On the 23rd February the Marines were making good but bloody progress on the Island of Iwo Jima, where they had landed on the 19th. The capture of Mount Suribachi was an early priority since it gave the Japanese a vantage point from which they could direct their guns.
1Lt. Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division volunteered to lead a 40-man combat patrol up the mountain when the platoon leader was injured. They captured the top of the mountain some time after 10am and set about raising the United States flag on a piece of piping that had been used by the Japanese to capture rainwater.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal was coming ashore at the moment when this flag went up. It was just a speck in the distance but he immediately recognised its symbolic significance, telling General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who was accompanying him:
Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years
It was then decided that a larger, more visible, flag was needed on the summit. The occasion would be photographed not just by the Marines but by the international media as represented by the Associated Press.
However the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, had not been especially well prepared for the event:
Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.
The photograph that he took has gone on to become probably the most reproduced photographic image in history.
Mount Suribachi loomed over the whole island, the dominant feature whose capture in most battles would have signalled the end of the engagement. In fact the battle for the island was very far from over, the Marines might be holding the high ground but the greater part of the Japanese forces remained intact underground. The raising of the flag was a small part of the events on the island, where the battle raged as intensely as ever that day. Of the 40 men in the combat team that first climbed Mount Suribachi, 36 would killed or wounded in the following few weeks.
One weapon was to prove invaluable to the US forces in clearing out the deeply entrenched Japanese, the flame thrower. The operators of these relatively crude devices were to suffer very heavy casualties themselves. They were walking around the battlefield encumbered with a heavy weapon, clearly identifiable as a special threat to the Japanese, when it only took one bullet to send them into a blazing inferno.
On 23rd February, the actions of one man give us some idea of the nature of the fighting. Hershel W. “Woody” Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Demolition Sergeant serving with the First Battalion, Twenty-First Marines, Third Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Island, 23 February 1945.
Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black, volcanic sands, Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions.
Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flame throwers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.
On one occasion he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flame thrower through the air vent, kill the occupants and silence the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.
His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided in enabling his company to reach its’ [sic] objective.
Corporal Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
An Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, this 20 minute Technicolor production unfolds with graphic energy the nearly month long battle for Iwo Jima: