Tomorrow, February 23, marks the sixty-eighth anniversary of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima – an event immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. Today we visit with two Marine Corps veterans who were in the fierce World War Two battle for a Pacific island one-third the size of Manhattan.
On the morning of February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines and sailors began their day with the sound of Navy guns pounding the Pacific island of Iwo Jima - as they’d been doing for 72 hours.
The most heavily fortified island in the world was about to be invaded by members of Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions. Seventy-thousand Marines eventually landed on the eight-square miles of volcanic rock known as Iwo Jima. To put it in perspective - 100,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed to the 650,000 square miles of Afghanistan.
Amtrac landing craft ferry Marines to Iwo Jima in groups - or waves – of troops who scramble ashore on a stretch of beach just 3,000 yards wide.
Mitchell native Jack Thurman was in the first wave. He says the island was completely blanketed by gun smoke, but it didn’t mask the storm of violence awaiting the Marines.
“We were just astonished as to what was taking place,” Thurman recalls. “There was just a forest of fire…water spurting ten-feet high. The amtrac to my right was hit. Blown to pieces…I mean I saw stuff flying in the air…bodies and parts of the amtrac. And the rest of the amtrac went down, causing a whirlpool. And I saw a pack and a canteen swirling around in that water. And it was all red…the water was all red.”
Ralph Griffiths is from Ohio, but has South Dakota ties. He was in the Fifth Marine Division along with Jack Thurman. Being in the 9th wave instead of the 1st, says Ralph, didn’t change anyone’s outlook on what lay ahead.
“Everybody was scared…even the veterans,” explains Griffiths. “Even though they said it was going to be a very short battle…piece of cake.”
The “piece of cake” grew from a projected 6-day battle to a month-long blood bath. What made progress slow at the start was the 500-foot Mount Surabachi, a dormant volcano and the highest point on the island. Ralph Griffiths says the Japanese had spent years pinpointing the entire landing beach below Surabachi with their artillery.
“And they had it down perfect, cause they had two years to aim their mortars and machine guns,” Griffiths says. “And they didn’t hit the first six, seven, eight waves…cause they didn’t want to just kill three-hundred men. They wanted to wait until a thousand got on the beach. Then all heck broke loose. “
With taking Surabachi the primary goal, volunteers were needed. Private First-Class Jack Thurman answered the call.
“Climbing to the top of that mountain was something else, because there was just no foothold, you had to…you know, double-stepping your way all the way up that mountain,” remembers Thurman. “And the sulfur and the heat of that mountain was really something else. “
It took five days to gain control of Surabachi, symbolized by the raising of the star-and stripes on the volcano’s summit: first with a small U.S. flag, then with a larger battle-sized standard. Both events were captured on film, but it was the second photo that became a symbol of victory for the Marine Corps and for America.
Jack Thurman says seeing the flag helped the Marines to carry on.
“That was the greatest inspiration that we could have asked for,” says Thurman. “That was inspiration for us to move on and fight. And so that’s what we did. And the flag was just beautiful, it unfurled in the ocean breeze. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life and I’ll never forget it.”
Ralph Griffiths was part of the unit sent up Surabachi with the first flag, but didn’t see either flag raising. Ralph was among 20 Marines sent to reconnoiter around the base of the mountain.
The first time he viewed Old Glory on Surabachi was on March 1 when his platoon moved further in on the island.
March 1 was also the day two of the first flag raisers died. Ralph Griffiths was just a few feet away.
“I was hit in the shoulder, the chest and small pieces in the face,” Griffiths says.
Ralph was evacuated to Guam and sent to Hawaii for medical treatment. Jack Thurman remained on Iwo Jima until the island was secured 36 days after the first Marine came ashore.
Both men say they’re proud of taking part in the battle and of being associated with the historic flag-raising. For the nearly 7,000 Marines who died on Iwo Jima, that image became an eternal testament.
For the survivors, says Jack Thurman, the flag was almost alive - and with a voice of its own that said: “I’m here, fellas – don’t go too far away.”