Today In History – February 23

February 23, 1945.

An American flag is raised on Mount Suribachi. This flag would go on to be one of the most symbolic moments throughout the entirety of World War II.

The United States had recently invaded Iwo Jima as part of its strategy to defeat Japan in the Second World War. Used by the Japanese as an early warning station, The island was located halfway between Japan and the Marina Islands, where American operation was based.

On February 19, American Marines that landed on the island faced almost immediate complications. They had been told that the beaches would be easy to navigate. However, they were met with fifteen feet high, four point six meter, slopes of soft black volcanic ash. The ash was neither easy to climb nor allowed for the proper construction of foxholes to protect Marines from enemy fire. It was said that “Marines were trained to move rapidly. Forward; here they could only plot. The weight and amount of equipment was a terrific hindrance and various items were rapidly discarded. First to go was the gas mask…”[1] Lack of communication led the Navy to believe that those on the beach had pushed the Japanese defenses back. This was not the case.

Japanese General Kuribayashi allowed American troops to pile men and machinery onto the beach for over an hour. Those forces on the beach were met with silence and a false sense of security. Just after ten in the morning, General Kuribayashi ordered machine guns, mortars, heavy artillery, and much more to rain down on the beach. The sand and ash were soon turned into a nightmarish blood bath: “at first it came as a ragged rattle of machine gun bullets, growing gradually lower and fiercer until at last all the pent-up fury of 100 hurricanes seem to be breaking upon the heads of the Americans. Shell screeched and crashed, every hummock spat automatic fire and the very soft soil underfoot erupted under a foot with hundreds of exploding land mines… Marines walking, erect crumbled and fell. Concussion, lifted them and slammed them down, or tore them apart…”[2] American forces on the beaches of Iwo Jima were in a living hell.

Slowly, some soldiers were able to move across the island. Colonel Harry B. Liversedge and the 28th Marines drove across the island and began isolating the Japanese forces at Mount Suribachi.

Soldiers on the island were continuously attacked. Their guns were almost useless. Therefore, they began using flamethrowers and grenades to flush out Japanese troops from tunnels. Navy ships fired from their positions, and the 15th Fighter Group provided air support. The battle was long and arduous. In total, it took five weeks to defeat the Japanese forces. The Japanese forces were mainly defeated due to a lack of supplies. By the end of the battle, Japanese troops became desperate. They ran out of water, food, and most supplies. In the end, the American forces won. However, the battle came at a great price.

American forces had 27,071 casualties. 6,1002 Marines were killed, one was captured and killed. 716 Navy soldiers were killed. Forty-one Army soldiers were killed or missing, 19709 were wounded. One escort carrier was sunk. One fleet carrier was severely damaged. One escort carrier was lately damaged. One-hundred-thirty-seven tanks were destroyed, and fifty-three airplanes were destroyed. As an example of how devastating this battle was, let’s look at the 25th Marines 3rd Battalion…

When the 25th Marines 3rd Battalion landed, they consisted of approximately 900 men. By the time night came on that very same day, only one-hundred-fifty men were left in fighting condition. They had a casualty rate of eighty-three point three percent.

Amid all this fighting came a moment that would go down in history. Most people do not know the details of what happened at Iwo Jima. However, they might know of the flag that was raised there. On February 23, 1945, at 10:20 in the morning, a flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi soon after the mountaintop was captured. Either Lieutenant Colonel Johnson or First Lieutenant George G. Wells had taken the flag from the battalion’s transport, the USS Missoula, and gave it to First Lieutenant Herald G. Schrier and told him, “if you get to the top, put it up.”[3]

Schrier and two other marines attached the flag to a Japanese iron water pipe. Schrier then raised and planted it, assisted by Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas and Sergeant Oliver Hanson. The soldiers around cheered when the flag was raised. However, the noise they made alerted the Japanese to their position. They then came under heavy fire but were able to eliminate the thread.

Nevertheless, that flag is not the flag that everyone knows. It was thought that the first flag was too small to be easily seen from the mountain’s north side. There was also an argument over the first flag. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had decided he wanted to go ashore to witness the final stage of the battle from the mountain. He was so taken with the moment that he wanted the 2nd Battalion’s flag as a souvenir. 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson responded, “To hell with that!”[4] He believed the flag belonged to the battalion, so it should stay with it. Therefore, he dispatched his assistant operations officer, lieutenant Ted Tuttle, to the beach to obtain a replacement flag: “he decided to secure it as soon as possible, and dispatch is assistant operations officer… To the beach to obtain a replacement flag. As an afterthought, Johnson called after Tuttle: ‘and make it a bigger one.'”[5]

Tuttle found a large ninety-six by fifty-six inch flag on the tank landing ship USS LSST-779. He grabbed the flag and returned it to Johnson. Johnson had the flag taken up the mountain to Schrier so that it could be raised.

Around noon, the Marines reached the top of the mountain and began raising the flag. Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press and two other photographers took pictures of the moment. Rosenthal would later write: “out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”[6] Sergeant Genaust shot the motion picture of the flag raising.

Six men were pictured raising the American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi. Those men were Private First Class Ira Hayes, Private First Class Harold Schultz, Sergeant Michael Strank, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, Private First Class Harold Keller, and Corporal Harlon Block. Three of those men would not survive the battle.

The photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic photographs in American history.

[1] Derrick Wright, Iwo Jima 1945: The Marines Raise the Flag On Mount Suribachi (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing., 2004), p. 26.
[2] Robert Leckie, The Battle for Iwo Jima (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 28.
[3] “Iwo Jima: The True Details of an Iconic Photograph in the Midst of Battle,”
[4] James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006), p. 206
[5] James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006), p. 206
[6] Joe Rosenthal and W.C. Heinz, “The Picture That Will Live Forever,” Collier’s Magazine., February 18, 1955.

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