On this day, during the battle for Iwo Jima, U.S. Marines raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island of Iwo Jima and a key strategic point. Later, Marine commanders decide to raise a second, larger flag, an event which an Associated Press photographer captured on film. The resulting photograph became a defining image of the war.
The amphibious landings of Marines, after severe and relentless bombing of the island, began the morning of February 19, 1945, as the secretary of the navy, James Forrestal, accompanied by journalists, surveyed the scene from a command ship offshore. As the Marines made their way onto the island, seven Japanese battalions opened fire on the 9,000 Marines headed for them. By that evening, more than 550 Marines were dead and more than 1,800 were wounded.
In the face of such fierce counterattack, the Americans reconciled themselves to the fact that Iwo Jima could be taken only one yard at a time. A key position on the island was Mt. Suribachi, the center of the Japanese defense. The 28th Marine Regiment closed in and around the base of the volcanic mountain at the rate of 400 yards per day, employing flamethrowers, grenades, and demolition charges against the Japanese hidden in caves and pillboxes (low concrete emplacements for machine-gun nests). Approximately 40 Marines finally began a climb up the volcanic ash mountain, which was smoking from the constant bombardment, and at about 10 a.m. on February 23, a half-dozen Marines raised a small American flag on the peak–but not before disposing of a Japanese officer who attempted to prevent them. With Mt. Suribachi claimed, one-third of Iwo Jima was under American control. This first flag-raising was photographed by Marine photographer Sgt. Louis R. Lowery. On Lowery’s way down Mt. Suribachi, he ran into AP photographer Joe Rosenthal and two other Marine photographers, PFC Bob Campbell and PFC Bill Genaust, who was shooting movies, informing them that the flag-raising they were looking for had already occurred, but encouraging them to check out the view from the top of the hill. The three men continued up the volcano.
Once atop Mt. Suribachi, Rosenthal attempted but was unable to find the soldiers involved in the first flag-raising, deciding instead to photograph the second flag-raising, which featured a much bigger and more photogenic Stars and Stripes. Lowery’s film was sent back to military headquarters for processing via ordinary army post–and took a month to arrive. Rosenthal’s film was sent by seaplane to Guam, and sent from there via radio-photo to the United States. The photograph so impressed President Roosevelt that he ordered the men pictured in it to return home for a publicity tour. Rosenthal later won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, but for years was forced to deny erroneous reports that he personally staged the second flag-raising and attempted to pass it off as the original.
Although the famous photograph has long led people to believe that the flag-raising was a turning point in the fight for Iwo Jima, vicious fighting to control the island actually continued for 31 more days.