78th Anniversary of the Raising of The Flag Over Iwo Jima

WWII in the Pacific was going into its fourth year. The Marines had been engaged in the long and bloody efforts to liberate one island after another for two years already, and in February of 1945, they were preparing to take one of the most significant of the remaining Japanese strongholds on the island of Iwo Jima. It would become the bloodiest engagement in Marine Corps history.

Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had taken command of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers of the 109th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army on Iwo Jima the summer before and had prepared the island for an attack that was almost certainly going to come to it, as the Marines had been successful in taking so many islands already. He was a masterful tactician and knew that he would be facing much larger numbers. Instead of planning the traditional defense of massing forces along the beaches, he chose to defend the higher ground. In doing so, he had his big guns placed on the highest ground on the island, Mt. Suribachi.

Photo: YouTube/NBC News

He also had his men dig long tunnels all over the mountain’s face. These hid the large guns and had steel doors at their openings that could be closed after the guns were fired to protect them from both artillery from the big U.S. Navy ships offshore and aerial attacks. These tunnels were interconnected, and the Japanese soldiers could perform rapid movements of their forces through them.

The American naval and Marine Corps forces were commanded by a master logician and tactician in the person of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. He had 500 ships and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, adding up to 70,000 Marines. He had to move those Marines to the beaches in landing craft and to try to “soften” the beaches with the big guns of his 5th Fleet ships and aircraft.

Photo: YouTube/NBC News

D-Day at Iwo Jima fell on February 19, 1945. The 5th Fleet opened up with everything they had. It was thought that the Japanese would have been decimated, or severely harmed, but that would prove not to be the case. They had camouflaged machine gun nests down by the beaches that the Marines couldn’t see as they came ashore. These machine gun positions hammered the Marines with devastating effects. The guns from atop Mt. Suribachi also opened up on the beaches. It was a horrifying scene for the Marines, but they kept coming ashore and moving forward, though at great cost.

The Marines fought a merciless enemy every foot of the way up the steep, jungled slopes of Mt. Suribachi. On the 3rd day of the battle, they took Mt. Suribachi and raised the American flag on top of the mountain. The first flag was a small banner. The Marine Colonel down below sent up a larger flag, one that could be seen better, so that it could raise the morale of the Marines still engaged in heavy fighting below.

Photo: YouTube/NBC News

The famous photo of the flag raising was taken when the second flag was raised. The picture was taken by Joe Rosenthal, who captured the event just after the Marines started to lift the pole into position. It has become an iconic image of the war in the Pacific, so much so that it was turned into a monumental sculpture, the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It also inspired the architectural design of the Marine Corps Museum on the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. The museum’s roof design is an abstract depiction of the flag being raised over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

Photo: Dan Doyle
National Museum of the Marine Corps

This video is about how Joe Rosenthal captured the event. Rosenthal is shown explaining what happened that day. He had arrived after the first, smaller flag had been raised and saw some Marines preparing a larger pole with the larger flag. He had been talking to another photographer who was setting up to take a video of the event when they became aware that the second flag was being raised. Rosenthal quickly lifted his camera and took the now famous and dramatic shot of the raising.

The battle for Iwo Jima would go on for another 31 days before the island was completely in American hands. Three of the six Marines who raised the flag over Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945, would be killed in combat afterward. All but 216 of the Japanese defenders would die on Iwo Jima. The Marines suffered the highest single-action casualty rate in their long history. 6,821 were KIA, and 19,217 were WIA over the course of that month-long battle.

Photo: YouTube/NBC News

To the Marines and sailors who fought the good fight at Iwo Jima, we offer our eternal gratitude and our deepest respect. Their efforts and sacrifices in that battle on that small island in the Pacific moved the allies closer to the end of that terrible, costly war and went a long way to destroy the sense of invulnerability and superiority that the Japanese had long thought about themselves.

We honor those who fought at Iwo 78 years ago by remembering them through this iconic image of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima in the midst of that bloody battle.

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