I can count on one hand and still have fingers left to find moments in American history that encompassed great symbolism, bravery and emotion — all in a span of mere moments.
Possibly the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The crossing of the Delaware River. All signal moments in our nation’s still ongoing chronicle.
Yet all pale when you cast eyes and memories on a brief moment in the final year of the Second World War, when a war-weary American nation and an even wearier world shared in a symbol that simply has no peer.
The day was Feb. 23, 1945, the fifth day of a 36-day battle still considered the fiercest ever endured by Americans during the War in the Pacific.
The Imperial Army was dug in on Japanese soil on the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima, in heavily fortified positions the U.S. military wanted to capture to provide a staging area for the final push toward the main islands of Japan.
Although the strategic value of the island’s three small airfields was hotly debated among the American command at the time as to its actual military value, the symbolic value of capturing the first piece of Japanese territory was not lost on the rest of the world.
The battle cost more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. America had not seen its like since the Civil War in terms of battlefield deaths.
Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima, only 1,083 survived, and the captured airfields eventually became a vital link in the chain of U.S. Pacific bomber bases.
But on that February day, photographer Joe Rosenthal captured an image on film that became the symbol of the Second World War for America and for the Marine Corps.
Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano that dominated the entire island, was heavily defended yet cut off by the Marines, and two patrols encountered little of the fierce resistance they later would encounter in capturing the rest of the island.
A platoon of Marines was ordered to climb to the summit and fly a small America flag when they reached the top, using a length of pipe they found in wreckage of Japanese positions atop the volcano.
Hoisting the flag, it became the first American flag to fly over Japanese soil, yet the photograph taken was just of the flag and the Marines standing next to it.
A second, larger American flag was sent up to replace the first, and it was this flag, being raised by the Marines that was captured in a split second and dramatic fashion by photographer Rosenthal.
Of the six U.S. servicemen in the iconic photo, Marines Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Michael Strank were killed in action within days. The three survivors — Marines Rene Gagnon and Ira Hamilton Hayes, along with Navy sailor John Bradley — became instant celebrities.
The photograph’s image later was used by Marine Felix de Weldon to sculpt the 1954 Marines Corps War Memorial just outside of Washington, D.C.
The photograph was reprinted in thousands of publications worldwide, became the most reproduced photo of all time and became the most significant and recognizable image of the war — winning the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1945.
Marine Cpl. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona who was among the six men who raised the flag over Iwo Jima, and who helped burn that flag-raising’s image onto the American consciousness, came to symbolize one of the greatest tragedies of that war — of any war.
Hayes was one of only five men in his 45-man platoon that was not killed or wounded in the bloody battle.
Never comfortable with his newfound fame after he left the Marines, he descended into alcoholism, freezing from the cold and alcohol poisoning after a night of drinking in January 1955. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetary with full military honors.
Hayes, like untold thousands of American military men, was scarred for life by what he saw and endured during the war.
Years ago, on a family trip to our nation’s Capitol, I stood with my dad before the Iwo Jima Memorial adjacent to Arlington Cemetery, in complete awe and reverence. He had served in the U.S. Navy as the Marines were fighting and dying for yards of volcanic soil to help deal a devastating blow to World War II and the Empire of Japan.
He didn’t say much as we took in the power and symbolism of that piece of stone cast in bronze. He didn’t have to. It was written in emotion on his face, just like the faces of everyone in “The Greatest Generation” — that generation of men and women who held this country together through The Great Depression and the greatest military trial this world has ever seen.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.