- Historic Sites
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
We remained in our rendezvous area for about two hours. Although we were surrounded by noisy action we were in a zone of comparative quiet. The height of our position gave us a good view of the beach behind us. Enemy resistance to our landing was increasing: useless landing craft, jeeps, trucks, and other pieces of heavy equipment were settling haphazardly into the surf-soaked sand; around them lay a growing number of torn and bleeding bodies.
It was about one o’clock when our company commander, Captain Dave Severance, gave Lieutenant Wells the order to start taking us across the island. The 1st Battalion had reached the western beach, on the far side, but had suffered many casualties. Our unit was one of those that would be needed for the night defense of the ground already taken. We picked our way through the scrubwood slowly and cautiously, the trip taking several hours. Since the area had been only partly neutralized, we drew considerable fire. Fortunately a network of abandoned Japanese trenches and antitank ditches helped to screen our progress, but once we were pinned down by machine-gun fire from a pillbox and were unable to move until its diehard crew had been blasted by two Sherman tanks.
It was late afternoon when we reached the 1st Battalion’s front, a zone that held numerous unassaultecl Japanese defenses. Our lieutenant deployed us along a brushy rise that overlooked the beach. Then he took Pfc. Donald Ruhl, who was serving as his runner, and joined a 1st Battalion unit in attacking an artillery bunker. It was first hit with a shaped charge and a thermite grenade. Then Wells and Ruhl gunned down three Japanese who were trying to break from one of the smoking entrances. Ruhl, his rifle emptied, finished off one of the fallen men with his bayonet. These were the first enemy soldiers our platoon accounted for.
As darkness settled over the island it seemed almost to have physical weight, for it was an added threat to our lives. The Navy began to send up illuminating shells, and this made the brush around us cast moving shadows that gave us a start when we mistook them lor skulking Japanese. The large-scale counterattack we were expecting failed to develop, but in keeping with their reputation the enemy made many individual attempts to infiltrate our lines. One of these occurred in the /one occupied by my own squad. With a hand grenade in readiness, a Japanese came creeping toward us along a trench that PIc. Edward Kurelik was covering with his Browning automatic rifle (BAR). Thinking it might be a Marine, Kurelik held his fire and called out a challenge. This was immediately followed by an exclamation in Japanese and a Hashing explosion in our midst. Kurelik and Pfc. Phillip Christman were hit, Kurelik seriously. The rest ot us leapt tip with raised rifles as the Japanese darted away. We opened fire, and there were two orange explosions in the brush as Sergeant Howard Snyder, our squad leader, threw hand grenades. But the Japanese escaped.
The gray arc of dawn was by far the most beautiful sight most of us had ever seen. As the platoon began to stir I heard our right guide, Sergeant Henry “Hank” Hansen, say: “God, what a long night!”
We had new orders to follow this second morning. We were to start working our way back across the island toward our own battalion’s zone on the left of the lines facing Suribachi. By late afternoon we would be needed at the unit’s front. The 1st Battalion would spend the day reorganizing and mopping up the scrubwood, while the 3rd Battalion would operate on the right of the attack on Suribachi.
As we moved out, swooping groups of Navy and Marine planes were beginning to smash at the volcano with bombs, rockets, and machine-gun bullets. From destroyers and gunboats lying close offshore came shells and more rockets. Our artillery batteries on the island added their own heavy missiles to the deafening, earthshaking barrage. We who had to face the enemy with light weapons were dramatically reminded that we had some powerful assistance.
It was about noon when we reached the eastern edge of the scrubwood and took cover along a line about 200 yards behind the units attacking Suribachi. Some of us began to nibble K rations at this point, though our stomachs were almost too tense to accept the nourishment. It was the first food we had eaten in thirty hours.