This Week in History: Flag Raising on Iwo Jima


On a small Japanese island on Feb. 23, 1945, a group of five United States marines and one Navy corpsman raised a flag, and in doing so, motivated their comrades to fight on in an iconic battle that would forever be marked in history.

During World War II, American forces sought to further their advances against Japan. The island of Iwo Jima served as an early warning station for potential attacks on Japanese mainland and, if it could be captured by Allied forces, could also serve as an airfield for future attacks. 

The ultimate decision was made that, after three days of naval bombardment, 30,000 marines would storm the beaches of the Japanese island. Set to battle more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers operating out of a complex tunnel system within Mount Suribachi, they were only partially aware of what they were up against.

With rough waves crashing down onto the beach behind the American marines and no way of digging foxholes into the sand beneath them, the surviving patriots had no choice but to advance towards the Japanese soldiers firing from the well-hidden holes and hideaways within the mountainside. For days, they continued the fight as they worked their way towards, and eventually upon, Mount Suribachi.

Eventually, a 41-man patrol was given the order to charge to the summit and, if they survived to the top, they were to raise a flag above the island indicating an American capture. They succeeded on their climb and, as they were ordered, raised the American flag to a roar of cheers from every American on the southern half of the island.

There was a discussion among generals in which there were rumors that Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was planning on ordering the men to remove the flag for his own keeping. Outraged by this, Colonel Chandler Johnson decided that the flag belonged to the hard-working marines who placed it atop the mountain.

Johnson quickly ordered Harlon Block, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley and Mike Strank to retrieve the flag and secure it for the men of which the flag truly belonged. In its place, a secondary flag was raised—much bigger than the first. This flag was rescued from a distressed ship from Pearl Harbor before it sunk completely.

The secondary flag was not thought to be a great ordeal by the men in charge of exchanging the two. The men had not realized that photographer Joe Rosenthal had followed them on their climb. Rosenthal captured the moment and encapsulated it forever into history.

His photograph was one of the first in history to win a Pulitzer Prize within a year of being taken. It has become an iconic image demonstrating the bravery and resilience of the United States Marine Corps.

The Battle of Iwo Jima would go on for nearly a month longer, until being declared officially secure on March 26, 1945. Over the course of battle, 6,821 Americans were killed with another 19,217 wounded. More than one quarter of the Medals of Honor awarded to marines after World War II were given for conduct in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Rosenthal’s image was used for the creation of the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. The memorial, which was dedicated on Nov. 10, 1954, sits just outside of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and serves to recognize all United State Marine Corps personnel who have died while serving.