Stepping Stone to Hiroshima: Iwo Jima, February 1945


By Professor Patrick Major


On 23 February 1945 one of the most iconic images of the Second World War was captured: six US Marines were frozen in time by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, as they raised the stars and stripes on top of Mount Suribachi, high above the black sands of Iwo Jima. The campaign in the Pacific was entering its deadly endgame. Rosenthal was unsure if he had caught the moment and did not see the image until over a week later. But the huddle of men straining to raise the flag on an improvised pole had all the formal elements of an epic history painting. (Flag, pole and men form a series of natural, opposing triangles, but the group, legs interlocking, appears almost to be a dynamic shot of a single figure in a time-lapse blur of forward motion.)


It became an instant classic, syndicated around the world, and is perhaps the most reproduced image in US history. It appeared on a 3-cent stamp and was turned into a propaganda poster for the 7th War Loan Drive which raised $220m, as well as appearing on thousands of hoardings; and as a float at the Rose Bowl Parade; and was even turned into edible confectionary and a hamburger. Later, it was copied in bronze by Felix de Weldon, with 32-foot high figures, as the US Marine Corps’ official monument at Arlington National Cemetery where the flag flies at full-mast 365 days a year, by presidential decree.

The flag-raising was also the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 2006 movie, Flags of Our Fathers. It tells the story of the surviving flag-raisers as they were sucked into the US propaganda machine bent on fund-raising for the final months of the war. The film’s deconstruction of hero myths – so different from John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker in the 1949 Sands of Iwo Jima – intelligently explores the controversy over the authenticity of Rosenthal’s picture. The famous photo only showed the ‘second’ flag-raising after a ‘first’ flag had been hoisted then taken down. (The second group were in fact hoping that no-one would notice the switch, as they vied to keep the original as a souvenir!) The men in the first ceremony had not been the men in the second. Eastwood shows how the propaganda machine airbrushed out these inconsistencies in order to give the public what they wanted to believe. For the comrades in arms, however, the myth was always founded on a lie.

The battle of Iwo Jima was by no means over on 23 February. It had only just begun. Only four days before, three Marine divisions had waded ashore on the first sovereign piece of Japanese territory since Pearl Harbor had been attacked in 1941. Iwo Jima was a tiny island, only a few miles across, at one end of which towered an extinct volcano. The sulphur venting through Suribachi’s underground fissures led one Marine to compare the experience to a ‘nightmare in hell’. Iwo Jima was the Corps’ bloodiest ordeal yet, worse even than Tarawa in 1943 or Saipan in 1944. Within a month three of the six flag-raisers on Suribachi would be dead, all killed in action.

Iwo Jima was the latest stepping stone for the Americans in their westward island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. The vast distances involved required toeholds on the tiny islands which dotted the southern half of the world’s biggest ocean. But why this speck of rock in the north-western Pacific, whose population was barely a thousand? Iwo Jima had two airfields and another one building, and was to be of strategic importance for the Americans. It was almost midway between their bomber bases in the Marianas Islands and targets in mainland Japan. American strategists wanted to turn its fighter base against the Japanese and use it to provide their own long-range escorts.

Paul Tibbets, pilot of the ‘Enola Gay’ which was to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, later wrote:

On 4 March 1945, when the first B29 in distress landed on Iwo Jima, until the end of the war, more than 2,200 aircraft made emergency landings on Iwo, many with wounded crewmen on board who would not have made the return trip to their home bases. Had it not been for the heroic valor of the Marines in securing the island and the Navy Seabees who built the runways, more than 22,000 pilots and air crewmen would have perished in crash landings at sea.

The Marines were supposed to take Iwo Jima in ten days; it took 36. It also claimed almost 6,000 Marine and Navy lives and over 17,000 wounded. These were the worst casualties in US Marine Corps history. The Imperial Japanese Army had literally burrowed itself into the soft volcanic pumice stone which made up the island. Lt. General Kuribayashi no longer used the banzai tactics of suicidal bayonet charges, but ordered battles of concealment and attrition where soldiers were ordered to take as many of the enemy with them as possible. The grim, suicidal fate of the defenders was to be the subject of Eastwood’s sequel, Letters from Iwo Jima. Of the 21,000 Japanese defenders, only about 1,100 were captured alive. This fanatical resistance was to be a hard lesson to the Americans of the rising costs of taking enemy territory the closer they got to the Home Islands. But they were still 700 miles away, and another stepping stone stood in their way: Okinawa.

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