February 23, 2005

Lest We Forget

Mac Owens

Today is an important date in American history. Sixty years ago today—February 23, 1945—a Marine patrol from Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment reached the summit of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. It was the fifth day of the savage battle for the island, which would last another 31 days and kill nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders and 6,825 Marines and sailors. Another 19,000 Americans were wounded during the 36-day operation. One out of every three Marines was either killed or wounded, including 19 of 24 battalion commanders. Twenty-seven Marines and naval medical corpsmen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo, 13 posthumously. In the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

After reaching the summit of Mt. Suribachi, members of the patrol raised an American flag that one of the Marines had brought with him. It was too small to be seen from the beach, so the Marines raised a second, larger flag. AP photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the second flag raising on film. The result was the most famous image of World War II.

Rosenthal’s photo also has come to symbolize the Marine Corps as a fighting force. In 1954, the sculptor Felix de Weldon rendered the photo into three dimensions, creating the Marine Corps Memorial that stands near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

As subsequent events in such places as Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah have proven, uncommon valor continues to characterize the Marine Corps. But is hard to imagine anything worse that the living hell those men experienced on seven square miles of volcanic island.