Dick Honyak walked into the Charlotte Sun newspaper office in Englewood, Fla. six years ago and dropped a big, thick, loose leaf notebook full of 8 by 10 black and white photographs on my desk. The historic photos were of the Marines taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese at the close of World War II.
Sgt. Lou Lowery shot the pictures 65 years ago for Leatherneck, the Corps’ national magazine. He was the Marine photographer who photographed the first flag raising atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, four days after the Marines landed on the black volcanic sands of the tiny Pacific island.
Iwo Jima was an eight-square-mile island, 700 miles from the Japanese home islands with two enemy-built runways. Those airstrips were what made the place important to Allied forces.
Once taken, the runways on Iwo would be used as emergency landing strips by thousands of B-29 “Superfortress” crippled during bombing raids on Japan. Air Corp figures show 2,800 B-29s made emergency landings there during the closing months of the war. The fields saved the lives of 28,000 airmen who would have otherwise crashed into the sea and probably been lost.
American Marines and Sailors paid a staggering price for the volcanic island. Some 6,800 were killed or missing and 12,000 more were wounded during the 36 day battle. Almost all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders were wiped out.
To understand how intense the fighting was on that tiny Pacific island during the five-week battle, 27 Marines were awarded Medals of Honor. At no other time in the Corps’ 236 year history have so many of the nation’s highest award for heroism been presented to Marines in a single battle.
What many people don’t know about the Battle of Iwo Jima is that two American flags were put up on Suribachi within hours of each other by members of the 5th Marine Division.
Lowery took the lesser-known picture of the first flag going up on the hill. Joe Rosenthal shot the Associate Press photo almost everyone has seen over the last six decades. It’s supposed to be the most reproduced picture of WW II.
Honyak had both of these shots and 75 more of Lowery’s battle picture in his loose leaf binder. He got them from a Marine Corps buddy who became friendly with the the photographer after the war. Through his friend, Honyak, got to know Chuck Lindberg, the sole survivor of the six-man squad that raised the first American flag over Suribachi.
Lindberg served in Assault Section 3rd Platoon, Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. He carried a flamethrower with two tanks of napalm on his back during the battle.
“If you’re going to write a story about the Battle of Iwo Jima and use these pictures, Lindberg wants you to call him before you start typing,” Honyak explained to me. I called.
“Even though our flag was the first American flag to fly over the Japanese home territory in World War II, when I first started talking publicly about it in the 1970s I was called a liar and everything else,” Lindberg said. “Over the years I’ve straightened out a lot of people about the two flags that were raise that day on Iwo Jima.”
Even so, he still smarts from the rebuffs he and his buddies, who raised the first flag on Iwo, received. Two presidents even snubbed them. It happened more than a half century ago.
“When the Marine Corps monument was dedicated in ’54 at Arlington, Lt. (Harold) Schrier and I were invited to attend the dedication ceremony,” Lindberg said. “We weren’t even recognized and they put us way back in the corner. The other three guys, who took part in the second flag raising, were up front with President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.”
When asked half a dozen years ago, shortly before his death, how he felt about the snubs the 83-year-old Leatherneck said, “It’s one of those things. What can you do? I always tell people, ‘If it hadn’t been for us and the first flag, there wouldn’t have been a second flag raised on Iwo Jima.'” Lindberg and the other five members of the first flag-raising detachment had been ordered by Lt. Col. Chandler Johnston, their battalion commander, to go up the hill at 9:45 a.m. on the 23rd and raise an American flag.
“Forty members of the 3rd Platoon headed up the mountain with the first flag,” Lindberg recalled. “I thought it would be a slaughterhouse because of all the trouble we’d had getting to the base of the mountain.”
The first flag went up at 10:30 a.m.The flag raisers faced little enemy resistance on the way up. A member of their platoon found a half-buried piece of steel water pipe on top of Suribachi to use as a flag staff. Lt. Harold Schrier, Plt. Sgt. Ernest Thomas and Cpl. Lindberg attached the flag to the pipe.
Immediately after the flag was raised ships off shore began tooting their whistles in celebration. Marines were dancing in their foxholes on the beach. As one said decades later, “We thought we’d won and the battle was over. In reality it was just getting started.”
At the moment the flag went up, Secretary of the Navy James Forestall, was watching off shore aboard ship. He got caught up in the revelry of the historic event.
“That flag,” he said, “ensures the Corps’ existence for the next 500 years.”
He asked to be given the flag as a battle memento. Lt. Col. Johnston got wind of the Navy secretary’s flag request. He decided to keep the first flag for the 5th Marine Division because of its historical significance. That’s when the battalion commander ordered a second larger flag be put up and the first one returned to him, or so the story goes. Ironically, Johnston was killed by an enemy artillery round a couple of days later.
Lowery was coming down the mountain when he passed Rosenthal, the AP photographer, headed up the hill. The Leatherneck photographer told his cohort he had taken a number of pictures of the first flag raising.
Rosenthal wasn’t deterred. He went up Suribachi hoping he would take a picture of something worth publishing in newspapers back home in the States.
He and Sgt. Bill Genaust, the 5th Marine Division movie cameraman, were sitting at the top of the hill about 12:30 p.m. not paying much attention to the second group of flag raisers. At the moment “Old Glory” went up for the second time Genaust caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye and yelled to Rosenthal. The AP photographer swung around with his still camera and snapped a picture without focusing.
The wire photographer never saw what he photographed that afternoon until his pictures started appearing in daily newspapers throughout the country. It became a photographic sensation back in the USA.
After the war some said Rosenthal had staged the second flag-raising. His critics apparently got this idea because the AP photographer also shot several pictures of jubilant Marines who wanted their picture taken with the American flag flying atop Suribachi. Rosenthal accommodated the “Leathernecks” and sent these negatives along with his award-winning flag-raising photo to be developed.
Meanwhile, Lowery’s photo of the first flag-raising, the one Lindberg is in, was shelved by the Marine Corps, according to Col. Walt Ford, editor of Leatherneck. He said the Corps used Rosenthal’s photo immediately after it became available. An AP spokesman told the Corps it was welcome to use their photograph, however, the wire service wanted the Marines to pay them each time it was used.
That didn’t go down well with the Marine Corps Commandant. He let it be known the Corps would use a frame from the movie footage Genaust took.
The AP didn’t like the idea of going to war with the United States Marine Corps over a photograph, so it cut a deal. AP would allow the Marines to use Rosenthal’s pictured of the second flag raising for free if it would keep Lowery’s picture under wraps until war’s end.
It wasn’t until 1947, the colonel explained, that Lowery’s flag-raising photo was finally published in the the Marine Corps’ magazine along with 15 other pictures he took on Iwo Jima during the battle, some of which are shown here. Accompanying the photographs was a lengthy story written by Bill Miller detailing the fate of the Marines involved in the first flag-raising.
More pictures by Lowery
Points about Iwo Jima flag-raising
* Most of the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima know about the first flag-raising because they saw it go up and heard the ships’ whistles and bells when it happened. They cheered.
* Those Marines fighting on the island knew little or nothing about the second flag-raising. It was only a replacement flag put up hours later.
* People back in the States only know about the second flag-raising. It was the picture that received all the newspaper publicity. Nothing was said publicly about the first flag until a couple of years after the Second World War.
* Chuck Lindberg, the Marine with the flamethrower pictured standing behind his buddy with the carbine in the first picture, was the last surviving member of the 12 servicemen who raised both flags.
* Both flags are on display at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Feb. 20, 2005. Vol. 113 No. 51. Sect. 1, page 1 and is republished with permission.
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