Today on February 23, 1945, the iconic photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag was taken during the epic Battle of Iwo Jima.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Codenamed Operation Detachment, the American assault consisted of soldiers from the 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, and the 28th Regiment. Their mission was to capture the heavily fortified island of Iwo Jima — a tiny volcanic island located southeast of Japan. The Americans hoped to use it as a staging point for the future aerial bombardment of Japan. But the Japanese commander had long been anticipating an invasion. In preparation, they spent months building an intricate system of underground tunnels and defensive works. Iwo Jima held strategic significance for the Japanese Air Force as they relied on it as a base for fighter aircraft and bombers.
On February 19, the Americans launched Operation Detachment. They soon realized how challenging this fighting would become. The Japanese constructed underground barracks and command centers — some more than 75 feet deep. The tunnels allowed for troop movements to go completely undetected. Hidden artillery and mortars were also positioned across the island, ultimately slowing the American advance. However, the Japanese had a severe problem — they were extremely low on both supplies and ammunition. By the end, Japanese soldiers resorted to brutal hand to hand fighting after running out of bullets. The costly Battle of Iwo Jima would drag on for more than five weeks before the eventual American victory. While both sides experienced heavy casualties, almost all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders perished.
U.S. Marines fought particularly hard to control the Crest of Mount Suribachi — the highest and most strategic vantage point on Iwo Jima. During the initial assault, American soldiers briefly raised a flag after capturing the crest. Other marine divisions still fighting their way up the deadly sloops cheered at the sight of the flag. As the fighting continued, waves of new reinforcements arrived, allowing the Americans to hold their critical position on the crest. A second, much larger flag was raised later on in the day.
On February 23, Joe Rosenthal snapped the iconic World War II photo now titled ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.’ The photograph depicts six Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi. Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography later that year. He subsequently filmed accompanying footage of the entire sequence, proving that this was not a ‘staged’ photo opportunity. Three of the six men in the photo were killed before the Battle of Iwo Jima finally concluded. By March 3, the Japanese had lost control over all three of the airfields on the island. On March 26, the last pockets of Japanese resistance were defeated, and the Allies declared Iwo Jima secured.