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Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

In His Native Tongue

ASU Magazine Spring 2012 Bonus Feature

By Preston Lewis
Director of Communications & Marketing

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As the six men lifted the flagpole, the flag unfurled in the breeze and Rosenthal snapped the shutter of his Speed Graphic. The flag-raising took four seconds. In 1/400th of a second, Rosenthal captured perhaps the most famous photo ever taken. The photo was one of only 18 he would take that day on Iwo Jima, but it would be weeks before Rosenthal would actually see the photo. The film was sent to Guam for developing. When the print hit the Associated Press wires, it became a worldwide sensation.

The six servicemen in the photo had become instantly famous, even though their faces were obscured and all their identities would require two years to fully unravel. While the American public stood in reverent awe of the photo, the Marines fought on, unaware of the iconic image and its civilian morale-boosting impact, but all too familiar with the daily terror that was Iwo Jima.

Code Talker Tso shared that fear in the days following the flag-raising, so much so that he had nightmares as he tried to sleep in his foxhole. As he remembered in the book Iwo Jima, one of his buddies kicked him awake early one morning, asking if he was having a bad dream. Tso awoke, stood up dazed, then sat back down in the sands of Iwo Jima and remembered a vision of an Indian maiden coming to him in his dream and offering him a necklace with the admonition, “Here, you wear this, and you’ll come back to us.” She handed him a necklace made of cedar tree berries with a cross made of cedarwood at the end.

Tso recalled that the dream was so real, he just sat there thinking about it, even missing breakfast as he pondered the strange vision. When his fellow Marines returned, one told him it was time for mail call, but Tso never went to mail call. What was the point? His parents could not write. He never received mail. On this morning, though, his bodyguard ran back, crying out, “Hey, Chief, you got a letter! You got a letter!”

Years later, Tso recalled, “He brought it over, and he said, ‘There’s something in it.’ We opened it and here is the necklace that Indian maiden tried to give me in my dream. It’s in that letter. That letter, I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do about it…oh, yeah…I was supposed to wear it. I put it on. As soon as I put it on, all that fear disappeared.”

That letter was the only one he received in World War II. He would wear the necklace until it fell apart.

“Who sent it? I never knew. My name is on the envelope, but there’s no return address or nothing. No note. Just the plain necklace. And, the dream. After that, I wasn’t afraid,” Tso remembered.

Most men in front-line combat always seem to identify others who have it worse. For Tso, it was the engineers of the naval construction battalions or Seabees who were charged with repairing and maintaining the runway of Airfield No. 1, even under enemy fire. Before planes could land on the damaged landing strip, the Seabees not only had to fill bomb craters and level it out, but also had to crawl on their hands and knees, inch by inch along the entire runway to remove any shrapnel or other debris that might puncture a tire and turn an emergency landing into a disaster.

After Suribachi and the No. 1 Airfield were secure, Tso’s unit was held in reserve while the brutal fighting crept to the northern end of the island where most of the remaining Japanese were encircled. The reason for Iwo Jima was demonstrated on the afternoon of March 4.

As Tso said during his ASU visit, “We heard airplanes coming somewhere. We thought that it must be the Japanese, going to drop a bomb on us again, but I look all around and I didn’t see no planes. But all of a sudden, a B-29 American bomber just broke over the horizon and it landed. Boy, that was the happiest moment of our lives.”

The airplane, returning from a bombing run on Japan, was the Superfortress Dinah Might, which made an emergency landing under enemy mortar fire on Airfield No. 1. In spite of the danger of enemy fire, Marines and Seabees swarmed around the B-29 to greet the crew members, who were likely the only U.S. service men happy to be on Iwo Jima as their only other option would have been a swim in the Pacific.

Dinah Might would be the first of thousands of U.S. planes to land on Iwo Jima before Japan surrendered.

As the pocket of Japanese dwindled, Tso and his unit were called back into combat to help clear out a landmark with the sinister sobriquet of “Death Valley” by providing coordinates for several machine gun emplacements.

“Death Valley?” Tso told his ASU audience. “I thought I must be in California or something, but I found there’s a Death Valley on Iwo Jima. It’s a small one, but it is a terrible place.”

Tso and his buddies were ordered to sprint across Death Valley at precisely noon and relay gun positions back to headquarters, because that was when most Japanese troops left their posts for a few minutes to get food and water. At noon, Tso and his fellow Marines did not walk through the valley of the shadow of death, they ran. It didn’t matter as some machine guns were still manned.

“A lot of Marines were shot down by the machine gun, laying on top of one another,” Tso recalled in his remarks on campus. “Only one or two of them were still alive and one of them says ‘I need help,’ so we stopped to help him, but the sergeant behind us screamed at us and says, ‘That is not your mission. You complete your mission first.’”

Tso and his companions identified the locations of the machine gun nests and reported back to headquarters with the coordinates. Moments later artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets demolished the targets and Death Valley was a little less deadly for American troops, but Tso never learned if the Marine he stopped to assist ever got help or even survived.

Then 35 days after the invasion, the island was declared secure and the battle over. The American casualties were horrific and on a scale of Antietam and Gettysburg from the Civil War. American casualties totaled 6,821 dead, 19,217 wounded and 2,648 with combat fatigue for a total of 28,686, the greatest number of casualties in the history of the U.S. Marines.

The flag raisers provided a microcosm of Iwo Jima experience. Of the 12 men involved in the first and then the more famous second flag-raising, six died on the island. Several of the six survivors were wounded before they left Iwo Jima. Thirteen of 24 Marine battalion commanders died on the island, including Chandler Johnson whose orders to replace the first flag on Suribachi led to one of the iconic war photos of all time. Bad though U.S. casualty rates were, Japanese loss rates were even worse. Of the estimated 22,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima at the time of the invasion, only 216 were captured by battle’s end.

On the American side, Tso was one of the lucky ones as he made it through Iwo Jima unscathed, though his lucky necklace ultimately fell to pieces. From Iwo Jima, he left with the Marine Fifth Division to prepare for the invasion of the Japanese homeland. Iwo Jima and the subsequent Battle of Okinawa demonstrated how vicious the battle would be to conquer the Japanese on their native soil, but the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following August brought World War II to an end without the ultimate need for that invasion.

Of the millions of Americans who served in the military in World War II, only 440 received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were won on Iwo Jima, 22 by Marines and five by Navy personnel. Those 22 Medals of Honor, including two by Marines from Texas, were more than a fourth of the 81 awarded to Marine Corps personnel in all of WWII.

Joe Rosenthal would win the Pulitzer Prize for photography that year, and the photo’s three survivors—Ira Hayes, John Bradley and Rene Gagnon—would spearhead the government’s seventh war loan drive and help sell more than $220 million in bonds.

Tso was discharged from the Marines on March 29, 1946, and returned home to find his parents had died. He left the reservation and did various jobs before getting a degree in elementary education. Then he taught Navajo children for 30 years in various schools, including one about 20 miles from where he was born.

Today, Tso is vice president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, whose ranks are diminishing as its members work to build a permanent Code Talker memorial on the Navajo Reservation. The proceeds from his ASU visit he donated to that cause.

With the benefit of hindsight, the legacy of Iwo Jima is mixed, according to Center for Security Studies Director Ehlers. Without a doubt, it is one of the most hallowed battles as well as the bloodiest conflict in the annals of the U.S. Marines Corps. Strategically, the results are more difficult to assess as to its ultimate value as an air base, according to Ehlers. Proponents of the Iwo Jima operation note that a total of 2,251 B-29 Superfortresses landed on Iwo Jima and each carried 11 crewmen. Accordingly, they say, the capture of Iwo Jima saved the lives of 24,761 Americans.

Ehlers counters that only about 2 percent of all B-29 missions landed at Iwo Jima for emergency reasons.

“That means that an absolute maximum of 4,950 aircrew avoided ditching or some other serious problem, with the actual number escaping true emergency situations likely much lower,” Ehlers said. “In fact, the vast majority of these aircraft would have made it to their home airfields in the Marianas. Landing on Iwo Jima was often a precaution rather than a life-or-death situation. Aircrews made the vast majority of these 2,251 landings to take on extra bombs or fuel, as part of training missions, or to wait out bad weather before flying the last leg to their home bases.”

In weighing the Marine casualties versus the resulting benefits for airmen, Eric Hammel, author of Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific, concluded “There is no way for the calculus of war to achieve closure, nor for the calculus of life.”

While historians may debate the calculus of war, no one questions that Samuel Tso, the Navajo Code Talkers and the Marines did their duty with distinction and valor on Iwo Jima.


Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

Iwo by Richard Wheeler

Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor by Bill D. Ross

Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific by Eric Hammel

Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific by Larry Smith

Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers by Sally McClain

Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers by Deanne Durrett

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Iconic flag raising at Iwo Jima

Five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman raise the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, using a piece of Japanese pipe as a mast, February 23, 1945. Three of the flag raisers were later killed as the fighting raged on. By March 16, when Iwo Jima was declared secured, 6,821 Americans and 21,000 Japanese (the entire force) had died. The flag raising photo and subsequent statue came to symbolize being a Marine. Photo by Joe Rosenthal.

“I thought I must be in California or something, but I found there’s a Death Valley on Iwo Jima. It’s a small one, but it is a terrible place.”

Samuel Tso