23 February 2015


Seventy years ago this morning, one of the most famous—and as any Marine will tell you, the absolutely finest—photographs in history was snapped on a hot, stinking mound of sulphuric volcanic ash located in the western Pacific. It is, of course, Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
Look at this photo, 1/400 of a second of what was the 36 days (3,110, 400 seconds) of the hell that was Iwo.

Six of the men who landed on the island on D-day, 19 February 1945, are included in this photograph.  It is a classically Marine Corps photo:  5 Marines and a Corpsman, “Doc,” raising a flag before getting on with the ugly business of war.  Those men were all from 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Ira Hayes, Corporal Harlon Block, Corporal Rene Gagnon, and PFC Franklin Sousley, USMC, and Pharmacist’s Mate, 2d Class John Bradley, USN.  

One four hundredth of a second.

Doc Bradley recounted how he happened to be in the photo.  Sergeant Strank’s squad had been ordered to raise a ship’s flag (9 feet on the hoist by 19 feet on the fly) to replace the storm flag (5x9) raised by the first squad to the top.  The larger flag could then be seen by more Marines on the sands below.  Strank’s people found a piece of pipe which weighed about 100 pounds and lashed the flag to it.  As the 5 Marines struggled with the pole, Doc Bradley was adjusting his gear.  Strank said, “Hey, Doc, give us a hand.”  Perfect.

Watching from the beach below, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal commented, “That image will guarantee the existence of the Marine Corps for 500 years!”    But the fight was just beginning.

Sergeant Strank, Corporal Block, and PFC Sousley were killed in action within the next 30 days, all while advancing against the enemy.  Doc Bradley, who had already been nominated for the Navy Cross for gallantry on D-Day, was seriously wounded and evacuated, but not before tending to two wounded Marines and seeing them evacuated before he would even consider his own wounds.  

Twenty-two Marines and 4 Corpsmen were awarded the Medal of Honor at Iwo, 14 posthumously.  That 22 represented 28 percent of all Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in World War II.

Admiral Nimitz later commented that “Among the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Of the 60, 000 plus Marines and Sailors from the 3d, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions who fought there, 6,821 were killed in action and another 19, 217 were wounded in action. Of the 22,000 Jap defenders of the island, 216 were eventually captured (the last two on 6 January 1949). 

As a prelude to the invasion of the Home Islands, those stark numbers (along with the similarly high numbers for Okinawa: 12,000 US KIA, 38,000 US WIA;  110,000 Japanese KIA, 7,000 captured, 40-150,000 civilians killed, including mass suicides) made any alternative to the invasion a better alternative.  President Truman’s approval of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (140,000 Japanese dead; US KIA 0, US WIA 0) was a relatively easy decision.

One four hundredth of a second.

Semper Fidelis.

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