- 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 got our orders to head for the Suribachi front about four o’clock. The assault had made some gains during the afternoon, and the line was now about 300 yards ahead of us. As we rose from our concealment and began to plod across the open sand we felt very conspicuous. But except for a few close shellbursts and the sporadic whine of small-arms fire, our advance did not encounter any notable resistance. Two tanks were sent to cover our final hundred yards. Although only a few men fell in behind them, the rest of us were encouraged just by having them with us. Suribachi was monstrously close now, and some of us began to spot enemy movement in the brush covering its approaches. Now and then one of our riflemen would stop briefly and let go a few shots. When we finally halted we were part of a line that was a scant 200 yards from the volcano’s first emplacements. Fortunately a generous scattering of bomb craters and shell holes enabled us to set up our night defense without delay.
During the first hour the Japanese gave us little trouble. Then they hit us with an intensive mortar barrage, the worst we had yet experienced. Up and down our lines the exploding shells walked, spewing steel and sand in all directions. The fire came from cleverly concealed positions, and we could do nothing about it but cower in our holes and pray that we’d be missed. We were infinitely relieved when it finally let up. Lieutenant Wells had thought the platoon was being torn apart, but our good fortune was still holding. Only one man had been hit, taking a blast of small fragments in the chest.
With the coming of darkness the Navy once more began to illuminate the island, and the volcano took on a ghostly aspect. The shells hurled against it burst vividly among its restless shadows, while enemy flares called artillery fire down on us from the north. One Japanese shell eventually hit an ammunition dump on the beach and set off a spectacular fireworks display. Suribachi and the reaches of sand about us were lit by a red glow that flickered eerily. It seemed as though our evil little island had suddenly been transported to hell.
The Japanese made one attempt to counterattack. They began to mass and organize on a plateau that lay along the volcano’s left flank. But a destroyer covering this area closed in, switched on a searchlight, and thwarted the attack with a thunder-and-lightning concentration of shells and ao-millimeter tracers.
Our second dawn on the island was not quite so welcome a sight as the first had been. As Suribachi’s gray hulk began to outline itself against the sky we became starkly aware of what we were up against. We were now going to have to make a frontal assault, across a aoo-yard open stretch, into the volcano’s main defenses. Again, the 2nd Battalion would attack on the left, and the 3rd Battalion on the right. The 1st Battalion, having finished its job of mopping up the scrubwood, had now been assigned a one-company front on the attack’s extreme right flank.
The pre-attack bombardment was a repetition of the one the morning before, but we were closer to the volcano now and its effects seemed even more violent. We had to keep our heads down during the air strikes, for some of the rocket bursts sent clouds of debris winging toward our lines.
As the last group of planes droned away from the target, Sergeant Snyder, beside me in our shell hole, stood up and looked toward the rear. “Where’s our tank support?” he asked with a frown. It turned out that the tanks had been delayed by refueling and rearming difficulties. Lieutenant Wells decided not to wait for them.
A few minutes later he launched our platoon’s attack. Climbing out of his crater, he signalled with a sweep of his Thompson submachine gun for us to follow him, and began to trot toward Suribachi. By this time we had learned that Wells’ courage was not just talk. As we forced ourselves to rise from our holes and imitate his example, I could feel the fear dragging at my jowls. We seemed to be heading for certain death.