‘Uncommon Valor’: Remembering Iwo Jima

The best-known American photograph of World War II was taken on Iwo Jima, but the image only tells a part that battle’s story.
‘Uncommon Valor’: Remembering Iwo Jima
The famous photograph, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945. (Public Domain)
Jeff Minick
2/23/2024
Updated:
2/23/2024
0:00
The Battle for Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest ever fought by U.S. Marines. From Feb. 19, 1945, until the island was declared secure on March 26, some 70,000 Marines landed on this tiny island and engaged approximately 18,000 Japanese soldiers in deadly combat.
Nearly 7,000 Marines and other military personnel died in this fighting, and another 20,000 were wounded. These horrific casualty figures were matched by those of the enemy. Except for 216 Japanese taken prisoner—two more held out until 1949—the rest died in banzai charges, were incinerated or entombed by explosives in the many caves and tunnels they had dug, or took their own lives.
A satellite photo from NASA of Iwo Jima 60 years after the infamous World War II battles that cost thousands of lives. (Public Domain)
A satellite photo from NASA of Iwo Jima 60 years after the infamous World War II battles that cost thousands of lives. (Public Domain)
The best-known American photograph of World War II was taken on this island, when photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped his iconic picture of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising a huge American flag atop Mount Suribachi, a Japanese strongpoint and observation post. Earlier, Marines had erected a smaller flag here, but it was Rosenthal’s photo that captured the American imagination. Today a replica of that snapshot, a 78-foot-tall granite and bronze monument in Washington, honors the Marines who fought and died at Iwo Jima. 
We can honor them as well by remembering who they were and the hell they endured fighting for freedom. 

Terrain and Tactics

Iwo Jima is tiny, eight square miles of volcanic ash and scrub. Dominated by Mount Suribachi and shaped like a pork chop, the island was already riddled with caves when the Japanese began building more protective fortifications and tunnels there. Stuffed full of supplies, men, and weapons, including artillery, these underground strongholds proved formidable barriers against bombardment from the air and sea by American forces.
A view of Mount Suribachi from the southern tip of the island of Iwo Jima. (Public Domain)
A view of Mount Suribachi from the southern tip of the island of Iwo Jima. (Public Domain)
The Japanese also surprised American military planners with a radical change in battlefield tactics. The banzai charges that had so often quickly obliterated large numbers of their troops were mostly gone, replaced by a strategy of defense and concealment. As a result, American advances on the island were measured in yards on some days.
Finally, the Japanese no-surrender policy, religiously followed by common soldiers, explains the high casualties on both sides of this battle. This credo of fighting to the death had an enormous influence on American military strategy and planning. It even factored in to the decision later that year to drop atomic bombs on Japan, rather than conduct a full-scale invasion of the island nation. 

The Men

When we think of the Marines who hit the beach at Iwo Jima, the sailors and airmen who supported them, and even most of the Americans in uniform during World War II, it behooves us to remember that they were civilian soldiers, not professionals. They left behind mothers and fathers, wives and children. And most of them could never be described, as some commentators are wont to do, as boys. These young men had lived their entire adolescence during the Great Depression, had often worked as teenagers to help support their families, and were made fit and tough by that hardscrabble labor and poverty. Today’s notion of adolescence extending into the mid-20s would have been as foreign to them as the Pacific islands they invaded.
From official USMC photography comes a vista of American soldiers holding up captured Japanese flags, won during the first conflicts on Iwo Jima. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">SA CC-BY 2.0</a>)
From official USMC photography comes a vista of American soldiers holding up captured Japanese flags, won during the first conflicts on Iwo Jima. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/SA CC-BY 2.0)
Whatever their age or background, Americans in uniform in World War II were proud of their country and knew from their upbringing and military training the meaning of courage. This was visible by the bravery they frequently demonstrated on Iwo Jima, when 27 Marines and Navy sailors—a military record for any American combat—won the Medal of Honor, 14 of them posthumously. By looking at four of these men, we can better appreciate who they were and what they did. 

Above and Beyond

Donald Ruhl (1923–1945) grew up in Joliet, Montana, and graduated high school in 1942. From 1937 until graduation, he worked on a 400-acre ranch as a farm hand for $15 a week plus his room and board. On D-Day of the Iwo Jima landing, Ruhl killed two Japanese, one with his bayonet. The following day, he saved the life of a wounded fellow Marine by carrying him to safety. And on D-Day plus two, he threw himself onto an enemy satchel charge and died in that explosion while protecting the lives of nearby Marines. 
Texan First Lieutenant Jack Lummus (1915–1945) played baseball and football for Baylor University, left school before graduating, and was playing professional football for the New York Giants when the war came. He enlisted in the Marines, completed the then-called Officers Training School at Quantico, Virginia, commanded a platoon on Iwo Jima, and singlehandedly attacked enemy pillboxes, assaults that inspired his men to join his one-man charge. Wounded by shrapnel and a land mine, he died in a hospital just a few days after the charge.
Private First-Class Franklin Sigler (1924–1995) went straight from his New Jersey high school into the Marines, and then to Iwo Jima. There, he took command when his squad leader was wounded, launched a one-man attack and captured an enemy gun position, and fought back the Japanese who attempted to retake the post. Though he was wounded and under fire, he carried three other Marine casualties to safety. 
North Carolinian Rufus Herring (1921–1996) had command of a Landing Craft Gunboat when his ship came under attack. When Japanese mortars and artillery set his ship on fire and knocked out the conning station, killing most of the other officers, the severely wounded Herring directed operations aboard ship, including the guns returning the Japanese barrage, and brought the vessel and most of its crew to safety. Later, he became mayor of his beloved hometown of Roseboro, North Carolina. Before his death, he declined burial in Arlington Cemetery, preferring to rest in his native soil.
These are but four of the men who fought, bled, and died at Iwo Jima. For every square mile they took from the enemy on Iwo Jima, more than 800 Americans paid for that real estate with their lives. In their sacrifices, they are emblematic of all those who fought for their country in World War II, and indeed, in all of the wars Americans have fought over the last 250 years. Of them, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz later said: “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”  

The Sort of Men We Will Always Need

Writer and philosopher George Santayana once wrote: “Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it.” 
Agreed. But we can also make a contrary case: “Those who do not learn history will not be able to repeat it.” 
By remembering the courage and virtues of the Marines at Iwo Jima and the soldiers and sailors who fought in other American wars, and by telling their stories and the history of what they accomplished through their sacrifices, we can help prepare future generations to answer our country’s call in time of need, stand in the gap, and fight for freedom. 
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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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