Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest of the island-hopping battles carried out in the Pacific toward the end of WWII. The island was defended by a very well dug-in and fanatical Japanese resistance, and the Marines had to fight like hell for every square inch of the island. It would take them five long and bloody weeks, from February 19 to March 26, 1945, to finally take the island.
The Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions and the Army’s 147th Infantry Division went ashore over the first few days, and, by the end of the battle, they would suffer 6,821 KIA. Two were captured but later recovered, and 19,217 were WIA. One U.S. escort carrier was sunk, and one fleet carrier was severely damaged, along with 1 other escort carrier. They also lost 137 tanks over those five weeks. The Japanese lost 18,375 KIA and missing. Only 216 were taken prisoner, and 3,000 were in hiding at the end of the battle.
It was on the fifth day of the battle that two small patrols from two rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, were sent up the dormant volcano heap to reconnoiter routes up the mountain. They scrambled to the top and back down again, reporting to the commander of the 28th Marines, Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson.
A larger patrol was sent up again, which encountered only a few Japanese defenders; the rest remained in their complex tunnel systems inside the mountain. On the top, they were attacked on and off by small groups of Japanese soldiers, who were all subsequently killed.
Johnson ordered another platoon-sized patrol from E Company to seize and occupy the heights. The platoon leader, 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, was handed the battalion’s American flag to be raised on top of Suribachi to signal its capture. The patrol expected a fight but only encountered some sniper fire on the way up. When they took the top, they found a water pipe left by the Japanese, attached the flag to it, and planted it on top of the mountain. It was the first American flag to fly over Japanese soil.
After five days of horrendous fighting, the morale was briefly lifted for the Marines down below, who could look up and see the Stars and Bars flying over that highest point on the island. I say briefly because there were still weeks of bloody, inch-by-inch fighting ahead of them.
This was not the flag-raising that has become iconic to the nation and that is memorialized at the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, near the Arlington National Cemetery. To make a long story short, the first flag was smaller. The Secretary of the Navy had just landed on the island at the foot of Mt. Suribachi and decided he wanted the original flag as a souvenir.
Col. Johnson, the battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Marines, believed the flag belonged to the battalion that had taken the top of Mt. Suribachi. He sent a runner, Pfc. Rene Gagnon, to take a larger flag up to the top of the mountain to replace the smaller one. The smaller original flag was taken to the battalion headquarters. It was during the second raising of the larger flag that Joseph Rosenthal, a famous photographer, took the iconic photo that we all know.
Three of the Marines depicted in that iconic photograph would be KIA days after the flag-raising: Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, and Pfc. Franklin Sousley.
February 23, 2021, marks the 76th anniversary of that moment in WWII history. We remember that moment and all of the Marines and Army troops who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. We remember all those who fell in that struggle to defeat the Japanese Imperialist aggression in the Pacific. We salute those who came home and got educated under the GI Bill, worked hard, and raised families for the rest of their lives, creating the largest economic boom in history for the nation. We honor those very few who may still be with us today. This moment in history stands high up in the annals of Marine Corps history. Semper Fidelis, Marines! Oorah!