The stirring photograph of the U.S. flag being raised at Iwo Jima by U.S. Marines is one of the most reproduced images of all time. What many people don’t know is that it was not the first American flag raised in that epic World War II battle.
Two American Indians played big parts in both flag-raisings on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. Louis Charles Charlo, from the Bitterroot Salish Tribe of Montana, helped with the first flag. Ira Hayes, a Pima from Arizona, is in the famous photograph taken later that same day of another flag being raised. Why Ira Hayes is an internationally known hero and Louis Charlo has been lost to history is a story that traces back to the fog of war, the shrewd manipulations of public relations and a ruthlessly efficient bit of mythmaking.
The battle for Iwo Jima, one of the Japanese home islands, featured some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific campaign. The island was fortified with hidden artillery positions, land mines, camouflaged machine gun positions and 11 miles of tunnels. There were 22,000 Japanese on the island when the battle started on February 19, 1945. When it ended, 35 days later, 216 Japanese were taken prisoner and the rest were either missing or presumed dead. The toll was even higher for the invading U.S. forces: more than 26,000 casualties and 6,800 deaths. On the fourth day of the campaign, two patrols of U.S. Marines were sent on reconnoitering missions to reach the summit of Mount Suribachi, which had already been bombarded with 16-inch shells from U.S. warships, and bombed by planes in an effort to collapse the tunnels and knock out fortifications. Even so, it wasn’t known how many Japanese still held out in its caves and tunnels, and there was only one way to find out.
“I thought I was sending them to their deaths,” Captain Dave Severance said later.
Jack Gladstone, Blackfeet poet, musician and historian, who has spent many hours over many years interviewing Marines who served on Iwo Jima and their families, describes Mount Suribachi as, “the most fortified mountain on the most fortified island in human military history.”
There have been many books written about the Battle of Iwo Jima. James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers, published in 2000, has a short but powerful account of the ascents of Mount Suribachi.
“Tensely, grabbing at roots and rocks for balance, braced for ambush at every step, [Wilson] Watson’s patrol felt its way upward amid the smoking rubble.” Bradley lists Charlo as one of the men in Watson’s patrol.
Only one group of Marines—the one that included Charlo—made it to the top that morning; the other group took a route that proved to be impassable and had to return to the bottom. A photo of that ascent shows the men at the summit; Charlo can be seen holding a rifle. Historical documents indicate that the Marines took a quick look around, and returned to their platoon near the base of the mountain. Shortly after Charlo and the rest of his group returned, a second group of about 40 men, also including Charlo, climbed back to the summit, found a 20-foot length of pipe and secured a small U.S. flag from the USS Missoula to it. The flag was small, just 54 inches by 28 inches. Raymond Jacobs was the radioman on that mission.
In 2004, nearly 60 years after the war, Jacobs told the website World War II Stories—In Their Own Words, “Moments after the flag was raised we heard a roar from down below on the island. Marines on the ground, still engaged in combat, raised a spontaneous yell when they saw the flag. Screaming and cheering so loud and prolonged that we could hear it quite clearly on top of Suribachi. The boats on the beach and the ships at sea joined in blowing horns and whistles. It was a highly emotional, strongly patriotic moment for all of us.”
Sgt. Louis Lowery, a photographer for the Marines’ Leatherneck magazine, was taking photos when enemy soldiers started emerging from caves, shooting and throwing grenades. Ray Coll Jr., a Marine who arrived at Iwo Jima on the battleship USS Tennessee, was to write, “Charlie, the Indian, and his companion coolly picked them off.” No U.S. troops were killed. Lowery’s camera was destroyed but the film that he shot was saved. When the battle subsided a Catholic chaplain arrived, set up a portable altar and celebrated Mass at the summit. One photo shows Charlo kneeling in prayer. The date was February 23, 1945.
In the last letter Charlo wrote to his parents, sometime during that following week, he wrote, “I was part of the fracas atop Suribachi.” Louis Charlo died less than a week later, killed as he was attempting to rescue Private Ed McLaughlin, a wounded buddy stranded in an area of the Iwo Jima battlefield known as the Meat Grinder.
Charlo was carrying McLaughlin on his back and both were killed just a few feet from safety, according to Ray Whelan, Charlo’s platoon leader. Dan Jackson, commander of the Veterans Warrior Society on the Flathead Reservation, says the Warrior Society is still working to get a Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to Charlo. Charlo was originally awarded a Bronze Star for his heroics on Iwo Jima. Many think that’s not enough recognition. It’s ironic that the first flag-raising has received so little attention. In addition to being first, it was the one involving the greater danger and the one that had the greater impact on the U.S. troops.
The second flag-raising, which took place later that same day, was simply to replace the first flag
with a larger one. At the time, it wasn’t treated as a momentous occasion, or much oan occasion at all—in Flags of Our Fathers, Bradley writes that “no one else on the summit paid much attention to what was going on.”
Yet the photograph taken that afternoon by Joe Rosenthal attracted worldwide attention, and was used by the military, the U.S. government and other organizations to raise money for the war effort. As soon as that photograph was chosen to be the inspirational image for the fund-raising, Hayes was ordered to leave his buddies in Easy Company and return to the States to be presented as a hero of Iwo Jima on a kind of barnstorming tour. It was something he didn’t want to do, and the intense pressures he felt reportedly led him to drinking heavily. It became so bad he was removed from the tour after just 48 days and shipped back to Easy Company in Hawaii. He was discharged in 1945 after three overseas tours and returned to the reservation, where his drinking continued and led to his death in 1955. Gladstone says that because of the iconic power of that photograph, “The [true] story was smothered. In a way, we’re still sorting it out.”
The confusion over the two flag-raisings even took a bizarre twist as, years later, Charlo’s story was conflated with that of Ira Hayes. Dan Jackson remembers that as a youngster growing up in Arlee, Montana on the reservation, teachers told him that Charlo had returned home with a congressional Medal of Honor, which he sold for a bottle of wine and froze to death in a ditch outside of town. That, alas, was the story of Ira Hayes. Jackson says that when he heard Charlo’s true story as an adult he wanted to do what he could to help honor the memory of this hero.
“I got the Charlo family together and they gave me everything they had; pictures, clippings from other newspapers, and I compiled a capsule,” Jackson says. “We’re trying to get Louis a congressional Medal of Honor. Senator Mike Mansfield, then a U.S. Representative, traveled to Iwo Jima in 1948 and escorted his body back to the reservation. Two years ago Senator Max Baucus got [Charlo’s] Bronze Medal upgraded to a Silver [Star]. All we need is to get him awarded a Navy Cross, and it could be made into a congressional Medal of Honor.”
A beautiful veterans’ memorial now stands in Pablo, Montana adjoining tribal office buildings. Massive wooden lodge poles stretch over an inner circle of highly polished black stone. Engravings in the stone depict an eagle, a buffalo, Indians on horseback, and one shows the likeness of Louis Charles Charlo with a brief story of his military duty, including the first flag-raising on Iwo Jima.
Charlo was born September 26, 1926, the son of Mary and Antoine Charlo. His great grandfather was Chief Charlo, the head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870-1910. He is also in the lineage of Chief Three Eagles, who met Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroot Valley in September of 1805. During that encounter they shared what little food they had with the white men. Louis would have been the hereditary chief had he not died at such a young age. Despite his few short years, he continues to have an impact on others. Bud Moran, the present tribal chairman, was a first cousin of Louis Charlo. “My real reason for joining the Marine Corps was for him, in remembrance of my cousin Chuck, ” he said. (Family and friends called Louis “Chuck.”) “His mom and my mom were sisters. It was devastating to the family when he died.”
Louis Charlo’s bravery and death “has been a very important part of our family,” his sister, Mary Jane Charlo says. “I don’t think parents ever get over losing their first-born son. About 20 years ago, when my dad was still alive, they had a veterans’ dance at the Arlee pow wow. The announcer asked my father to come out and dance for his boy. Everybody knew who that was. [My father] got very emotional and had tears in his eyes. That was almost 50 years later.” She adds, “I think the greatest way to honor the parents is to honor the child. This would have been so important to Mom and Dad.”
Louis Charlo is now buried at the Saint Ignatius Old Catholic Cemetery, Lake County, Montana.
[Editor's note: This story was first published by ICTMN in November 2011 for Veteran's Day]