February 18, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Sixty years ago -- February 19, 1945 -- U.S. soldiers invaded a small island in the Pacific called Iwo Jima. You've probably seen the famous photograph from the island; six men hoisting a flag on top of a mountain. The picture was taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a symbol of bravery and victory in the United States.
But we now know that the flag in that picture wasn't the first one raised on the mountain that day. And it didn't signal the end of the battle, but just the beginning.
Minnesotan Charles Lindberg, who's not related to the famous aviator, was one of six Marines who reached the top of Mount Suribachi and raised the first flag that day. We visited him at his home in Richfield. He says Iwo Jima was bombed for 72 days before the Marines arrived, and he thought the battle would be a cinch.
"We hit that beach that morning -- the 19th of February -- and boy did we get a surprise. They mortared us up and down the beach -- they had it all synchronized -- they could walk 'em right up and down the beach. I found out later their plan was to put us on the beach and annihilate us," he said.
Many Marines died on the beach. But Lindberg made it off and pushed toward Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. He was a flamethrower. He carried 5 gallons of jellied gasoline on his back, and shot fire into tunnels where the Japanese were hiding. After several days of fighting and thousands of casualties, the Marines reached the base of the mountain.
"And then they came and said, 'you're going to start climbing in the morning.' That's kind of a jittery night we had. Next morning, we reported to Col. Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander. He handed Lt. Schrier a flag, and said, 'if you get to the top, raise it.'
The Marines made it to the top. And the first thing Lindberg and five others did was put up the flag.
"Two of our men found a great big long pole up there, about 20-feet long. We tied the flag to it, carried it to the highest spot we could find, and raised it. Boy, then the island came alive down below. The troops started to cheer, the ships' whistles went off, it was quite a proud moment," he says.
A man named Lou Lowery photographed that moment, but chances are, you haven't heard of him. That's because he didn't take the famous flag-raising picture. Lowrey's photo is of six men standing by a flag that's already up; he ran out of film right before it was raised.
Meanwhile, a commander down below was getting nervous about the safety of the flag. He sent up a replacement -- a much bigger one this time.
"It was four hours after ours that they raised that second flag. That was put up there to preserve our flag. They just put that in place of it because they were afraid somebody was going to steal that flag," Lindberg says.
Joe Rosenthal took the second picture. His film was flown off the island, and was on the front pages of U.S. papers within a week.
But neither flag meant the battle was over. In fact, most of the fighting was still to come. When the invasion ended about a month later, nearly 7,000 Americans and about 20,000 Japanese were dead. Lindberg was injured north of the mountain.
"On March 1, I was after a mortar position up there, and I was shot. Shot through the right arm, and it shattered my arm all to pieces. I was done for," he says.
It was only after he was off that island that Lindberg found out about the picture of the second flag-raising.
"So I went on home, and started talking about this, I was called a liar and everything else. It was terrible."
But Lindberg kept at it, telling his story all over the United States. He eventually met President Nixon, and later President Clinton. He was invited to the dedication of the Iwo Jima monument just outside Washington, even though that monument features the second flag-raising.
Lindberg says it's important that people know what actually happened.
"It was the truth. I mean, everyone says, Iwo Jima flag raising, they look at the other one, that's not right. It wasn't. That's what I say. But ain't good enough, I guess -- maybe that's what they think. Kinda hurts you. But I've talked a lot about this, I've argued a lot about it. I can always prove it, that's the thing."
Charles Lindberg won a Silver Star and a Purple Heart at Iwo Jima. He's now 84 years old.