Sixty years ago today, someone tapped on the shoulder of a 22-year-old U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant named Thomas W. Miller Jr. and said, "Look, they got a flag up."
Tom Miller glanced toward the top of Mount Suribachi, the volcano at the southern end of a desolate Japanese island called Iwo Jima. He had been on Iwo Jima five days, since Feb. 19, 1945, when about 30,000 Marines had streamed onto the island.
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Five days. It was about how long U.S. generals had expected the battle for Iwo Jima to last. But more than 22,000 Japanese soldiers were on the island, many dug into the very rock. All of them expected to die -- their commanders had told them as much -- but they'd been instructed to kill 10 Americans each before being killed themselves. In this way, the United States would know the high cost of invading Japanese soil.
On the first day, close to 600 Marines died. The fighting would rage on until the middle of March.
"It was a vicious battle," Tom told me last week as we stood at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington. "Almost 6,000 Marines were killed there, close to 20,000 wounded in 36 days. I think that that ought to be known."
Many of us know Iwo Jima because of Felix de Weldon's epic sculpture of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. That instant was chosen to represent all Marines and all the battles they've ever fought.
It was actually the second time the Stars and Stripes was raised on Feb. 23, 1945.
Earlier, a patrol of 40 Marines had worked its way up the mountain and hoisted a small American flag. Later in the day, it was replaced by a larger flag, an act captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal that became one of the most recognizable images from World War II.
Tom lives in Arlington with his wife, Susanne. He's a gray-haired 82 now, but he looks like he'd have no trouble digging a foxhole. He's at the memorial a few times a week, talking to tour groups about the battle for Iwo Jima and the monument itself.
Born in New Orleans, Tom joined the Marine Reserve in April 1940 and was called to active duty that November. He was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He knew it was only a matter of time before he saw combat.
When his amphibious "duck" motored toward Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, Tom oversaw a group of men whose job was to get a dozen 75mm Pack Howitzers set up and firing at the enemy.
When the duck reached the beach, the Marines hurried to the protection of two bomb craters. Machine gun bullets cut the air around them.
The men could hear the murmur of incoming Japanese shells and the explosions when they landed. With great effort, they dug deeper into the crumbling sand and set up two tents.
When darkness came, Tom was in charge of turning on and off a gas-powered lantern in his tent so maps could be consulted. Every time he fired up the lantern, he worried that some sliver of light would escape the blackout tent and provide a target for Japanese shells.
"It was close to terror all night," he remembered. "I thought, 'The next one is going to come in here.' "
As in all wars, death was random on Iwo Jima. Said Tom, "Hardly a person who knew someone who was killed didn't think, 'Why him and not me?' "
After leaving the Marine Corps in 1952, Tom joined the CIA, where he worked as a Russia expert until he retired in 1976. In 1999, he was taking a walk at the Marine Corps Memorial when he saw a group of kids walking around the sculpture and pointing to it.
He asked what they were doing. They told him they were looking for the "extra hand."
That's when Tom first heard the story that sculptor de Weldon had placed a 13th hand in the jumble of arms that grasped the flagpole. It was variously said to symbolize the hand of God or all the other people who contributed to the victory on Iwo Jima.
"I thought maybe I had missed something, so I started researching it," Tom said.
He found that the rumor had been bouncing around for years, spread on the Internet and among amateur tour guides. He decided to do a little booklet debunking it, along with all the other myths and misconceptions that had grown about the battle, the flag-raising and the monument.
He read accounts of the flag-raising. He spoke with sculptor de Weldon about the myth. ("He threw his hands up," Tom said. "He said, 'Thirteen hands. Who needed 13 hands? Twelve were enough.' ")
"I thought it would be two or three pages," Tom said of his booklet. "The Iwo Jima Memorial & the Myth of the 13th Hand" ended up being 20. It's sold at a break-even price of $2.50 at the bookstores at Arlington National Cemetery, the National Archives and elsewhere.
To talk to Tom Miller -- or to read his modest book -- is to have a direct link to someone who was there, to a gunnery sergeant of the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines, 5th Marine Division, who saw the flag on Iwo Jima.
From where he was, "it looked about so big," Tom Miller told me, describing with his fingertips something no larger than a postage stamp.
A tiny flag, on a tiny island, in a big sea, in a big war.
National Park Service rangers in period uniforms will answer questions about the Battle of Iwo Jima from 1 to 5 p.m. today at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall. An interpretive program is at 5:30. For information, call 202-426-6841.