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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Flag Raisings On Iwo Jima, February 23, 2006

Today in 1945, five US Marines and one US Navy corpsman raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. This did not signify the end of the battle for the heavily defended island, but the moment would forever be associated with the valor and sacrifice that took place there.

Iwo Jima is located less than 700 miles south of Tokyo. It is only eight square miles in area, but the island’s location made it a prized possession during the Second World War. For the Japanese, Iwo Jima served as an early warning station. B-29s on their was to the Home Islands would often fly close enough to the tiny place so as to allow the radio operators there to warn their counterparts at home.

Iwo Jima also served as one of the islands that the Japanese had designated as part of a defensive perimeter. Thus, the commander of the island’s garrison was told that he was to defend Iwo to the last man. By the time of the invasion, there almost 23,000 army and navy personnel stationed on the island.

For the United States, a captured Iwo Jima would serve two main purposes. First, it could be used as a base for fighter aircraft to provide even more cover for Army Air Force bombers. Second, the islands three airfields could be used as emergency landing strips for damaged B-29s.

The heavy cruisers and battleships of the US Navy and fighter-bombers from aircraft carriers in the area pounded the island for three days. The first Marines went ashore at 8:30AM, February 19th. The force took heavy fire from Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the mostly flat and featureless island. But the Marines pushed southward and by the time the sun went down that first day, the Mount was surrounded and a little less than half of the eventual invasion force of 70,000 men had come ashore.

The fight for Mount Suribachi was hellish. The Japanese had created an extensive tunnel system inside and under the height, meaning that small arms fire was essentially useless. Instead, flamethrowers and hand grenades had to be used in great numbers in order to be effective. It took four days to reach the top of the rise.

Two flags were planted on top of Suribachi on February 23rd. The first was a small flag raised by another group of Marines. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who was on the scene and went ashore the morning of the flag raisings, said that he wanted the small flag for himself. His wish was granted, but some of the senior Marine commanders present were more than a little angry about it. A Colonel named Chandler Johnson ordered one of his junior officers to secure another, larger flag to be raised atop the mount. The larger flag was secured to a long length of pipe since a proper pole could not be found.
As the second group made their way to the top, they were joined by Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer. The picture we have today of the event was captured by him and won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945. The event was also captured on film.

Of the six men who helped raise the second flag that day, only three survived the battle, which lasted until March 26th. The US lost nearly 7,000 men in the battle and 26,000 were wounded. Over 25% of the Medals of Honor given to US Marines during the Second World War were awarded for actions on Iwo Jima.

Of the nearly 23,000 Japanese defenders, only 200 survived.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, when writing about the invasion, said, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

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