- 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
Chuck Lindberg had brought up the rest of the assault squad by this time, and Wells prepared to direct our flame-thrower men against the bunker and the other menacing defenses. But the effort was impeded by mortar fire, which now had our range. One of the shells soon scored a bull’s-eye. It burst among Wells and four other Marines. Wells was hardest hit. His legs were filled with shrapnel, his trousers were shredded, and one of the canteens at his belt was exploded. As he said later, at first he had no feeling in his legs, being conscious only of a burning sensation along his spine. But he did not relinquish command of the platoon. By the time a medical corpsman had given him first aid, the feeling had crept back into his legs. Discovering that he was still capable of movement, he disregarded his wounds and turned his attention once more to the platoon’s difficulties. The situation had become critical. Our unit had lost seventeen men since the attack began; those who were still in action were being tried to the limit of their endurance and had only a precarious hold on the section of enemy line they had hit.
But then things began to look up. Braving the mortar shells, hand grenades, and small-arms fire, our two flame-thrower men, Lindberg and Private Robert Goode, started to move against the troublesome defenses. The results they achieved were dramatic—and terrible. Squirting streams of fire at every opening they could find, they began to destroy dozens of the enemy. The bunker and the pillboxes were turned into furnaces. Ammunition exploded, and shell casings, bullet casings, grenade fragments, and other pieces of debris came flying out through the smoking apertures. As the Japanese died, the platoon could smell their roasting flesh. Some of our men said later that the circumstances made the odor seem the sweetest they had ever smelled.
Tanks were moving up all along the line now, and the assault on the first defenses was assured of success. By this time our tattered and bloody lieutenant had got his wounds full of sand and was groggy from two morphine injections. He knew he was no longer fit to command. Turning our unit over to Platoon Sergeant Thomas, he crawled painfully to the rear. For his leadership that morning, Wells was awarded the Navy Cross. Thomas, who was only twenty years old, had the same sort of spirit, and he too won the Navy Cross for his work against Suribachi. It was he who discovered the soft spot that enabled our battalion to make a relentless drive toward the volcano’s base.
The push through the fortifications meant a hodgepodge of encounters accompanied by a great racket and many moments of confusion. Hand-to-hand fighting developed as enemy soldiers suddenly darted from cover, some to attack and others to race for the safety of more remote defenses. There were a number of knife killings and bayonetings. One Marine, attacked by a saber-swinging Japanese officer, caught the sword with his bare hands, wrested it from the officer, and hacked him to death with it. I saw this Marine later. He stopped by my hospital-ship bunk and told me his story. Both his hands were badly gashed—but he still had the Japanese sword.
Three days after our landing on Iwo Jima, Suribachi was surrounded and the fight for the volcano was largely won. There were still substantial numbers of Japanese in obscure caves and other holes, but hundreds had been slain and the power of the fortress had been broken. Our platoon, its thin ranks bolstered by replacements, was chosen to secure the summit. By this time our unit had more than proved its combat efficiency. Our high-spirited lieutenant had come pretty close to having the fifty men he wanted—the fifty who weren’t afraid to die.
The next morning our company’s executive officer, First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, led our platoon to 2nd Battalion headquarters, which had been set up near the volcano’s northeast base. While Schrier consuited with our battalion commander, Colonel Chandler W. Johnson, our men were issued extra ammunition and were joined by a radioman, two teams of stretcher-bearers, and a photographer, Staff Sergeant Louis Lowery of Leatherneck Magazine.
As the patrol prepared to move out, the Colonel handed Lieutenant Schrier a folded American flag, one that our battalion adjutant had been carrying in his map case. He had acquired the flag from the Missoula , the transport that had carried our battalion to Saipan, our staging area. Colonel Johnson’s orders were simple: the patrol was to climb to the summit, secure the crater, and if possible, raise the flag. Our men hoped fervently that their mission would prove as uncomplicated as the Colonel made it sound.
Falling into an irregular column, the patrol headed directly for the volcano’s base. When the route became steep and difficult, Schrier sent out flankers to guard the vulnerable column against surprise attack. Some slopes of the volcano were so steep they had to be negotiated on hands and knees. Although several cave entrances were sighted, no resistance developed. Far below, the Marines posted in a semicircle around the northeast base observed the patrol’s laborious ascent. Also watching, through binoculars, were numerous men of the U.S. fleet.