The Price of Courage: The Battle of Iwo Jima – Part Three: Old Glory on Suribachi
On D+1 of the Iwo Jima campaign the invasion force split away for two objectives. The 4th Division moved to the northeast to take on the bulk of the island’s defenses. At the same time the 5th Division’s 28th Regiment marched toward Mount Suribachi.
The attack on the inactive volcano would consist of three battalions: the 1st, under Lieutenant Colonel Jackson B. Butterfield, on the right; the 2nd, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, on the left; and the 3rd, led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Shepard, up the middle. Shepard told the men of his battalion they had a two-part mission: “One, to secure this lousy piece of real estate so that we can get the hell off it; and two, to help as many Nips as possible to fulfill their oath to die for the emperor.”
There were practical reasons for taking the mountain before assaulting the rest of the island. Milo Fisher stated the most important one in detailing Japanese defensive positions: “all beaches could be well-covered by fire from the Suribachi mountain to the south and the high cliffs overlooking the beaches from the north.” The mountain might be dormant as a volcano but it was active with fire from the many Japanese troops holed up in its caves. American control of Suribachi would make future landings much less hazardous.
One weapon around since World War I was used with devastating impact at Iwo Jima and especially on Suribachi. This was the flamethrower; it could be strapped in a pack on a soldier’s back or loaded into specially designed tanks for industrial-sized jobs. From the base of Suribachi to its peaks flamethrowers were a great aid to the Marines.
At the mountain’s base flamethrower tanks were used; farther up, individual packs were required. These
squirting streams of fire… began to destroy thousands of the enemy.
The bunkers and pillboxes were turned into furnaces. Their ammu-
nition was exploded, and shell casings, hand grenade fragments, and
other pieces of debris came flying out… As the Japanese died, the
platoon could smell the roasting flesh, and some of the men said
later the circumstances made this seem the sweetest odor they had
The great effectiveness of the flamethrowers did not mean they came without risks. Most were physical hazards for those who used them. A Marine carrying one of these packs was subject to even more gunfire and live grenades than the average infantryman.
Corporal Joe Niedbata recorded a great hazard of the flamethrower tank crew in his account of Iwo. His crew helped to isolate Suribachi from the rest of the island defenses.
The beach was mined and we had to wait until the engineers cleared
a path for us. It took us about two hours to catch up with the infantry
and the other tanks [because] we broke a track [another common
occurrence in the battle].
Just as we caught up with the other tanks another tank came in from
nowhere and cut in front of us… just then an antitank gun opened up
and hit, seriously wounded two of its crew. We pulled up to the gun
position and were ordered to burn it with our flamethrower.
The fuel line had a leak, and when we started to use the flamethrower,
it burst into flames. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and finally put it
into use. It took a few minutes to put out the fire.
While I was fighting the fire, our assistant driver got out and was
having one hell of a time. We were right in the middle of the Jap
lines and he was jumping around like a jackrabbit trying to keep
from getting hit. We finished our mission and got out of there.
Flamethrowers were hazardous both to the enemy and to those who used them.
With a flurry of fire and grenades accompanied by artillery support (antitank guns and the ships’ big guns), the Marines slowly but steadily advanced up the mountain for the next three days. On D+2 carrier planes resumed bombing and strafing this sector. The infantry, hearing the Japanese talking beneath them in the mountainside, poured gas through gaps in the rocks and set it on fire.
Kuribayashi refused to permit a banzai charge by the mountain garrison; he remained convinced his original plan would kill more Americans. By the evening of D+3 there was already talk of going to the summit. Almost no resistance was being encountered by that point. This was put off until the next day because of the lateness of the hour.
February 23 began with a climb to the mountaintop by an American patrol. They reported to Colonel Johnson that there were no signs of life. He sent them back up with an American flag to mount above the crater on the summit.
Among the Marines who witnessed this first flag-raising was Corporal Ira H. Hayes. He remembered that
It was pretty small and I couldn’t hardly make it out. We were all
happy over this, as we knew the 3rd platoon (part of Hayes’s company)
had made it to the top after engaging a small group of Japs on the
We got back with the rest of the company and rested up for about five
minutes. Then Sergeant Mike Strank, my squad leader, picked Sergeant
Henson, Pfc. Sousely, and myself to get our gear on, as we were going
up Suribachi. I thought maybe it was a reconnaissance mission… We
started to ascend Suribachi from the eastern side. We got half the way
up and took a break. Mike had a bulge in his jacket and one of the
fellows asked him what it was. He grinned back and showed us a
flag and told us we were going to plant a large flag in place of the
little one, so the whole island could know the 28th had secured
We got to the top and got everything squared away. Sgt. Strank told me
to go find something to lash the flag onto… much to my luck, I found
an old rusty Jap water pipe about 15 feet long. Sousely and myself dug
it out and took it back to the place where we were to raise the flag.
Sgt. Strank, Bradley the corpsman, and myself tied the flag on, and
then carried it to the place Strank selected. Strank, Bradley, Henson,
Sousely, Gagnon, and myself. The idea was to keep a flag up all
the time so a couple of men got the small flag, then lowered it
down, and at the same time we raised the large one. We then tied
Then a Marine hollered over to us [that] our picture was taken.
About twenty yards away we saw Joe Rosenthal (an Associated
Press photographer) and a couple of others. We didn’t know they
were taking our picture.
Not only did Rosenthal’s shot win him a Pulitzer Prize but it also became the war’s best-known photograph. Most importantly, the sight of Old Glory flying from the island’s highest promontory inspired American forces across Iwo and offshore as well. “I don’t think an American anywhere could have failed to grasp that awe-inspiring scene,” wrote E. B. Judge. “I wish it were in my power to describe it… you want to shout, cry, and pray all at the same time.”
The Marines cheered lustily to the accompaniment of bells, foghorns and whistles, which created a deafening roar. Although the battle raged on every American was now certain which side would win.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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