IWO JIMA : Survivors of Marine Corps' Most Famous Flag Raisings Recall Battle

Times Staff Writer

Six war-weary Marines, their backs to the photographer, struggled to plant an American flag amid gunfire, artillery fire and the rubble of war.

Forty years after Associated Press cameraman Joe Rosenthal snapped his renowned picture on Feb. 23, 1945, the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima remains the most famous symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps--and perhaps of American servicemen in battle anywhere. The Corps receives more correspondence about the bloody Pacific Island battle with the Japanese than on any other event in its 209-year existence.

Yet few people know that the flag raising made famous was actually the second on the island and that photos, though far less dramatic, also exist of the first. Few know that both raisings, at the time, were only momentarily noted by Marines fighting for survival in a bitter five-week battle for an island of volcanic rock less than nine square miles in size. Only after Rosenthal's picture was published back in the United States did fame and controversy ensue.

Some Marines even today argue that the memory of the first flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi, the island's extinct volcano, has been slighted because of Rosenthal's picture. The Marine Corps itself commemorates the raisings equally in official histories, but downplays the heroism angle of both events. It says that the most valiant fighting came in the month following Suribachi's capture, when the Corps suffered most of its 23,200 casualties, including 5,931 killed--the highest battle casualty count in Marine history.

To the Corps, the flags were simple morale boosters similar to other, unrecorded events throughout the Pacific during World War II.

Delayed Reaction

But at Iwo Jima there was the picture.

"We got back to Hawaii when the campaign was over, turned on the radio, and heard some song, 'When the Yanks raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima Isle,' " Dave Severance, then a Marine Corps captain, recalled. "We looked at each other, said, 'What the hell is that all about?' and then realized how famous the raising had become."

Severance, now a retired Marine colonel in La Jolla, commanded the company whose men placed the flags on Suribachi. But Severance did not see either one go up. "I was too busy; there was a lot of action going on."

Three Marine divisions invaded Iwo Jima, only 660 miles from Tokyo, on Feb. 19, 1945, to capture the island as an air base for American long-range bombers. Severance's Company E was part of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Marines (regiment) assigned to take the 550-foot-high Suribachi, which dominated the landing beaches only several hundred yards to the west. In three days of hard fighting, the regiment secured much of the volcano's base, but only after the Marines took more than 900 casualties from mortar and sniper fire coming off the mountain.

On the morning of the fourth day, battalion commander Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson ordered a 40-man patrol from Company E to reconnoiter the mountain. The patrol leader, Lt. Harold G. Schrier, was handed a small, 28-inch-by-54-inch flag to carry and place on the summit if he reached it safely.

"I gave the flag to Schrier just as they began the ascent," recalled George Greeley Wells, then serving as adjutant aide to Johnson. Wells, now a New York executive for a map company, had brought the flag from the troop ship Missoula as a result of what he called "a freak conference" in Hawaii the previous November. Johnson had asked his staff officers to describe their duties, and Wells, reading up in the Marine Corps staff manual, discovered that the battalion adjutant was supposed to carry a flag.

Severance said that battalion officers at the conference "were both scared to death and filled with bravado" when they learned that the initial Iwo Jima mission was to storm Suribachi.

"One of us said the first person to the top should get a case of champagne, and Greeley said the first person should put up a flag," Severance said. "But I don't think anyone really thought that Greeley would actually bring a flag."

Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg accompanied the patrol as a flame thrower. "I doubted we'd ever get to the top--we were taking a lot of fire--but shelling by Naval ships had done a hell of a job," Lindberg, a retired electrician living in Richfield, Minn., said.

'Give Her a Salute'

Schrier radioed to Johnson that the patrol was on the summit, and Johnson said to raise the flag if a suitable pole could be found. The Marines used a discarded pipe that had been fashioned by Japanese soldiers to bring air into the caves they had dug into.

"I'll never forget that sight, when Lt. Schrier told us all to 'Give her a salute!' but then the Japanese started firing all around us," said Lindberg, the only survivor today of the six Marines who planted the flag. Only three of the six survived the remaining month on Iwo.

Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery, a combat photographer for the Marine Corps' Leatherneck magazine, posed the men in front of the flag using his Roloflex.

"No one had any idea to become famous," said Lowery, who barely missed being blown apart by a grenade thrown by a Japanese soldier seconds after the flag went up. He lost his camera, but saved the film.

Lindberg remembers that whistles were blown from the Navy flotilla offshore when the flag was mounted. An artillery officer on the beach, Richard Bishop, said that a few Marines yelled, "Hey, there goes the flag!" and that there was brief cheering.

But as sporadic fighting continued on the summit for the next hour, only battalion commander Johnson appeared to be thinking of the moment's historical value.

"Johnson led his staff in three 'Hip, hip, hurrahs' and then turned to me and told me to go get a larger flag so that the colors could be seen all over the island and so the first one could be saved," A. Theodore Tuttle, a lieutenant in Johnson's command tent, said.

Tuttle, now a Mormon church official in Buenos Aires, ran down to a troop landing craft and managed to procure a flag almost twice as big (56 inches by 96 inches). Johnson handed it to one of the five men in a patrol going up the mountain with supplies for Schrier. Accompanying the patrol was AP photographer Rosenthal.

"I didn't know they were carrying a second flag," Rosenthal, now a retired San Francisco Chronicle photographer, said. "I already knew a flag was on top, and I wanted just to see for myself and also take in the view." On the way up, Rosenthal briefly met Lowery coming down, who said he already had gotten flag-raising pictures.

But while walking around the summit, Rosenthal discovered that the Marines were going to replace the smaller flag with the larger version.

Little Time to Prepare

"I moved around quickly to get a good composition, a picture of our flag going up, and that is why I selected the position I did," said Rosenthal, who almost missed the shot completely because he had so little time to prepare.

Rosenthal's film was shipped to Guam for processing within a week, while Lowery's went through military channels to Washington, where it would not be printed for several months.

Lowery recalled that, in the interim, practically no one was aware that there had been a second flag raising.

"A flag's a flag," said Lowery, the retired editor of Leatherneck magazine. "The whole time I saw the flag above Suribachi, I never knew it had been changed."

Further, Severance said that fierce close-in fighting over the next month put thoughts of flags far from everyone's minds. Suribachi, considered the key to Iwo's capture, turned out to be far less than that, as Marines took heavy losses subduing Japanese soldiers who were dug into catacombs of tunnels and caves throughout the northern part of the island. Lt. Col. Johnson was killed within a week of the raisings.

But the first publication of Rosenthal's picture in the States electrified Americans back home.

"It is undoubtedly unique, the most dramatic photo displaying the image of the American fighting man," retired Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons, director of the Marine Corps historical center in Washington, said.

Led to Arlington Statue

"I immediately recognized its symbolism, that it would appeal to all Americans," artist Felix de Weldon recalled. De Weldon created the immense bronze memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, based on the photograph, which honors the deaths of Marines in all wars.

At the time, De Weldon was a Navy artist working on a depiction of the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea when his commanding officer showed him Rosenthal's picture.

"I asked immediately to be transferred to the Marines so I could begin making a model," De Weldon said. Receiving his wish, De Weldon worked for the next 9 1/2 years on his 32-foot-high Arlington statue, which has become as much reproduced in pictures as the original photograph.

When the photo was first printed in American newspapers, Marine Corps officials scrambled to identify the six men, none of whom had been identified by Rosenthal. Said Rosenthal: "I had no idea that the photo would be of historic value or I would have gotten the names. Even in the caption I wrote simply, 'A flag goes up' and never tried to pass the thing off as the flag goes up."

Initially, only Pfc. Rene Gagnon, the man ordered by Johnson to take the second flag up the mountain, was recognizable. Gagnon, using an enlarged copy, identified all but one of the other men.

The three of the six who survived Iwo Jima were brought back to the States to promote a War Bond drive. Gagnon, first told of his transfer while aboard a troop ship returning to Hawaii, "broke down and cried right on the spot, he was so overwhelmed," said artillery officer Bishop, who was also on the ship.

"The (flag-raising) act was not meant to be heroic, just helpful," Col. John Miller, deputy director for Marine Corps history in Washington, said. "The guys who raised the flag were quite withdrawn as Marines and were overwhelmed by subsequent publicity."

Gagnon had only reluctantly named the third survivor, Pfc. Ira Hayes, who had implored Gagnon to keep his identity secret. The sustained publicity eventually proved too much for Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona, who drank heavily until his death from exposure in 1955. (His post-war life was portrayed by Tony Curtis in the film "The Outsider," made in 1961.)

Gagnon, who died in 1979, talked unhappily during a 1978 interview of the pressures that had been placed on him.

John H. Bradley, the only survivor today in Rosenthal's photograph, has refused to grant interviews for 40 years and only this week is making a rare appearance at a reunion marking the anniversary.

"But he's not sour, not at all," Rosenthal said. "He simply has said, as he said in 1945, that what he did was his duty and he shouldn't be labeled as heroic for doing that."

Rosenthal said that Bradley, a corpsman, exposed himself "time and again" on Iwo Jima to try to save wounded Marines. "I can tell you many Marines died in his arms as he worked, and that he himself was badly wounded in one leg."

First Raisers Bitter

If the second flag raisers were reticent about their unplanned fame, the first were initially perplexed and disappointed.

Even today, Lindberg, the last survivor of the first patrol, still harbors some bitterness.

"I know there's nothing you can do about it, but I'm a little sour on the recognition part of it," Lindberg said. "There's a Marine group in Alabama that says the picture should always be labeled 'the second flag raising.' "

Lindberg recalled seeing Rosenthal's picture in Hawaii and being puzzled because it wasn't the flag raising he helped bring about.

"Not until Lowery's photo was published much later did I really know what had happened," he said.

Rosenthal said that every break a photographer could want "fell into place for me on that day."

"I was late, I had no control over the lighting, or the wind, no signal from the Marines or anything," he said.

"I would like to take credit for composing the shot because I do think it is a good picture, but I didn't pose it so I can't."

As Lowery said and Rosenthal agreed, "We argue over who is a better photographer, but there's no doubt over who was the luckier photographer."

Still, Lowery feels sorry that the first Marines were never given the recognition he said they earned, particularly since the first flag was placed under much more hostile conditions.

"But it's a lot of baloney to argue that (Rosenthal's) picture should always be labeled the second, etc.," Lowery said. "That picture has become much more than just a second raising. It's a great dramatic shot that brought the country together."

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