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Dave Severance, commander of Marines who raised flag at Iwo Jima, dies at 102

U.S. Marines raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. (Joe Rosenthal/AP)

Dave Severance, a Marine Corps officer who took part in the bloody World War II battle of Iwo Jima and dispatched several Marines to the summit of the island’s Mount Suribachi, where they raised an American flag in a triumphant moment memorably captured in a photograph, died Aug. 2 at his home in the La Jolla community of San Diego. He was 102.

The death was confirmed by his daughters, Lynn Severance and Nina Cohen, who said there was no specific cause.

Col. Severance, who held the rank of captain during World War II, was among the 70,000 Marines who stormed the island of Iwo Jima early in 1945, hoping to gain control of its strategic airfields.

About 20,000 Japanese troops were entrenched in an underground system of tunnels and bunkers on the volcanic island about 750 miles from Tokyo. Supported by bombardment from Navy ships, Marines slowly advanced over the eight-square-mile island, suffering heavy casualties from artillery and machine-gun fire.

On Feb. 23, 1945, Col. Severance’s battalion commander ordered him to send a patrol to the island’s highest point, 554-foot Mount Suribachi. After a reconnaissance unit encountered little resistance, a 40-man detachment was assigned to take the mountaintop. Its leader, Lt. Harold G. Schrier, carried a 28-by-54-inch American flag.

The Marines fended off gunfire and grenades to reach the summit, then attached the flag to an iron pipe and raised it atop Mount Suribachi. The moment was recorded by Marine Corps photographer Louis Lowery. Marines and Navy sailors were jubilant when they saw Old Glory waving for the first time on Japanese soil.

According to Col. Severance’s recollection, Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal was present at Iwo Jima that day and wanted the flag as a personal memento. A larger flag was obtained from a nearby landing craft, and after about two hours a second unit was deployed to take it up Mount Suribachi.

This time, the Marines were joined by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and by Marine Corps Sgt. Bill Genaust, who had a film camera. The smaller flag was removed, and a larger, 96-by-56-inch flag was raised in its place.

“I didn’t know they were carrying a second flag,” Rosenthal told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “I already knew a flag was on top, and I wanted just to see for myself and also take in the view.”

He hurriedly set up his Speed Graphic camera and snapped a single shot at the moment the flag was planted in the ground. The episode lasted only a few seconds, as Genaust’s color film showed. No faces are clearly visible, just the strength and purpose of six Marines, as the flag unfurls on a pole slanting against a backdrop of white clouds.

70 years ago, Joe Rosenthal took one of U.S. history’s great pictures

Rosenthal’s film was flown to Guam, and within 36 hours his photograph appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the United States. It may have been the second flag-raising that day on Mount Suribachi, but the photograph instantly became an enduring symbol of wartime heroism and American pride.

“It is undoubtedly unique, the most dramatic photo displaying the image of the American fighting man,” retired Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons, a former director of the Marine Corps historical center, said in 1985.

The photo won the Pulitzer Prize, was featured on postage stamps and inspired Felix de Weldon’s bronze sculpture for the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, dedicated in 1954 near Arlington National Cemetery. Rosenthal was in such a hurry that he never asked for the names of the six men raising the flag. Their identities were not fully resolved until 2019.

All were members of the company commanded by Col. Severance, who did not witness the flag-raising and knew little about it until later.

“It certainly was an inspiring event, but, frankly, I didn’t see it,” he told the New York Daily News in 1965. “I was with some of my other men on the south side of Suribachi, involved in combat, and we couldn’t see the face of the volcano, where the flag was raised. We only learned it later from battalion headquarters.”

The flag-raising boosted morale, but it did not mark the end of the siege of Iwo Jima. The battle waged on for another month before U.S. forces had rooted out and killed all but 200 of the island’s Japanese defenders. Almost 7,000 Marines died on Iwo Jima, according to the National World War II Museum, and another 20,000 were wounded. Col. Severance’s unit, which initially consisted of 240 men, had a casualty rate of 75 percent.

“We got back to Hawaii when the campaign was over,” Col. Severance recalled in 1985, “turned on the radio, and heard some song, ‘When the Yanks raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima isle.’ We looked at each other, said, ‘What the hell is that all about?’ and then realized how famous the raising had become.”

Dave Elliott Severance was born Feb. 4, 1919, in Milwaukee and moved as a child to Greeley, Colo. His father had a coal business, his mother was a homemaker.

He attended what is now the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Washington before joining the Marine Corps in 1938. He qualified as a paratrooper, then after World War II trained as a pilot.

He flew more than 60 combat missions during the Korean War and was an assistant personnel director at Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va., when he retired as a full colonel in 1968. He received the Silver Star for his service at Iwo Jima, and his other decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals.

In retirement, he helped organize reunions of Iwo Jima survivors and examined the claims of dozens of service members who professed, often without merit, to have participated in the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. Col. Severance often served as a source for military historians and was a consultant on the 2006 Clint Eastwood movie about Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers.” He was played in the film by actor Neal McDonough.

His first marriage, to Margaret Heins, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Barbara Austin, died in 2017 after 49 years of marriage. Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Dave Severance Jr. of Leavenworth, Wash., Lynn Severance of Stanwood, Wash., and Michael Severance of Seattle; a daughter from his second marriage, Nina Cohen of Longmont, Colo.; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

In March 1945, at the end of the battle of Iwo Jima, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific Fleet, said, “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Both flags that flew on Mount Suribachi are now housed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va.

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