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The Last of the First Flag Raisers on Iwo Jima

Two flags were raised over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. The second, raised by six men that afternoon, has become part of one of the iconic images of World War II. The simple, stirring photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, was immortalized in the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington, D.C. The first flag, raised by six men several hours earlier, was largely forgotten. In June of this year, Charles W. Lindberg, a marine corporal who helped raise that first flag, became the last member of either flag-raising party to pass away. He was eighty-six.

Exactly what happened atop Mount Suribachi that day has been one of the war’s great mysteries. Five of the twelve men who raised the flags over Suribachi didn’t make it off the island alive. One of the men who filmed the second flag-raising was also killed several days later. But while the second group’s efforts have been widely celebrated, most recently in the film Flags of Our Fathers, Lindberg’s passing has renewed interest in all the flag raisers’ stories.

Lindberg spent that morning, four days after the first marines had stormed Iwo’s beaches, with a small group of men fighting their way to the top of Suribachi. He recalled what happened on the summit in an interview in 2003: “Two of our men found this big, long pipe there. We tied the flag to it, took it to the highest spot we could find and we raised it. Down below, the troops started to cheer, the ships’ whistles went off, it was just something that you would never forget,” he said. “It didn’t last too long, because the enemy started coming out of the caves.” A photographer for Leatherneck, the Marine Corps magazine, captured the moment.

A few hours later, when a decision was made to use a larger flag, six other men raised the second flag on the mountain. A handful of photographers captured this moment as well, including Rosenthal, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his work. His image of a group of fighting men, working together to raise their country’s colors, grabbed the hearts of war-weary Americans. The men were hailed as heroes and brought home to publicize a war bond drive.

Lindberg’s group, meanwhile, faded into obscurity. As the years went by, no one believed him when he said he’d raised the first flag over Iwo Jima. “I was called a liar,” said Lindberg, who was shot in the arm and evacuated from the island, earning him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He attended the dedication of the Iwo Jima memorial in 1954, but noticed the statue included only the names of the second group of flag-raisers. “They call that the Iwo Jima flag-raising, which it ain’t,” he said in a 1995 interview. “It’s a good picture. I even told Joe Rosenthal that it was a good picture. But me and him got into a few arguments.”

Rosenthal, for his part, wisely refused to answer questions about who deserved more credit, the first or second flag-raisers. “In my opinion,” he said in an interview before he died in 2006, “any one of those troops who had their feet on Iwo Jima is a hero.” That, at least, is not in question.

A P-38, Frozen in History, Flies Again

It certainly won’t win points for an on-time arrival. A P-38F Lightning that spent fifty years frozen beneath the ice in Greenland is still struggling to make its way to Britain, its original destination. The airplane, nicknamed “Glacier Girl” by the group of men who salvaged it out of the ice in 1992, was part of a group of eight aircraft, including six P-38s and two B-17s, that were being ferried across the Atlantic in 1942 as part of Operation Bolero, a massive Allied attempt to counter the German U-boat threat. Hundreds of planes made the trip from Maine to Scotland successfully.

The eight planes of the Lost Squadron, as it came to be called, did not. On July 15, 1942, facing bad weather over an uninhabited stretch of the Greenland ice cap, the pilots were forced to make emergency landings in the snow and wait for help. Ten nights later, an army unit with dogsleds arrived and guided the pilots to a waiting ship on the coast.

The planes, meanwhile, were slowly engulfed by ice. Private groups began trying to locate the squadron in the 1970s, but it was only on the twelfth attempt, funded by Roy Shoffner, a Kentucky entrepreneur, that Glacier Girl was found. Shoffner’s salvage team had to drill through 268 feet of solid ice to get to the plane, which they found remarkably intact. After ten years of careful restoration, the aircraft was flown again—and the dream of completing its original mission was born.

Before it could become a reality, Shoffner died in 2005, and his family, faced with the plane’s huge costs, was forced to sell it. Glacier Girl ultimately ended up in the hands of Rod Lewis, a Texas oilman, who took up where Shoffner left off. The P-38 began its transAtlantic journey again in June, taking off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. But it developed engine trouble off Labrador, and was grounded in Goose Bay, Canada, while it waited for new engines. “Glacier Girl’s attempt to complete her mission has ended for now,” Deb Mitchell, a member of the team, wrote in a message to aviation enthusiasts this summer. “Make no mistake, Operation Bolero was dangerous then, and remains dangerous today even with all the technology at our disposal.” The mission may be relaunched next year.

The Ghost of a Nazi Military School, Unearthed

It is called the Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain. At 380 feet tall, the largest manmade hill in Berlin grew out of the rubble of postwar Germany, when the remnants of 400,000 buildings were dumped on the site. During the Cold War, the grassy mound was topped by a mammoth intelligence facility monitoring phone calls behind the Berlin Wall.

This summer, the Teufelsberg coughed up another secret, when German historians discovered documents describing a long-forgotten Nazi military school buried beneath the mountain. The academy, on which construction began in 1937, was designed by Albert Speer to be a major component of Germania, capital of the thousand-year Reich. According to the internal Nazi memo discovered by historians, the structure was never finished because of “war-specific” issues.

After V-E day, the British tried to turn the unfinished building into a military headquarters. When that failed, they considered blowing it up, but the building was too sturdy. So they did the next best thing: They buried it, beneath half the rubble in bombed-out Berlin.

The Association of Berlin Underworlds, the group that found the documents, intends to drill into the Teufelsberg to see what is left of the academy. “We know for sure that underneath there is also a massive multistory bunker complex,” Dietmar Arnold, the group’s cofounder, told German media. His organization, which has uncovered fifty underground bunkers in Berlin in the last decade, refers to the academy as the “last undiscovered secret that underground Berlin has to offer.”

Band of Brothers, the Pacific Version

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who produced the epic HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, are returning once again to World War II. Following on the heels of their hugely popular adaptation of Stephen Ambrose’s book, the producers’ newest war venture—a ten-hour, $200 million mini-series called The Pacific that is also intended for HBO—will tell the story of three real-life marines fighting their way across the Pacific theater, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.

The screenplay is based in part on the memoirs of Eugene Sledge, whose With the Old Breed is considered one of the best memoirs to come out of the war, and Robert Leckie, author of Helmet for My Pillow. Both Sledge and Leckie died in 2001. The third character in the film is John Basilone, who received the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. Basilone was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Original interviews conducted by Ambrose’s son, Hugh, will also be incorporated into the film.

A trio of actors is already slated to play the movie’s marines: Sledge will be played by Joe Mazzello; Leckie by James Badge Dale; and John Basilone by Val Lauren. Filming was scheduled to begin in Australia in August.

Dogs of War Get an Official ‘Good Boy’

Legislation moving through Congress that could be signed as early as October would create a national monument honoring the thousands of dogs that have gone into battle with American soldiers. The U.S. military began using the four-legged troops, mostly German Shepherds, Dobermans, and Belgian sheep dogs, as sentries and messengers during the First World War, but it wasn’t until 1942 that the army created a program specifically designed to train dogs for military use. Puppies were donated by hundreds of families to contribute to the war effort, and the government trained more than ten thousand dogs by V-J Day.

Most were deployed as sentries around military installations, but hundreds of dogs also served in front-line combat zones detecting mines, scouting, and finding casualties. The reports from the field were glowing: especially in the jungle terrain of the Pacific theater, where visibility was limited, dogs were able to warn patrols of the presence of any enemy soldiers within a thousand yards. They were also invaluable messengers. During the Bougainville campaign, when one infantry battalion was pinned down without a radio, the unit’s war dog, Caesar, a German Shepherd, made nine runs under fire between the unit and its command post. The dog was eventually wounded when he attacked a Japanese soldier trying to throw a grenade into his handler’s foxhole. For his bravery, Caesar was promoted to sergeant.

The House of Representatives took the first step toward creating a monument for war dogs this spring when it approved a defense authorization bill that instructed the Pentagon to make room for a suitable memorial at a U.S. military installation.

Lucky Fluckey, a Legendary Submariner, Dies at 93

Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey, commander of the World War II submarine Barb, recipient of the Medal of Honor and four Navy Crosses, and the man responsible for sinking more tonnage than any other American submariner, died in July.

Often referred to as “Lucky Fluckey” and the “Galloping Ghost of the China Coast,” Fluckey was a pioneer in the art of submarine warfare, using a combination of fearless nighttime surface attacks and shallow-water raids to become one of the most highly decorated veterans of World War II.

Among Fluckey’s intrepid exploits was a night raid on January 25, 1945, in which the Barb snuck into a shallow harbor south of Shanghai— Fluckey’s Medal of Honor citation referred to it as “virtually a suicide mission”— and scored eight direct torpedo hits on six large ships, including an ammunition vessel, which blew up. Fluckey then aimed his boat out to sea at high speed, “through uncharted rocky waters thick with fishing junks,” as his citation put it, chased by two Japanese gunboats. It took a full hour, under fire, before the Barb reached water deep enough to dive.

On another celebrated occasion later that summer, Fluckey sent eight of his men ashore at night on the Japanese-held portion of Sakhalin Island, north of Hokkaido, ordering them to plant explosive charges on a rail line. “Boys, if you get stuck,” he told them, “head for Siberia, 130 miles north. Following the mountain ranges. Good luck.” While the men were paddling back to Barb, a sixteen-car train came rumbling down the tracks, hit the charges, and exploded.

After the war, Fluckey went on to serve as an aide to James Forrestal, the secretary of the navy, and Chester Nimitz, the chief of naval operations. In the 1960s, he served as director of naval intelligence, retiring from service in 1972.

In Thunder Below!—his 1992 memoir—Fluckey insisted that one accomplishment trumped all the others: “No one who ever served under my command was awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded or killed,” he wrote, “and all of us brought our Barb back safe and sound.”


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.