, if the marine is not seasick, he is likely pondering how to survive the coming battle. February 19, 1945 was D-day for the battle of Iwo-Jima. The beach sand and volcanic ash did not allow for easy transport for military vehicles. The Japanese emerged from underground for a short time to launch an attack against the invaders. The fight was on.
According to Naval history, the fight for Iwo Jima lasted a total of 36 days over challenging volcanic terrain against a very formidable Japanese foe. “Historians described U.S. forces’ attack against the Japanese defense as ‘throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.’” (1) The fighting was very intense. It took not only the enduring determination, grit, and spirit of the Marines but also the superior level of support by the Navy and Army to gain the ground needed and ultimately win the day.
The numbers of those involved in the battle and the casualties vary in different sources I have researched or read. In the end, there were approximately 26,000 U.S. casualties, of which about 19,200 were wounded and 6,800 killed. Out of the nearly 20,000 Japanese defenders, there were less than 1,100 survivors.
Raising of the Flag
On February 23, 1945, the 5th day of heavy fighting, a patrol of marines proceeded to climb Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. The intent was to take control of it and the crater at its peak. Upon reaching the top, a few men hoisted an American flag on a steel pipe. This was a symbol of victory and strength for the men fighting below. The reaction from the thousands fighting at the base of the Mount was incredible according to one of the first flag raisers, Cpl. Charles Lindberg. He indicated they cheered, blew their horns, and even openly wept.
This flag, however, was not very large and could not be seen from a long distance. Battalion commander Colonel Johnson sent Second Lieutenant Albert T Tuttle, Assistant Operations Officer, 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, back to get a flag that would be big enough to be seen from all ends of the island when raised.
A couple of hours later, six men raised this second, larger flag using a water pipe they found. This was the event captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal that would become the photograph so dear to the American people and symbolize our values.
The second, larger flag accomplished the desired goal of being seen by all on the island, edge to edge. My grandfather was on a Navy ship just off the coast and, although he did have to use binoculars at that distance, he mentioned how he was able to see the flag flying steadfastly on Mount Suribachi.
The Flag Raisers
Of the six men who had raised the second flag on February 23rd, three of them were killed in action and three returned from the war. Rene Gagnon was the first to come back from the war and, thus, responsible for identifying those in the photograph. At first, he refused to identify Ira Hayes because of a promise he had made to Ira. Ira Hayes did not want to be named. He struggled with survivor’s guilt and the friends he lost in the war. He felt those who died were the real heroes. Rene Gagnon did identify the others and, under pressure, eventually identified Ira Hayes. Over the years it had been discovered that two of those named initially were misidentified. These misidentifications have been corrected.
According to a statement from the Pentagon on June 23, 2016, the correct names of the flag raisers are as follows: Sergeant Michael Strank (KIA), Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley (KIA), Corporal Harlon Block (KIA), Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon (Survived), Private First Class Ira H. Hayes (Survived), Private First Class Harold Schultz (Survived).
The casualties of the battle were not just those who died at Iwo Jima. The victims also included those left to continue fighting the internal conflicts for the remainder of their lives. Men like Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and Harold Schultz were left alone to fight whatever demons that continued to haunt them in their minds. Ira succumbed to death within just ten years of that photograph at the age of 32. Today, thankfully, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been identified as a diagnosis and servicemen and women are not left to suffer alone.
Marine Corp War Memorial
Sculptor Felix de Weldon was immediately inspired when he saw the photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. He worked with architect Horace W. Peaslee to design a memorial based on it. They met and overcame the obstacles that got in their way. It took nine and a half years and $850,000 of private donations to complete the memorial. It was dedicated on November 10, 1954, the 179th anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps.
Some highlights of the memorial include:
- The statue is a physical representation of the photograph of the six men raising the flag on Mount Suribachi;
- Its base includes the names and dates of every Marine campaign since its founding;
- The east side of the base contains the dedication to the honor and memory of those marines who have perished in the service of their country since 1775;
- The west side of the base displays the words of Admiral Nimitz, “Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue,” along with the Marine Corp motto “Semper Fidelis;”
- Also included on the west side of the base are the names of the sculptor, Felix de Weldon, and the photographer, Joseph Rosenthal.
Felix de Weldon’s vision of the memorial was more than just a statue. It was full of symbolism, vision, and hope. It was profound gratitude for those who so willingly sacrificed all in defense of freedom and maintenance of peace. It was a symbol of not only the bravery of the Armed Forces but also our relentless determination to defend the fundamental rights and dignity of man against those who would deny them.
Visiting the Marine Corp War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial)
The Marine Corp War Memorial is in Arlington, Virginia directly north of the Arlington National Cemetery and just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It has a beautiful panoramic view Washington, D.C. including the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and more. Visitors can access memorial grounds from 6 a.m. until midnight.
During the summer the US Marine Corps holds one-hour Sunset Parades on Tuesday evenings. Due to renovations currently underway, these parades will be held at the Lincoln Memorial for the 2019 season. Please see the U.S. Marine Corp website for details.
Accessing the Memorial
The memorial can be accessed by car by either VA-110 South or US-50 East/West, depending on the direction from which you are coming. Online maps typically recognize “Marine Corp War Memorial, Arlington VA,” which is how I have looked it up. Parking is available onsite (NOTE: Verify parking for Tuesday nights when the “Sunset Parades” are occurring).
It is also within a drivable distance to many other inspiring places including the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, U.S. Capitol, Mount Vernon, and more.
There is a Metro stop at either Rosslyn or Arlington National Cemetery Metro station, each being about a 10-15 minute walk to the memorial.
- (1) Naval History and Heritage Command (10/10/2017). Battle for Iwo Jima, 1945. Retrieved 6/28/2019 from https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/b/battle-for-iwo-jima.html
- United States Marine Corps (6/23/2019). USMC Statement on IWO Jima Flag Raisers. Retrieved 6/28/2019 from https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/810457/usmc-statement-on-iwo-jima-flagraisers/
- U.S. Marine Corp History and Museum Division. Crawford, Danny J. and Nalty, Bernard C. (1995). The United States Marines on Iwo Jima, the Battle and the Flag Raisings. Retrieved 6/28/2019 from https://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/