There are few pictures more iconic than the one that captured the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. But what you may not know is that moment in time, one of The Moments in Time, was actually the second time the U.S. flag had been planted there.
Suribachi was the only really landmark of note on Iwo’s 8 square miles. Rising to a height of 550′ at the southwestern-most tip of the island, it commanded a pristine view (and firing position) for the entire island. So capturing it early was paramount to protecting the Marines below.
On the morning of February 23, 1945, a couple of four-man patrols started up Suribachi’s slopes to determine the enemy disposition. With the battle now entering its fifth day, everyone knew that the Mount was actually a massive maze of tunnels and defensive positions, so the patrols expected heavy resistance. What they got instead were minor skirmishes with isolated groups of soldiers that were easily dispatched. They reached the summit and quickly descended.
A second group of Marines, this one platoon-sized, then ascended Suribachi, again on guard for attacks. Taking with them a small flag, they too reached the summit and planted it in the ground. That’s the photo you see above. But Navy Secretary James Forrestal had just come ashore and, seeing the small flag, wanted it as a souvenir. And since no one questions the Secretary of the Navy, a larger flag was carried up to replace the first flag. And while this second flag was being raised, it was then that photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the immortal image that’s so familiar to all of us. Serious copyrights hold that photo, so showing it without the say-so of the Associated Press is a big no-no. Wikipedia, however, has received permission, and displays it here.
The flag-raising on Mount Suribachi that morning was largely symbolic. Just four days of fighting had passed and, unknown to the Marines, more than 30 additional days remained. Only three of the six Marines in Rosenthal’s photo would survive those 30-some days. But more than one soldier has said that seeing that flag on Suribachi’s summit was a source of pride and inspiration as they fought the brutal battle in its shadow.
Recommended Reading: Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific – I just added this book to my collection last fall.