Military history

CHAPTER 4

THE FLAG FLIES AT SURIBACHI

By nightfall, the Marines had taken a beachhead 4,000 yards wide from south to north. On the left, where the island had been crossed by men of the 5th Division, the beachhead was 1,000 yards deep. On the right it was only 400 yards deep, or the length of four football fields.

It was an area not half as big as the average Midwestern farm, but it had been seized at a cost of 2,420 killed and wounded Americans. Within the beachhead the carnage was frightful. The sickening stench of death hovered everywhere. Bodies were lying all over. Sometimes the only distinguishing mark between the fallen of both nations was the puttee-tapes on the legs of the Japanese or the yellowish leggings of the Americans. Many of the Japanese dead were naked. Their uniforms had been blasted off them.

Along the beaches the casualties were piling up. Marines coming back for supplies usually brought wounded men with them. They either carried them on stretchers or slung them in ponchos or just helped them hobble to the medical aid stations. Even at the aid stations, the wounded were far from safe. Shells struck these stations repeatedly. On one beach alone, two medical sections, each consisting of a doctor and eight corpsmen, were wiped out. Surgery had to be improvised inside captured Japanese positions. Surgeons smeared with blood worked feverishly through the night, pausing only to smoke or to stretch their aching muscles.

Everyone was cold. Iwo Jima is in the North Pacific and the month was February. Men recently accustomed to tropic heat shivered in temperatures that dropped to 60 degrees. Many wore windbreakers, but their teeth still chattered as they lay on Iwo’s cooling sands, bracing for the enemy counterattack they had been told was sure to come. But there was no banzai charge. General Kuribayashi did not intend to break his own back with such wasteful tactics. Instead, he kept striking at the invaders with artillery. That was far more effective than any wild suicide rush. All through the night Marines were killed or wounded under steady, relentless Japanese artillery fire. It came blasting into the beachhead from both Suribachi and the northern beachhead. Rockets were also fired, passing overhead with their insane blubber and showers of sparks, rocking the beachhead when they landed. Worst of all was the fire from Suribachi, where the Japanese still looked down the Americans’ throats. On the morning of February 20, the Marines on the left flank turned south to attack the volcano.

Colonel Harry Liversedge, a tall, gaunt man known as “Harry the Horse,” commanded the 28th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division. The 28th was the outfit assigned to attack Suribachi. Before Harry the Horse and his Marines attacked, Navy and Marine aircraft struck at the volcano. They came roaring in low from the west to hit Suribachi’s slopes and base with bombs, rockets and bullets. Tanks of napalm, or jellied gasoline, flashed in great leaping eruptions of flame. Offshore, American warships bombarded the volcano from both flanks. On land, American artillery began to bay with iron voices. Such a thunderous onslaught could not fail to knock out enemy positions. But not enough of them collapsed. The moment the Marines began to advance, they began to suffer casualties. Once again, it was a matter of valor. The Marines had to slog ahead on foot with dynamite and flame throwers, and their net advance for the day was 200 yards.

That night Colonel Kanehiko Atsuchi, the commander of Suribachi, sent up flares to light the American lines for Japanese artillery fire from the north. It came whistling down, and the 28th Marines passed a night nearly as bad as the day. Thus, a dreadful alternating rhythm had begun on Iwo Jima. Every 24 hours was divided into an inferno of combat by day and a huddled cold hell of enemy shellfire by night. Each morning the Marines prayed that they would live to see the dusk; yet the moment darkness set in, they asked God for the dawn. So with daylight of February 22, they resumed the ordeal of assault.

Harry the Horse’s regiment was now fully committed, attacking with three battalions abreast. As it did, a drizzling rain began to fall. Soon it was pouring. Suribachi’s ashes became a sticky gray paste. It clung to the Marines’ clothing and built platforms of mud under the soles of their shoes. It fouled their rifle breeches. To eject empty cartridges the Marines had to work the bolts by hand, thus slowing their rate of fire. Drenched, mud-smeared, steadily losing men, Liversedge’s regiment punched down-island to the very base of Suribachi.

They fought all the way. Corporal Dan McCarthy alone shot 20 Japanese. Sergeant Savage, the Marine who had helped Tony Stein knock out pillboxes on D day, killed seven more. Another Marine jumped into a blockhouse and killed its ten occupants before he was himself killed. Still another was rushed by a saber-swinging enemy officer. Seizing the blade with his bare hands, the Marine wrenched it away. Then, with dripping hands, he used the sword to kill the officer. Bunker after bunker was falling. But the Japanese fought back fiercely. Tony Stein was wounded and had to go to the rear.

On the east coast the platoon led by Lieutenant Wells came to an empty enemy pillbox. Sergeant Henry Hansen and Private First Class Donald Ruhl rushed to the top of the position and began exchanging shots with enemy soldiers in a network of trenches behind it. Suddenly, a demolition charge sailed through the air. It landed in front of Hansen and Ruhl.

“Look out, Hank!” Ruhl shouted, and hurled himself on top of the charge to absorb its full blast. The concussion staggered Hansen, spattering him with bits of flesh and blood, and killed Donald Ruhl. This gallant young American had sacrificed his life to save his sergeant.

That was how the Marines fought in the Pacific, and especially on Iwo Jima. Again and again brave young men flung themselves on enemy charges or grenades to save their comrades. They did it instantly, almost without reflection, for they had trained themselves to make the response automatically. With such men, the Marines were unstoppable; and by nightfall the 28th Regiment had battled down to the base of Suribachi and all but surrounded it.

By dusk, it was obvious that the Japanese on Suribachi were about ready to crack. Marines could see enemy soldiers leaping to their death from the lip of the crater. This was the Japanese way. To them committing suicide was an honorable end. They were sworn to fight to the death anyway. To die fighting for the divine emperor was the noblest possible end. It meant that their souls would live eternally in Yasakuni Shrine, a mythical hero’s heaven similar to the Valhalla of the Norsemen.

Sometimes, though, the Japanese soldiers were in something of a hurry to enter Yasakuni. They had been taught that the Marines were brutal and cruel men who would torture them if they were taken alive. Also, to be taken prisoner was considered disgraceful. Japanese soldiers taken captive against their will or while they were unconscious often pleaded for knives to kill themselves, because, as they explained, they could no longer face their families.

Therefore, whenever the battle began to go against the Japanese, their soldiers began to commit suicide either in order to escape torture or to avoid capture. That certainly did not help the Japanese commander, especially one like Kuribayashi, who had ordered his men “to defend Iwo Jima to the bitter end.” It was helpful to the Marines, though.

That night Colonel Liversedge looked grimly at the crater looming darkly above him and said to his officers:

“At dawn we start climbing.”

At dawn of February 23, the Americans went up to the top of Suribachi with surprising ease. A patrol consisting of Sergeant Sherman Watson and Privates First Class Ted White, George Mercer and Louis Charlo climbed to the summit without seeing a single enemy soldier. Unknown to them, the surviving Japanese were sitting silently within their caves and caverns.

The patrol returned and reported that the summit of the volcano was undefended. Hearing this, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson decided to capture it. Colonel Johnson was a stern, pudgy man who impressed his men by roaming the battlefield in full view of the enemy. He didn’t wear a helmet and his only weapon was a pistol stuck carelessly in his back pocket. On this momentous Friday morning, Colonel Johnson quickly rounded up a 40-man platoon. Most of the Marines in it had been in Lieutenant Wells’s platoon. But Wells had been wounded, and now Lieutenant Harold Schrier was in charge.

“If you reach the top,” Johnson said to Schrier, “secure and hold it.” He handed the lieutenant a square of colored cloth. “And take this along,” he said. The cloth was an American flag. It had been brought ashore from the transport Missoula.

Schrier’s men began to climb the northern, or inner, slope of Suribachi. Below them, word spread quickly that an attempt was being made to take the high ground that had been such a cruel thorn in the Americans’ side. Many Marines paused to watch the patrol’s wary ascent. Many men of the invasion fleet were also watching through binoculars.

Tension seemed to mount with each step of that halting ascent. Climbing gingerly, Schrier’s men picked their way through the debris of wrecked enemy positions. They could hear the sounds of battle behind them, but up on Suribachi there was only an eerie silence. A half hour after they began to climb, they reached the rim of the crater. They halted. Still silence. Schrier looked around. He could see a few battered enemy emplacements and a few cave entrances. But no Japanese. Silently the lieutenant motioned his men over the rim.

One by one they filed into the crater, fanning out to take up positions just inside it. Still silence…. One of the Marines tried to provoke the enemy with an insulting gesture. But there was no response. Then, suddenly, a Japanese soldier began climbing out of a deep hole. Corporal Harold Keller fired three times from the hip and the Japanese soldier dropped out of sight. Then hand grenades came flying out of nearby caves. The Marines took cover in the shadows and replied with grenades of their own.

While they did, Corporal Robert Leader and Private First Class Leo Rozek found a flagpole. It was a length of pipe, apparently the remains of a rain-catching system. The flag was affixed to the pipe, which was jammed between rocks, and then Schrier, with Sergeants Henry Hansen and Ernest Thomas, Corporal Charles Lindberg and Private First Class James Michels, raised Old Glory over Iwo Jima. The event was photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery while Private First Class James Robeson, who refused to get in the picture, stood guard and jeered, “Hollywood Marines!” Thus, at ten-thirty in the morning of February 23, 1945, the Stars and Stripes were flung to the winds whipping over Suribachi.

“There goes the flag!” cried jubilant Marines below. Cheers rose all over the northern end of the island. Some Marines wept in their foxholes. Out on the water the ships of the fleet tootled their whistles in salute. Hospital ships broadcast the news that Suribachi had fallen. For the first time in the war, Japanese soil had been captured by Americans. And when that thrilling small speck of red-white-and-blue broke into view above the gaunt crest of the volcano, even Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was at hand to see it.

The Secretary had insisted upon coming ashore from the flagship, Eldorado. He was standing beside General Holland M. Smith when he saw the symbol of Suribachi’s fall. He turned to the general to say: “Holland, the raising of that flag means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”

On the summit itself, the Japanese had begun to challenge that flag. A rifleman stepped out of a cave and fired at Robeson, who shot him dead with a long burst from his BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). Then an enemy officer charged out, brandishing a broken sword. A volley of rifle fire tumbled him into the crater. Moving swiftly, the Marines used flame throwers and demolition charges to seal off the summit’s caves. Soon other platoons joined them to help mop up the crater.

At the volcano’s base, Colonel Johnson became concerned for his now-famous flag. As he well knew, United States Marines are notorious souvenir hunters. “Some son of a gun is going to want that flag,” he said to his adjutant, “but he’s not going to get it. That’s our flag. Better find another one and get it up there, and bring back ours.”

So a runner went looking for a flag. He found a fairly new one, nearly twice as large, aboard Landing Ship 779. As he brought it back to Suribachi, he was accompanied by an Associated Press photographer named Joe Rosenthal.

Rosenthal came panting to the summit of Suribachi in time to photograph the second flag raising. Heaping stones to achieve height, the diminutive Rosenthal hopped up on the pile to take the most famous picture of World War Two. By coincidence, by accident and in haste, he had made the greatest battle photograph of American arms.

Six men helped to put up the second flag. They were: Privates First Class Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley and Rene Gagnon, Sergeant Michael Strank, Corpsman John Bradley and Corporal Harlon Block. Three of them—Strank, Block and Sousley—were later killed. Bradley was wounded. And of the men who put up the first flag, Sergeants Hansen and Thomas and Private First Class Charlo eventually died on Iwo. Robeson and Michels were wounded.

Thus, five days after the Marines had landed, through valor, sacrifice and in suffering, the United States flag came to fly at Iwo Jima.

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