- 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
For the first few moments the volcano was unresponsive. Then it erupted. Rifle and machine-gun bullets snapped and whirred about us, and crashing shells began to kick up savage funnels of steel and sand. The Japanese were making a desperate attempt to stop us. Men started to fall, and the entreating cry, “Corpsman! Corpsman!” became a part of the action’s jumble of sounds. Pfc. Raymond Strahm went down a few yards to my left, a piece of shrapnel above his ear. His helmet slowed the fragment and saved his life. Then another man near me fell with a leg wound. And next it was my turn. Corporal Edward Romero and I caught it from the same shell; Romero was hit in the back, and I had my jaw broken and two molars smashed. Corpsman Clifford Langley reached us, but as the attack swept on, a second shell hit all three of us. Romero was killed, Langley took several small fragments of shrapnel in the torso, and a large piece laid my left calf bare and cut its main muscle in two. Langley bandaged my leg and then followed the platoon. I crawled into a shell hole to await evacuation—which came within half an hour. What happened to my platoon after that I was to hear later, in many conversations with the survivors.
Although shells and bullets continued to menace them, our unit’s darting groups soon neared Suribachi’s first fringe of brush. They had begun to find a degree of hope in the destruction our planes and guns had wreaked along the volcano’s belt of defenses, but as they rushed the first line they found it harboring plenty of live defenders. Hank Hansen and Donald Ruhl, who had been up ahead with Wells, ran to the summit of a large, flat-topped pillbox and promptly clashed with a unit of Japanese located in a network of trenches just behind it. While the two Marines were firing point-blank into the trenches, a demolition charge came flying through the air and landed in front of them. Yelling a warning to Hansen, Ruhl dived on the charge and absorbed its full blast. Hansen had recoiled off the pillbox as the charge exploded, and now, with the emplacement between him and the enemy, he reached up and grasped Ruhl by the foot. Wells, who was crouching nearby and could see that Ruhl’s whole chest had been blown away, quickly ordered, “Leave him alone. He’s dead.” Ruhl had sacrificed himself to save a comrade, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Howard Snyder and the first squad were moving up on the left flank of the pillbox now, and they took up the fight. The Japanese had begun to scurry back and forth through the trenches and appeared to be trying to organize for a counterattack. Snyder and Corporal Harold Keller quickly began to lob grenades among them, and Pfc. James Robeson and Pfc. Louie Adrian, our squad’s full-blooded Spokan Indian, took turns firing with their BAR’s. After Snyder and Keller had thrown all the grenades the squad was carrying, Lieutenant Wells tossed them his own and ordered more passed up to them. The combination of grenades and BAR fire took its toll of the scampering enemy, and no counterattack developed. But now the Indian, while standing upright and firing into the trenches, got a bullet through the heart. His BAR kept chugging as he crumpled to the sand. Our platoon’s second and third squads, led by Corporal Robert Lane and Sergeant Kenneth Midkiff, were by this time close behind the leading attackers, and one of Midkiff’s BAR men, big Leo Rozek, hurried forward and took up the firing.
Now a Marine carrying a light machine gun moved into the platoon’s area, and Wells placed him on the line. The man began to fire into the entrenched Japanese with deadly effect, but he was soon killed. Several other men tried to operate the machine gun, but all were shot away from it. During these moments a Japanese bunker that lay just ahead of the platoon began to spew hand grenades. Many of our men were pinned down by these blasts, and there wasn’t much they could do about them. Rifle fire proved ineffective, and the platoon had used up its own grenades. Corporal Charles Lindberg’s squad, with its flame throwers and demolitions, had not yet made its final break through the heavy mortar barrage that was still being laid on the open sand. Corporal Wayne Hathaway, a quietspoken veteran of several Pacific campaigns, volunteered to go back for more grenades, and Wells consented. Hathaway took with him Private Edward Krisik, an eighteen-year-old who was seeing his first action. The pair had not gone far before they were cut down by Japanese bullets. Both were wounded fatally.
Several men of the assault squad had moved up with demolitions now, and Hank Hansen told Wells that he thought he could get to the bunker with a charge. “Give it a try!” Wells ordered. With some help, Hansen rigged a heavy charge and equipped it with a time fuse. Then he ran at the bunker. But instead of placing the charge at an aperture, he threw it—and missed. The blast that followed rocked the area but served only to make the enemy grenadiers more active. To further complicate the platoon’s problems, enemy mortar shells were starting to burst alarmingly close.