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Iwo Jima black sands

In His Native Tongue

ASU Magazine Spring 2012 Bonus Feature 

By Preston Lewis
Director of Communications & Marketing

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That was how Iwo Jima would be fought for the next 35 days, the U.S. troops clinging to the surface fighting a subterranean enemy that made deadly tactical use of the tunnels and fortifications. In fact, experienced aerial observers had never witnessed a battle like it, thousands of Americans advancing or fighting from fox holes against a practically unseen enemy. With the all the roiling smoke and dust from explosions, Iwo Jima to one Navy pilot looked like “a fat pork chop, sizzling in the skillet” that first afternoon.

Night brought little relief, Tso said, because the Japanese shot off constant flares which would light the sky and land, then fade away into patches of darkness which offered cover for the enemy to advance or attack Marines in their fox holes. Fighting an unseen enemy in the flare-illuminated dark was even more terrifying than combating the invisible Japanese in the daylight.

The objective of the Marines in the Fifth Division was to isolate Mount Suribachi by cutting it off from the rest of the island at the narrowest section of Iwo Jima. Once they did that, their job was to secure Mount Suribachi to preserve the high ground and to then take and hold Chidori, the first and largest of the island’s three airfields.

On Feb. 23, four days after the Marines invaded, the Fifth Division took both objectives, but it would be weeks before the two were fully secure and safe from Japanese emerging from caves and tunnels to attack U.S. servicemen.

Around 10:20 that morning, six Marines—Lt. Harold Schrier, Sgt. Ernest T. Thomas, Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, Corp. Charles W. Lindberg, PFC Louis C. Charlo and PFC James Michels—hoisted a 54-inch by 28-inch American flag over the summit of Mount Suribachi. The moment was historic as it marked the first land directly administered by the Japanese government to be captured by U.S. Forces in World War II. The event was photographed by Marine photographer Lou Lowery. Near the airfield, Tso received a message which he forwarded on: “Dibe binaa naadzii,” which translated to “Mount Suribachi is secured.”

As Tso recounted in Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific, “And the Marines that were there saw me writing it down, and they all said, ‘What’s up, Chief?’ All I did was just point up to the flag, and they saw it. Oh, gosh, those guys just jumped up and started celebrating. They forgot the Japanese were still shooting.

“As I remember,” he recalled, “Sgt. Thomas screamed at us, said, ‘Damn you knotheads! Get back in your foxholes there!’ And then the guys stopped celebrating, and they jumped back in their foxholes.”

As word spread across the island and to the American ships ringing Iwo Jima, a great roar arose even above the din of battle as thousands of Marines in the shadow of Suribachi saw the Stars and Stripes, then cheered. As Navy ships learned of the feat, they sounded their horns and whistles. Historic though the moment and the photograph were, they would be overshadowed a couple hours later by another flag-raising and an immortal photograph.

The chain of events that led to the second and immortalized flag-raising began when the 28th Marine Regiment’s Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, commander of the second battalion troops that raised the first flag, wanted it replaced with a larger flag that would be more visible to the troops below. Further, he wanted to make sure that the original flag, because of its historical significance was not lost to a souvenir hunter. He sent one of his lieutenants back to the beach to find a larger flag. The junior officer retrieved from one of the beached landing craft with a 8-foot by 4-foot flag reported to have been salvaged, ironically, from Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the Dec. 7 attack.

Johnson ordered his runner, PFC Rene A. Gagnon of New Hampshire, to carry the flag up Suribachi. Sgt. Michael Strank of Pennsylvania, Corp. Harlon H. Block of Texas, PFC Franklin R. Sousley of Kentucky and PFC Ira H. Hayes of Arizona accompanied Gagnon up the treacherous trail to the summit of Suribachi. When Gagnon reached the summit, he conveyed his orders to Lt. Schrier, “Col. Johnson wants this big flag run up high so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it.”

At the same time, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was navigating his way up the slopes of Suribachi, accompanied by his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera.

At the summit Rosenthal’s path crossed with those carrying the replacement flag. Lt. Schrier ordered the new flag be raised as the first flag was lowered. Rosenthal wanted to frame both flags in the photo, but saw he did not have time to position himself properly. Instead, he backed away some 35 feet and hurriedly stacked some rocks he could stand on for a better angle of the replacement flag carriers, who found a piece of pipe to attach the bigger flag to. As they struggled to raise the flag, Navy corpsman John H. Bradley of Wisconsin stepped in to assist.

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Iwo Jima’s Black Sands

Smashed by Japanese mortar and shellfire and trapped by Iwo Jima’s soft black sands, amtracs and other vehicles lay wrecked on the beach. February 1945.

Hundreds of bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and antitank ditches sheltering more than 22,000 Japanese troops and their machine guns, mortars and artillery dotted the island.