The tale of the two flags and the men who raised them on Feb. 23, 1945, has been a part of Marine Corps lore. But the details of what happened that day have been under closer scrutiny since the publication of an Omaha World-Herald article in 2014 featuring research by two amateur historians showing that one person had been misidentified in Rosenthal’s famous photograph.
In May, the Marine Corps announced that it had begun looking into Rosenthal’s photograph, following inquiries from documentary filmmakers. The next month, the service said a panel — led by a retired Marine general — had concluded that a Marine in the second flag-raising had been misidentified. The individual identified as Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley was actually a Marine private from Detroit named Harold Schultz.
Bradley, a Navy Cross recipient and subject of his son James’s book-turned-movie “Flags of Our Fathers,” was instead in the lesser-known first flag-raising.
At the conclusion of the investigation into the second flag-raising, the same panel, using some of the same photographic evidence and material from the initial inquiry, looked into the first flag-raising.
The panel’s conclusion? Two Marines, Pfc. Louis C. Charlo and Pfc. James R. Michels, did not participate in the initial flag-raising, as had been previously documented. Charlo, however, participated in a four-man reconnaissance patrol that went up Suribachi, while Michels held perimeter security nearby as the first flag went up.
Charles P. Neimeyer, the director of the Marine Corps History Division, said in a phone interview that an independent researcher had first approached the service in 2011 with evidence that Charlo and Michels were not in the initial flag raising and that he decided after the investigation into Rosenthal’s photograph that it would be prudent to try to update the record regarding the first raising.
The men who raised the first flag, according to the Marine Corps’ statement Wednesday, were Bradley, 1st Lt. Harold G. Schrier, Plt. Sgt. Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg and Pvt. Philip L. Ward.
Unlike the second flag-raising, there were no pictures taken of the first flag going up, yet to the Marines fighting below, the sight of that initial flag flying was far more significant. It was the first indication that they had seized the island’s most significant piece of terrain and that the bloody battle might one day come to an end. On the summit, the only camera nearby as the first flag went up belonged to Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery, a Marine combat photographer with Leatherneck magazine. As the flag was hoisted skyward, he was reloading his film after snapping a series of pictures moments before.
“Our history is important, and we owe it to our Marines and their families to ensure it is as accurate as possible. After we reviewed the second flag raising and found inconsistencies, we wanted to take another look at the first flag raising to make sure we had it correct,” Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, said in a statement.
In the waning months of World War II, with massive quad-engine B-29 Superfortresses regularly bombing mainland Japan, the United States decided that Iwo Jima — with its airfield — was an ideal spot for damaged bombers to land on their long return flights back to the Northern Mariana Islands.
The operation to seize the island, known as Operation Detachment, would last just over a month and cost the lives of more than 5,000 Marines and almost the entirety of the roughly 21,000 Japanese soldiers defending the volcanic, porkchop-shaped scab of earth.
When the flags went up Feb. 23, the Marines had been fighting for nearly four days. Japanese machine-gun nests and snipers dug in across the base of Suribachi had raked the Americans as they drew closer to the 550-foot mound, but on the morning of Feb. 23, the initial reconnaissance patrol that ascended the hill encountered no resistance, according to Marine Corps documents.
As the recon patrol descended the mountain, a roughly 30-man patrol from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, led by Schrier, began its trek up Suribachi. Schrier had been given a small American flag from another lieutenant who had been told by 2nd Battalion’s commander to make sure the patrol took the flag up the mountain, according to documents provided by the Marine Corps.
After a nearly two-hour hike, Schrier’s men reached the summit and established defensive positions while a small element looked for a place to put up the flag. Two Marines found a piece of Japanese drainage pipe, while five others affixed the flag.
About 10:30 a.m., the first American flag went up over Iwo Jima. Ships offshore sounded their horns. Marines looked at their watches and up from their foxholes.
Over the years, many of the eyewitnesses, Neimeyer said, remembered the first flag going up, while almost no one had an exact time for when the second flag was raised.
Shortly after Lowrey snapped his pictures and Schrier radioed that the summit was secure, the first flag was taken down and was sent back to the bottom of the mountain to 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer. The flag was to be turned into a war trophy and replaced on Suribachi with a more prominent one, so about two hours later, a resupply patrol snaked its way back to the top of the mountain, this time with a bigger flag and the photographer Rosenthal in tow.