On the morning of February 19, 1945, some 70,000 U.S. Marines began to swarm onto a tiny island in the northwest Pacific called Iwo Jima – a name that means “Sulfur Island” in Japanese. Twenty-one thousand Japanese defenders lay waiting for them, burrowed into volcanic rock in hundreds of underground fortifications.
The Japanese plan was simple: fight to the death. The goal of each defender: kill ten Americans before being killed.
On the southern tip of the island stood Mount Suribachi, a 550-foot volcano. From its flanks, Japanese guns could crisscross Iwo Jima with deadly fire.
With bullets and shells screeching around them, wave after wave of Marines hit the beach. “I just didn’t see how anybody could live through such heavy barrages,” one officer remembered. The Americans rarely saw their hidden enemy, while the Japanese had every U.S. soldier in their sights. The Marines fought forward, inch by inch.
On the morning of February 23, 1945, U.S. troops all over the island were elated by the sight of a small American flag flying atop Mount Suribachi – the Marines had gained the summit. Later that afternoon, five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman raised a larger flag.
By the time the fighting finally ended, some 6,800 Americans had died capturing Iwo Jima’s eight square miles. More than 21,000 Japanese were dead.
Today a giant bronze statue near Arlington National Cemetery, outside of Washington, D.C., depicts one of the most famous images from American history: the Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi. The Marine Corps War Memorial is dedicated to all Marines who have given their lives in defense of the United States. An inscription on its base reads: “Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue.”