One of the last men connected with the flag on Iwo Jima has died

One after another, with increasing speed, we are losing the people who have first-hand memories of fighting in World War II. Colonel Dave Severance (ret.), who served in the Marine Corps, was one of those men. He managed to survive the incredible carnage of WWII, served as a pilot in the Korean War, and still came home to see his children, grandchildren, and some great-grandchildren grow up. In his later years, he became one of the keepers of the memories about the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising. He died last Monday, aged 102.

Even in this benighted age, when children are being miseducated, rather than educated, it’s hard to imagine an American grown past childhood who is not familiar with the picture that AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped on February 23, 1945, of the Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi, when they (wrongly) thought the brutal fighting on Iwo Jima had come to an end.

Despite the photo’s ubiquity, since war’s end there have been different stories about what led to its creation. The battle for that volcanic outcropping off the coast of Japan was one of the most important in the lead-up to Japan’s ultimate defeat, for it had airstrips that the Americans needed for missions to Japan. The Japanese knew this and had 21,000 Japanese troops stationed to defend the island.

The fighting was extraordinarily brutal. It took five days for the Marines to subdue the Japanese troops holed up in caves carved in the extinct volcano known as Mt. Suribachi. On February 23, 1945, the Marines (naively as it turned out), thought the worst of the fighting was over, and a group raised a flag on the mountain’s summit. A Marine took a picture of that flag raising for the Marine magazine, Leatherneck.

However – and this is where Col. (then Captain) Severance comes in – Captain Severance wanted a larger flag for the mountaintop. He was one of the commanders of Easy Company, which was part of the 28th Marine Regiment which, in turn, was a subset of the Fifth Marine Division – which was part of the 70,000 Marines brought to fight for tiny Iwo Jima, all 7.5 square miles of it.

Col. Severence, therefore, ordered another group of men to raise the bigger flag. This time, Joe Rosenthal was there to take that iconic picture. Over the years, though, many men claimed to be part of that flag-raising, and many others accused Rosenthal of having staged the photo. Col. Severence, however, knew what had happened and told the story often:

When the first flag was raised, he said, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who had just arrived on the island, asked to have it as a souvenir. “Hell, no,” Johnson said, according to Severance. “We put it up there, and we are going to keep it.”

A second group of Severance’s Marines was sent up with orders to replace the flag. The Marines would keep the first one, and the Navy secretary would get the replacement, which flew over Mount Suribachi for the rest of the battle. Both flags are now in the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va.

The cheering was premature, for the Battle of Iwo Jima continued until March 26. Over 6,800 Americans died and more than 19,000 were wounded (and that counts only the physical wounds, not the mental trauma from that long, bloody campaign).

As for Severence, he went on to become a Marine pilot, and flew 69 combat missions in Korea, which earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was promoted to colonel in 1962 and retired from the Marines in 1968.

I’ll toss in my own mite here because I have every reason to feel grateful to those American men who fought and died across the Pacific. My mother and her sister, Dutch citizens, were in Indonesia when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and then attacked the entire Malayan peninsula, including Batavia (modern-day Indonesia), which was then a Dutch colony. The two were interned in a concentration camp for the duration of the war. If the Americans hadn’t won the war, they were certain that they would have starved to death.

IMAGE: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Public domain.

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