Even before ground operations to secure the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian ended, US Naval construction battalions were already clearing land for air bases suitable for the new B-29 “Superfortresses.” These huge bombers had a range capable of reaching the Japanese home islands. The first B-29 bombing runs began in October 1944. But there was a problem—Japanese fighters taking off from tiny Iwo Jima were intercepting B-29s, as well as attacking the Mariana airfields. The US determined that Iwo Jima must be captured.
US Marines invaded Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, after months of naval and air bombardment. The Japanese defenders of the island were dug into bunkers deep within the volcanic rocks. Approximately 70,000 US Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers took part in the battle. In thirty-six days of fighting on the island, nearly 7,000 US Marines were killed. Another 20,000 were wounded. Marines captured 216 Japanese soldiers; the rest were killed in action. The island was finally declared secured on March 16, 1945. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.
After the battle, Iwo Jima served as an emergency landing site for more than 2,200 B-29 bombers, saving the lives of 24,000 US airmen. Securing Iwo Jima prepared the way for the last and largest battle in the Pacific: the invasion of Okinawa.
The flag-raising atop Mt. Suribachi took place on February 23, 1945; five days after the battle began. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the famous photograph of six men raising the flag. The flag raisers were Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Harold Schultz, Corporal Rene Gagnon, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, Sergeant Michael Strank, and Corporal Ira Hayes. Three of these men—Strank, Sousley, and Block—were killed before the battle for Iwo Jima was over.
The photograph was quickly wired around the world and reproduced in newspapers across the United States. The image was used as a model for the Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Note: Schultz’s participation in the flag raising and iconic photo was not officially recognized until June 2016, when the US Marine Corps announced that Navy Pharmacist Mate 2nd Class John Bradley had long been incorrectly identified as one of the men in the image captured by Rosenthal. Historian and author Richard Frank addressed the context in which such a misidentification could occur in an essay for The National WWII Museum’s online blog:
Ultimately, as the Marine Corps Commandant correctly affirmed, “It’s not about the individuals and never has been.” It is impossible to distinguish the faces of any of the flag raisers in the image. The power of the image is and always will be the stunning symbolism of collective effort and valor.
Iwo Jima Oral History: Woody Williams, Medal of Honor Recipient
Woody Williams Medal of Honor citation: