- 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
Within half an hour after leaving battalion headquarters the patrol reached the summit. The scattered caves and the yawning crater remained silent, so Schrier ordered the men to start moving over the rim. Howard Snyder took the lead, Harold Keller was second, and Chick Robeson was third. Then came Schrier, his radioman, and Leo Rozek. Robert Leader was seventh—and fully expecting to be fired upon, he hoped that number 7 was really the lucky number it was supposed to be. The men fanned out and took up positions just inside the rim. They were tensed for action, but the caves about them and the reaches below them were strangely still. Finally one of the Marines stood up and urinated down the crater’s slope. But even this insulting gesture did not stir the Japanese to action.
While half the patrol stayed at the rim, the other half now began to press into the crater to probe for resistance and to look for something that might serve as a flagpole. Keller, moving in the lead, made the first contact with the enemy. He spotted a man climbing out of a vertical hole, his back to the Marines. Keller fired three times from the hip, and the Japanese dropped out of sight. Now enemy hand grenades began to explode among our men. Those closest to the caves from which they came took cover, and replied with grenades of their own.
While these duels were being fought, Leader and Rozek discovered a long piece of pipe, apparently a remnant of a rain-catching system, and passed it up to the summit. Waiting with the flag were Schrier, Thomas, Hansen, and Lindberg, and they promptly set about affixing it to the pole. It was about 10:30 A.M. when the pole was planted and the Stars and Stripes, seized by the wind, began to whip proudly over Mount Suribachi. The date was February 23, 1945. This achievement by the 3rd Platoon had a unique significance. Mount Suribachi was the first piece of Japanese-owned territory—not counting mandates like Saipan—to be captured by American forces during World War II.
The planting of the colors brought a great swell of pride and exultation among Iwo Jima’s combat-weary Marines. Those who were watching from below raised the cry, “There goes the flag!” The electrifying word quickly spread to all the units about the volcano’s base and to the regiments that were fighting the main battle to the north. The cry was also taken up by the fleet. Aboard my hospital ship I thrilled to the news as it came over the public-address system—though I was not aware at the time that it was my own platoon that had raised the flag. Soon, word of the accomplishment would also be cheering the people at home, who had been following the progress of the battle anxiously and had been disheartened by the reports of our mounting casualties.
The flag was barely up before it was challenged. A Japanese rifleman stepped out of a cave and fired at photographer Louis Lowery and BAR-man Robeson. He missed, but Robeson didn’t. He swung his BAR up for a long burst, and the man dropped heavily. The body was quickly seized by the feet and dragged back into the cave. But now an officer stepped out. Grimacing bitterly, he charged toward the flag-raising group, brandishing a sword that had only half a blade. By this time a dozen Marines were alerted to the cave threat, and a volley of bullets turned the one-man charge into a headlong tumble.
Several additional caves now came to life, and enemy grenades once more started to fly. Lowery had another narrow escape. A grenade landed near him and he was forced to leap down the side of the volcano, tumbling fifty feet before he was able to catch hold of a bush, and breaking his camera.
Our men once more met the grenade threat with grenades of their own. They flanked the caves and kept tossing them inside until the occupants were silenced. Some of the caves were then also assaulted with flame throwers and blown shut with demolitions. The cave that had produced the rifleman and the swordsman was one of these. It would later be dug open by souvenir hunters who would discover that it held no less than 150 decomposing enemy bodies. Many of these men died by detonating grenades held to their chests. They had chosen suicide over suffocation.
Other units soon joined the 3rd Platoon at the summit and began to assist with the crater mop-up. Similar operations were still going on at the volcano’s base and had also been started on its outer slopes.