The Real Story of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising

Sometimes, the most routine moments ascend to the level of iconic historical events. Such is the case with the Iwo Jima flag raising during World War II. Who doesn’t recognize the classic triangular lines of men planting an improvised flagpole in the battle-scarred landscape of Iwo Jima? That “simple” flag-raising, the first foreign flag ever planted on Japanese soil, changed the perception of the war in the Pacific and was associated with the spread of misinformation on a global scale.

While hard to imagine in today’s world of instantaneous video news accounts, the US Marine landing on Iwo Jima was one of the first world events where “up to the day” news made its way around the world. In previous World War II battles, citizens back home would hear and see accounts and photos days or even weeks after the fact. The process was streamlined during the attack on the world’s most heavily defended island, and Americans back home hung on every new update, often getting news morning and evening of events that happened within the past 24 hours. While many today remember precisely where they were during the Challenger disaster or the events of 9/11, older generations remember the moment they first saw “the photo.”


On February 19, 1945, 30,000 United States Marines (to be followed by an additional 40,000 over the coming days and weeks) landed on the black volcanic ash beaches of Iwo Jima. By this time, Japanese defenders had turned the entire island, including Mount Suribachi, into a maze of underground tunnels and caves full of soldiers, mines and booby traps designed to infect maximum casualty costs on the Americans.

By the fourth day, constant American bombardment had seemingly quieted down activity on Mount Suribachi, which overlooked the entire landing zone, so after successful reconnaissance by a four-man patrol, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson called for a 40-man unit, led by First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, to scale Mount Suribachi and, if they made it, plant a flag up there.

For reasons unknown, though the mountain still shielded hundreds of Japanese soldiers who could have destroyed the patrol to a man, resistance was near non-existent and the group made it to the top of 554-foot-tall Suribachi.

The Real Iwo Jima Flag Raising

A small group led by Lieutenant Schrier scavenged a length of water pipe, fastened the American flag provided by Colonel Johnson, and, as what one might expect as part of an official photo shoot, raised it while Marine photographer Lou Lowery took pictures. The process resulted in a series of posed photos of various combinations of the team’s leaders and various marines.

Soldiers throughout the landing areas and sailors on offshore ships had seen the patrol inching up the mountain, expecting them to be annihilated, so when the group made the top and raised a flag, cheers erupted from thousands of witnesses.

One problem. These photos and the underlying events had nothing to do with the iconic flag-raising image we all know.

Once More, For the Cameras…

Meanwhile, as they always do, the “brass” was itching to steal the glory. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, having just landed on the island, decided he wanted the original flag as a souvenir. Colonel Johnson was, let’s say, slightly resistant to that idea, figuring the flag belonged to the battalion. He ordered runner Rene Gagnon to deliver a new flag to the team on top of Suribachi and recover the original before Forrestal snagged it.

Meanwhile, another photographer, Joe Rosenthal, heard about the team’s mission to Suribachi’s summit and wanted to take his own photos. Heading up the hill with two Marine photographers, he actually encountered Lou Lowery, who was on the way down. Lowery informed him that he had already captured the flag-raising moment, but perhaps Rosenthal might want some good photos of the island from the higher vantage point.

When Gagnon reached the summit with the larger flag, the team began organizing a replacement, substituting the new and larger one for the original to be sent back to Colonel Johnson. The idea was to lower the original flag simultaneously with raising the new replacement—a logistical non-event as the first flag had already been raised.

In an entirely impromptu action, with Marine Harlan Block anchoring the base of the new pole, a group raised the replacement flag while Rosenthal quickly snapped a quick photo, barely seeing what was in the viewfinder.

Iwo Jima flag raising - second US Marines
The iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photo we all know was actually the second “replacement” flag-raising. Image: U.S. Marine Corps/National Archives

A “Non-Event” Seen Around the World

As it turns out, Rosenthal had no idea what the impact of his photograph would be. After sending his film to the lab, technicians discovered that light streaks ruined the two pictures adjacent to Rosenthal’s big shot. But the classic Iwo Jima flag-raising photo came out perfectly, and editors didn’t take long to realize the image’s history-changing power.

Almost immediately, the photo made its way around the world, showing up literally everywhere. Seeing that picture, people naturally assumed it reflected the fight in progress and the end of the costly battle for Iwo Jima. Nothing was further from the truth. While a couple of Japanese soldiers popped up on the mountaintop throughout the process, the second flag-raising captured on film was largely an administrative affair—a “non-event.” At that moment at least, the bullets and shells were not flying and the team was not charging enemy positions on the mountain.

Nor did this flag planting signify the capture of Iwo Jima. In fact, the opposite was true. While casualties in those first four days had been astronomical, they represented just the beginning of the ultimate cost of gaining control of the island. By the end, approximately 27,000 Americans and some 18,000 Japanese would be killed, wounded, or declared missing.

That didn’t stop the media from fabricating narratives about the flag raising, describing grenades and bullets flying while the brave team assaulted the mountain and planted the flag. The truth never got in the way of a good story. To be clear, the battle as a whole was perhaps one of the most brutal and nastiest on record, just not at the moment and location where that iconic photo was snapped.

A Mom Always Knows

The name of the man at the base of the flagpole, driving it in between the rocks, was no mystery at all to Belle Block. Even though the photo shows only the back side of the Marine, without even a side view of his face, Harlon Block’s mother Belle recognized him in an instant.

Immediately on seeing the famous newspaper photo, Belle exclaimed to her other son, Ed Jr., “Lookit there, Junior! There’s your brother Harlon!” Quite a call, considering the newspapers had no identifications at the time, and Harlon’s family had no way of knowing if he was anywhere near Iwo Jima. But Belle was sure, “Oh, that’s definitely Harlon. I know my boy.”

Who Raised the Flag(s)?

They say history is alive, and in this case, that narrative plays out. It took until 2018 to (once and for all?) settle the debate over who the Marines are in the photo.

While there were some early mistakes, the long-standing roster of the six flag-raisers pictured in the photo included Rene Gagnon, Harlan Block, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Michael Strank.

Enter the fog of war.

Over the years, investigation into the identities of the six men in the photo continued. By 2018, the prevailing wisdom was that the group included Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfc. Harold Keller, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Harold Schultz, Pfc. Franklin Sousley and Sgt. Michael Strank.

All of the men listed were on the mountaintop that day for the first and second flag raisings, so we’re not going to split hairs over who helped stick which flag in the ground.

While some identification details are now in dispute, the outstanding book, Flags of Our Fathers is a fantastic read. Highly recommended.

Ever wonder about...

Whose idea was it to drink cow milk?
Is there weather inside the world’s largest building?
Do hangovers get worse as you get older?
How many stars are in our universe?

Subscribe now and get your free Constitutional Fun Facts eBook!

Learn something new every day. And have fun doing it!

Sign up to receive fun and interesting stories every Wedsnesday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *