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The First Flag-raising On Iwo Jima
A single great photograph has become an indelible symbol of the Marines’ heroic fight for the Japanese island. But hours earlier a now-almost-forgotten platoon had raised the first American flag on Mt. Suribachi’s scarred summit—and under enemy fire
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
Iwo Jima was a gray silhouette in the dawn of February 19, 1945, when we got our first look at it. The naval guns that would support our landing had started to thunder, and the target areas teemed with red perforations. From the deck of our transport we forty-six men of the 3rd Platoon of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, scanned the island apprehensively. We knew that its seven and a half square miles held more than 20,000 of Japan’s best troops and a multitude of ingenious defenses. Its highest point was Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano that made up its southwestern tip. This heavily fortified elevation would be our regiment’s first objective.
Although we had no way of knowing it, our platoon was destined to play a vital role in Mount Suribachi’s capture. Those men who managed to avoid death or injury would plant the first American Hag on the volcano’s summit. Unfortunately, a few hours after the flag was raised it would be replaced by a larger one, and a dramatic photograph taken of this replacement would become so poptdar that it would doom our unit’s exploit to obscurity.
It was about seven thirty when our platoon, along with the other assault troops of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, took to the sea in our landing craft and began to await the signal to head for shore. We were scheduled to land with the twelfth wave. The naval bombardment had been stepped up and was now raising thick columns of smoke and dust. At 8:05 several groups of carrier-based planes roared to the attack, and a little later a lleet of Seventh Air Force bombers from Saipan droned over the island and added to the destruction.
The first wave of troop-carrying amphibian tractors churned out of the water along the two-mile landing zone at 9:05, and succeeding waves began to beach at five-minute intervals. Under cover of the barrage, which had shifted inland, the units quickly organized and prepared for action.
Our platoon, in two tractors, was still some distance from the island when Mount Siiribachi began to loom up forbiddingly on our left front. The craft I occupied soon took a burst of machine-gun fire that almost hit our coxswain. Then as we neared shore the booming of a large weapon could be heard over our engine’s clatter, and some of us thought we were under pointblank, heavy-caliber fire. “It’s one of our own! It’s one of our own!” shouted our young platoon sergeant, Ernest Thomas. As our tracks touched bottom we passed an armored tractor whose 75-millimeter gun was striking toward the left, at Suribachi.
We hurried from our craft as soon as it clacked to a stop and a few moments later were lying on our stomachs about fifty feet from the water’s edge. Artillery and mortar shells were whoomping along the beach, and small-arms fire was weaving an invisible crisscross pattern just above it. We shortly lost two men. Pfc. John Fredotovich took serious mortar wounds in the torso and thigh, and Pfc. Bert Freedman was hit in the foot.
The sandy terrain that sloped up sharply a few yards ahead of us was crowded with 2nd Battalion Marines. Our regiment’s 1st Battalion was already pushing across the island in an attempt to isolate Mount Suribachi. Iwo was only 700 yards wide in our zone. About half the distance was barren sand, while the remainder held a sparse covering of subtropical brush and a maze of bunkers, pillboxes, and other emplacements. The medley of detonations issuing from the scrubwood indicated the fierceness of the 1st Battalion’s struggle. Our company was to follow these men when it became practicable, and occupy the ground they had captured. The other two companies of the 2nd Battalion were to swing to the left and start attacking the Japanese holding the volcano. Our 3rd Battalion was kept in floating reserve, but would soon be ordered to the Suribachi front. The volcano had to be taken with all possible speed: it served the Japanese not only as a fortress but as an observation post that commanded a view of two thirds of the island.
Our platoon leader, First Lieutenant John Wells, shouted above the din, “Let’s move out!” and began to lead us toward our company rendezvous area. Wells was an enthusiastic Marine who once told us in training: “Give me fifty men who aren’t afraid to die, and I can take any position!” This heroic pronouncement had bothered us a little ever since.
We had to travel 200 yards along the crowded beach to the right and then another 200 yards inland, and we divided the hazardous trip into short jumps. Our way was marked with shocking sights: a dismembered leg trickling blood into the sand, a number of ashenfaced casualties being treated by Navy hospital corpsmen, a blinded man being led toward the water for evacuation. An amphibian tractor with its landing party was hit by an artillery shell as we passed it, and a little farther on we saw a Marine blown high into the air by a shell that had burst directly under him.
The strain of being under fire was already beginning to show on the faces of most of our men. Some displayed a definite anxiety, their brows drawn into a deep frown. Others had a blank look, as though their facial muscles had gone numb.