The story of the two flag-raisings on Mt. Suribachi during Battle of Iwo Jima

During the historic Battle of Iwo Jima, near the close of World War II, two American flags were raised by Marines on Mt. Suribachi. The second flag raising is the one most people in this country know about, but it was only an afterthought.

Capturing the eight-square-mile island took 36 days and cost the lives of 6,821 Marines and Sailors. Another 18,375 were wounded during the battle. Of the 22,000 Imperial Japanese Marines and Soldiers defending the island all but 1,083 were killed.

For gallantry above and beyond the call of duty 27 Medals of Honor were award to our troops on Iwo Jima. Of that number Marines received 23 and Sailors four.

To put the relevance of the Battle of Iwo Jima in perspective, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded to all branches of service in World War II. Of that number approximately 10 percent were awarded on Iwo.

One of those Marines who received the award on Iwo Jima was Pvt. Douglas T. Jacobson, who until his death, lived locally. The veterans’ nursing home in Port Charlotte, Fla. is named in his honor.

One of the most interesting stories to evolve from the bloody battle was the one about two flag raisings atop Mt. Suribachi.

On Feb. 23, 1945, four days into the conflict, Col. Chandler Johnson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division sent a squad to the top of the 546-foot hill on the southern tip of the island with a small American flag. At 10:30 a.m. the first American flag to fly on Japanese soil went up.

When it did the ships and landing craft along the beach below sounded their whistles and bells. The Marines in the black volcanic sand foxholes along the shore danced and celebrated. They thought the war was over because of all the clamor from the ships that brought them ashore.

The first flag raising was photographed by Sgt. Lou Lowery, working for “Leatherneck” magazine, the Marine Corps’ national publication.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was coming ashore aboard a landing craft with Gen. H. M. “Howling Mad” Smith, commander of the Marines on Iwo, when he saw the flag go up.

“That flag ensures the Marine Corps will exist for the next 500 years,” he told the general. “I want that flag.”

What happened next is the stuff of legends.

When Col. Johnson got word that Forrestal wanted the flag his men had just raised atop Suribachi the colonel had other ideas. He decided if anyone was going to have that flag it was going to be his unit and not the Secretary of the Navy.

Before Forrestal could claim the flag the colonel ordered a second, larger flag be raised on Suribachi. This is the flag the secretary took back to the states with him. The colonel kept the original flag.

AP Photographer Joe Rosenthal went along with the contingent of Marines who raised the second flag. As they were leaving to climb the hill, Lowery told Rosenthal he was wasting his time going up there to photograph the second flag raising because he already had captured the first flag raising on film.

Rosenthal decided to go anyway in the hopes of photographing something the papers back home could print. He had no idea he would take the most republished shot of World War II—“The Secon Flag Raising on Iwo Jima!”

Following a round of arguments some days later between the AP an the Marine Corps, the Corps was allowed to use Rosenthal’s picture for a fund-raising war bond drive and for other publicity purposes. The Marine Corps agreed not to publish Lowery’s first flag-raising shot until after the war was over.

The strategic importance of American forces capturing Iwo Jima was hammered home in battlefield statistics. Some 2,251 damaged B-29 bombers, with 11-crewmen aboard each plane, made emergency landings on the island’s expanded air strip on their bombing runs to Japan. The emergency runway may have saved the lives of upwards of 225,000 B-29 airmen.

Col. Johnson didn’t survive the battle, but his flag did. He was killed by a Japanese mortar round a few days afer the flags were raised. Eventually both flags went on display at the Marine Corps National Museum at the Marine base in Quantico, Va.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 and is republished with permission.

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