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Excerpt from 'Flags of Our Fathers'
As the United States and its allies began to make plans for the saturation bombing of Japan, it was determined that the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima had to be secured in order to ensure a safe flight path for the bombers.
The fight for Iwo Jima took 36 days and claimed 28,851 American casualties, including 7,000 dead. Virtually all of the Japanese soldiers -- who were hidden underground in an elaborate maze of fortified tunnels, and would emerge for ambush attacks -- were killed.
On the fifth day of the fight, the Marines had reached Mount Suribachi. The platoon to first reach the top raised an American flag. Navy Secretary James Forrestal saw the flag-raising from the beach and mentioned to an aide that he wanted the flag as a memento. So the unit's commander ordered a second flag raised. That second flag-raising was the one photographed by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, and became the model for the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Though this was a repeat flag-raising, it was not staged; the famous photograph was spontaneous.)
Among the six young men who raised that flag was John Henry "Doc" Bradley, the father of James Bradley, author of "Flags of Our Fathers." In this excerpt (edited for reasons of space) from his book, the Marines are climbing Mount Suribachi.
Copyright 2000 by James Bradley. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books. All rights reserved.
Just before the 40-man patrol began its climb, Chandler Johnson turned to his adjutant, Lt. Greeley Wells, and asked Wells to hand him something from his map case. Then Johnson called Lt. Schrier aside and gave him the object.
"If you get to the top," the colonel told Schrier, "put it up."
What Johnson handed the lieutenant was an American flag, one that Greeley Wells had brought ashore from the USS Missoula. The flag was a relatively small one, measuring 54 by 28 inches.
Dave Severance never forgot the wording of that command. "He didn't say, 'When you get to the top,'" the captain pointed out. "He said, 'If.'"
The platoon made ready to start its trek. I imagine my father looking around for his buddy, Ralph Ignatowski -- Iggy. A Marine staff sergeant named Louis Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck magazine, asked permission to come along and record the ascent. The boys in the unit glanced upward, measuring what lay ahead.
It was Boots Thomas who got the unit moving: "Patrol, up the hill! Come on, lets's move out!" "I thought I was sending them to their deaths," Dave Severance would later admit to me. "I thought the Japanese were waiting for a larger force."
As the 40-man line snaked upward, gained altitude and grew visible against the near-vertical face of the mountain, it attracted attention. Marines on the beaches and on the flat terrain to the north turned to watch. Even men aboard the offshore ships put binoculars to their eyes to follow the thin lines's winding trek. Nearly everyone had the same thought: They're going to get it.
The men on the march shared this sense of dread. Harold Keller happened to glance at the two stretchers being sent along as the platoon fell into line. "I thought to myself, 'We'll probably need a hell of a lot more than that,'" he recalled.
Doc Bradley, shouldering his Unit 3 bag, was another who wondered how many would return alive. "Down at the base, there wasn't one out of 40 of us who expected to make it," he told an interviewer not long after the battle. "We all figured the Japanese would open up from caves all the way up to the crater."
And my father had an additional concern: "All the way up, I kept wondering how the devil was I going to get the casualties down?"
Don Howell marked the slow, wary progress. "We inched our way up," he recalled, "blowing caves as we went. We'd see a cave ahead of us, pull the pin on a grenade and throw it inside."
Phil Ward never forgot how the platoon wound its way cautiously, single file. "There was no trail and there was a lot of blasted rock. We zigzagged our way up. We had to get on our hands and knees and crawl a couple of times. We had heavy weapons, and two men had heavy flamethrowers on their backs. We were all scared."
One of the flamethrowing Marines was Chuck Lindberg. Even he was braced for instant bloodshed. "We thought it would be a slaughterhouse up on Suribachi," he later said. "I still don't understand why we were not attacked."
About two thirds of the way up, Lt. Schrier sent out flankers on either side of the main unit for cover. "We were tense," said Robert Leader, "thinking the enemy would suddenly jump out, or one of us would step on a mine. But it was completely quiet. Not a shot was fired. It took us about 40 minutes to get to the top."
Sgt. Lowery documented the ascent with his cumbersome camera. At one point he asked a Marine to unfold the flag, so he could get a photo of it being carried up.
The patrol clawed its way to the rim of the crater at about 10 a.m. Looking down into the bowl, the boys of the patrol saw devastation: Japanese antiaircraft guns fused together by the heat of American bombing; twisted metal; pulverized rock.
Then Boots Thomas came up with an order: "See if you can find a pole to put the flag on."
Leader set aside his sketch pad -- he'd bound his drawings together with surgical tape supplied by Doc -- and he and Rozek scoured the rubble at their feet. The Japanese had constructed a catch system for rainwater on the crater's surface, and fragments of pipe lay scattered about. Rozek, rummaging in the mud, found a fragment of usable length. He and Leader lugged it upright. The two discovered a bullet hole in the pipe. The rope could be threaded through that. They "manhandled" the pole, as Leader put it, up to where Thomas was waiting.
Then, knowing that this was an important moment that would be photographed, the patrol's brass took over.
Lt. Schrier, Platoon Sgt. Thomas, Sgt. Hansen and Cpl. Lindberg converged on the pole. They shook the folded flag out and tied it in place. Lou Lowery documented the proceedings with a steady succession of camera shots. He moved in close, suggested poses, cajoled the boys into self-conscious grins with his patter.
Louis Charlo joined the four. At 10:20 a.m. they thrust the pole upright in the gusty wind, the first foreign flag ever to fly over Japanese soil. Lowery, wanting added drama for his shot, motioned to Jim Michaels, who crouched dramatically in the foreground with his carbine.
Then, a glitch: Lowery shouted, "Wait a minute!" to the posing Marines. He'd run out of film and needed a second to reload. Lindberg scowled and grunted at him to hurry it up: Men holding flags were easy targets.
With a fresh roll of film in his camera, Lowery called for a final, posed shot: Hansen, Thomas and Schrier gripping the flagpole as they stiffly circled it; Lindberg and Charlo watching them from a couple of paces off; Michaels adding drama in the foreground with the gun.
As Lowery clicked this exposure, an amazing cacophony arose from the island below and from the ships offshore. Thousands of Marine and Navy personnel had been watching the patrol as they climbed to the volcano's rim. When the small swatch of color fluttered, Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into Times Square on New Year's Eve. Infantrymen cheered, whistled and waved their helmets. Ships offshore opened up their deep, honking whistles. Here was the symbol of an impossible dream fulfilled. Here was the manifestation of Suribachi's conquest. Here was the first invader's flag ever planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan.
Many of the young Marines, in their giddiness, assumed that the battle of Iwo Jima was over. In this they were drastically mistaken. Robert Leader was one combatant who did not make this assumption.
"When I saw the flag I thought it was a bad idea for us to be up there," he remembered. "It was like sitting in the middle of a bull's-eye."
Leader's misgivings quickly proved prophetic. Just moments after the Stars and Stripes went up, Hot Rock's summit got hot again.
The first Japanese emerged from his tunnel with his back to the Marines. Harold Keller spotted him at once and fired his rifle three times from the hip. The fallen figure was yanked back into the hole from where he'd come. Another sniper immediately popped up and aimed his rifle at the Marines. Chick Robeson gunned him down. Next was a maddened Japanese officer who leaped into view with a broken sword; an alert Marine dropped him.
Now the crater briefly came alive with ordnance. Hand grenades started to arc out of several enemy caves. The Marines took cover and began hurling grenades of their own.
Photographer Lou Lowery was standing near the flag when a Japanese soldier stuck his head out of a cave and lobbed a grenade. Lowery dove over the volcano's rim and rolled and slid about 40 feet down the steep, jagged side before he could break his fall. He suffered several cuts, but was not seriously injured. His camera was broken, but his film was safe. Lowery decided it was time to head back down to find another camera.
The firefight lasted several minutes and no American casualties were taken. And then the invisible enemy was silent once again.
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R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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