He saw first Iwo Jima flag raisings

The first flag goes up on Iwo. This flag-raising most people don’t know anything about. The famous picture of the 2nd flag-raising captured by  AP photographer Joe Rosenthal that made the front page of hundreds of newspapers in the US amounted to nothing, according to the men who put it up. Photo by Sgt. Lou Lowery/Leatherneck Magazine

The light cruiser Vicksburg laid a half-mile off the beach at Iwo Jima. Her 5-inch and 8-inch guns had pounded Mount Suribachi and the surround shoreline for days.

Earl Custer, a signalman aboard the cruiser, watched the war unfold from the bridge thought the lens of a three-foot, deck-mounted telescope.

“The first wave of Marines hit the beach at 9 a.m.,” he said. “I told a friend, ‘There couldn’t be a pissant alive on the island after the pounding our ships gave the place.”

He was dead wrong.

For days Task Force 58, Adm. “Bull” Haley’s battle group that included scores of battleships, cruisers and destroyers—1,200 ships in all—ringed Iwo Jima, a 2-mile by 5 1/2 –mile long island in the Southwest Pacific. The American fleet blanked every inch of the volcanic island with heavy fire from ships just off shore. Fighter-bombers flying off the group’s aircraft carriers also struck the island at will.

The enemy troops were hidden in caves and underground tunnels and bunkers. They suffered few casualties in the weeks-long artillery barrage.

“On D-Day, when the Marines were landing, our ship was facing the island with Mount Suribachi on the left. Our job was to bombard the landing area just before the troops went in.

“There was no resistance from the Japanese to the Marines’ landing until they got up on the beach. After they went about 1,000 feet, all hell broke loose. The enemy opened up on them with everything it had,” he said.

U.S. Marines slogged their way through the black-volcanic sand on the tiny Pacific island during the 36-day battle.

“Through my telescope I could see the Marines crawling up onto high ground. I saw some of our boys getting hit by enemy fire, but the troops kept coming in,” Custer recalled. “I could see the Marines going up Mount Suribachi with their flamethrowers. They used ‘em to burn the enemy out of their caves and pillboxes.

“We ran out of five-inch and eight-inch ammunition and had to pull out and go get more. We fired so much it burned the paint off the barrels of the five-inch guns,” he said.

Four days after the Marines first landed on Iwo Jima, the Vicksburg’s big guns were still hammering the enemy’s gun emplacements with round after round. The 5th Marine Division, which was being supported by the cruiser just off the beach in front of Suribachi, had paid a fearful price in lives to take that hill.

In the middle of the fifth line on the left-hand page, Custer notes in the diary he kept while aboard ship: At 10:30 a.m. they put the American flag up on ‘Hot Rocks.’”

“We could hear the rifle fire. We were only 800 yards off shore,” Custer wrote in his diary on Feb. 23, 1945. “Our boys are getting a pretty good hold on Iwo Jima.

“At 10:30 a.m. they put up the American flag on ‘Hot Rocks’ (Suribachi),” he noted. “They still have lot of resistance from small arms.”

What Custer had witnessed through a telescope on the bridge of the Vicksburg was the raising of the original American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi being raised by six members of Company E, 28th Marines, and 5th Marine Division. They were the first American combat patrol to scale the highest peak on the island.

The six were: 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Platoon Sgt. Ernest I. (Boots) Thomas of Monticello, near Tallahassee, Fla.; Sgt. Harry O. Hansen; Cpl. Charles Lindberg; and Pfcs Louis Charles and James Michaels.

This is Earl Custer when he served aboard the cruiser USS Vicksburg almost six decades ago. He saw the first flag go up on Iwo Jima.

They reached the summit at 10:15 a.m. before raising the 28-inch by 54-inch American flag from the attack transport Missoula. They found a section of steel water pipe atop the volcanic mountain to attach the flag to.

About the time the flag was raised, two Japanese defenders made an ill-fated attack on the Marines. They died.

Moments after the first flag went up on Suribachi, Sgt. Louis Lowery took a picture of it for the Marine Corps’ Leatherneck magazine.

“That’s when everything broke loose. The troops down below began to cheer and ships’ whistles out in the by began to toot.

“I tell you, it just made you shiver all over. I don’t know if it was pride or patriotism or what it was. What a feeling that was. I’ll never forget it,” Custer recalled

After the momentary celebration over the first flag going up, the Marine Corps’ division headquarters decided it would be better if a larger American flag flew on top of Suribachi. A second detachment of Marines were ordered up the 546-foot hill with a 56-inch by 96-inch flag from LST-7769 (a landing ship) on the beach below.

Accompanying the Marines on the second flag-raising was Associated Press photographer Rosenthal.

Those captured in Rosenthal’s famous flag-raising photograph were Sgt. Mike Strank; Cpl. Harlon Block; Pfcs. Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley; and Pharmacist Mate John Bradley.

It was the second flag-raising about 3 p.m. that made the front page of hundreds of newspapers around the country and was immortalized in the larger-than-life, 100-ton bronze statue in Arlington National Cemetery located along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. The picture was also commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp before the war was over. During the final months of World War II, the image was used to promote the government’s seventh and last War Bond drive.

Rosenthal received a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph. The picture has been reproduced millions of time since first printed. In fact, it’s supposed to be the most reprinted photo in the history of photography.

Ironically, the three men who survived the war who erected the second flag—Gagnon, Hays and Bradley—thought little about their feat, according to Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley. Strank, Block and Sousley didn’t survive Iwo Jima.

According to the trio who participated in the second flag-raising and made it off Iwo Jima, all they were doing with the second flag-raising was putting up a larger flag to replace the one that was already up there, James Bradley concluded. If it hadn’t been for Rosenthal’s award-winning photograph, nothing would have probably been made of the second flag-raising.

Another month of killing would be required before Marines took the tiny island. By then 6,800 Americans lost their lives and 17,000 were wounded on Iwo Jima.

Almost all of the 21,000 Japanese defenders, commanded by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kruibayashi, were wiped out during the five-week battle.

Once the Marines controlled Iwo Jima, the Japanese mainland was more easily open to attack from American B-29 bombers. Thousands of American airmen survived because the island provided a safe haven for many damaged American bombers on their return trip from Tokyo.

‘Uncommon valor was a common virtue,” Adm. Chester Nimitz said of the fighting on Iwo Jima. This quote is inscribed on the base of the mammoth Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

This is the USS Vicksburg on which Signalman Earl Custer of Fort Ogden, Fla. served during World War II. He was at his station on a telescope and saw the first American flag go up on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

Earl Custer and the Vicksburg continued sailing east toward Japan. On the way to their ultimate rendezvous in Tokyo Bay, he saw action at Okinawa, too.

“One day I was on the bridge and heard our 20-millimeter guns firing. You know when they’re shooting 20-millimeters, the enemy aircraft are pretty darn close,” he said. “An aircraft carrier was off to our right as this one suicide plane kept coming toward us as I watched.

“’Get the SOB, get the SOB’ is all I could say at the time. Just before it hit the carrier Belleau Wood, the kamikaze blew up. Part of the burning remains of the plane fell on the carrier’s deck.”

A few days later, the Vicksburg was stationed off Tokyo Bay waiting for Gen. Douglas MacArthur to sign the surrender treaty with the Japanese on the deck of the battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, that officially ended the Second World War.

Above it all, the first flag-raising at Iwo Jima is what former  Seaman Earl Custer remembers most about the 22 months he spent fighting World War II.

“It was a glorious thing to see the American flag flying over Suribachi. I was elated,” he recalled.

Custer’s File

Name: Earl Custer
Age: 87
Hometown: Fort Ogden, Fla.
Discharged: 6 Jan. 1946
Rank: Seaman
Unit: USS Vicksburg
Commendations: Asia Pacific Area Ribbon with two stars, American Area Service Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal and Good Conduct Medal.
Married: Mable Cuthbert (deceased)
Children: Roger

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Feb. 23, 2002 and is republished with permission.

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  1. I also saw just about everything that Mr. Custer saw except I had no scope, and it was a court martial offense to keep a diary So every thing I saw and heard was stored in my hard drive (brain) Frank Kubiak coxswain USN at the time service no. 300-75-90.

  2. My grandfather was aboard the Vicksburg at Iwo Jima and I just found out yesterday. His name was Bernie Bergeron and I would love to hear from anyone that knew him.

  3. My Dad, James Smith was there at the first flag raising I believe he is in one of the photos that was taken. He used a flamethrower and said the sand was rough to get through. He did not talk about it much. He went from Iwo to Japan after the bombs were dropped. Some of the wounded would ask for the deacon, cause my Dad would talk to them and pray for them. If any one remembers him please reply to me. I had this wonderful man in my life along with my sweet Mom, who married him just before he left for the war. He passed away at the age of 94 last January. I miss them both very much. I have the letters they wrote to each other. Kathy Denton

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