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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
It was about three hours after the flag was planted that Colonel Johnson made the decision to replace it. The 3rd Platoon’s flag measured only 54 inches by 28 inches, and was hard to see from a distance without binoculars. Since the sight of the flag was important to the morale of our troops, who still had a lot of fighting to do before Iwo was secured, Johnson felt that a larger one was needed. He got a bigger flag from LST 779, a vessel beached near Suribachi’s eastern base. As the new flag was being carried up the volcano, Joe Rosenthal, a civilian photographer covering the Iwo operation for the Associated Press, spotted the move and decided to follow. This resulted in the now-famous photograph. Although about half the 3rd Platoon was present at the second raising, only one of our men, Corpsman John Bradley, is in Rosenthal’s picture. So much has been written about the second event that it need not be discussed here. But let me say this: the photograph deserves to be popular; it depicts an authentic combat scene, even though the circumstances were less impromptu and dangerous than those of the earlier flag-raising.
By the time Suribachi was finally secured, the 28th Marines had lost more than 900 men. But the grimmest part of the tale is that our regiment’s ordeal was only beginning. On February 28 it was ordered to Iwo Jima’s northern front. There, during several weeks of the bitterest kind of fighting, it was cut to pieces. As for the 3rd Platoon, it was virtually wiped out. Only four of our original forty-six men got through the battle unscathed. Among the dead were two of our flag raisers, courageous Ernest Thomas and Hank Hansen.
I don’t suppose this telling of the 3rd Platoon’s story will make much difference to history. But maybe it will help to keep my former comrades from being forgotten entirely. I hope so. After all, they were Iwo Jima’s real flag-raising heroes.