The Two Flags

Posted in: history by bill-o on December 04, 2010

Shadows and Symbols had the opportunity recently to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps (NMMC) in Quantico, Virginia, USA. (Quantico is a Marine Corps Base (MCBQ) that is located about 50 miles south of Washington, D.C.) The 4-year old museum is now one of the premier sites for military history in the United States. As of this past summer, the museum now includes exhibits based on the entire history of the USMC.

As I walked through the World War II (Second World War) exhibit of the museum, I turned a corner and encountered quite a surprise. I entered the room where the first American flag that had been raised on Mount Surabachi was prominently on display in a glass-enclosed case with a black background. Shocked to see such an American national treasure right in front of me with no other tourists in the room at that time, a museum guide, apparently posted exclusively for that particular room, explained to me the history of the flag, as well as the second flag raised later on that day.

For Americans as a whole, and for the Marine Corps (USMC) in particular, the flag raising on the western Pacific Island of Iwo Jima remains an enduring symbol of perseverance in the face of an enemy determined to kill or die trying. It’s memory is etched in stone at the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) in Arlington, Virginia. The Battle of Iwo Jima cost the lives of over 6,800 marines to secure the 8 square mile (21 square km) island. The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima’s only prominent mountain marked the symbolic taking of the high ground on that island.

Many Americans don’t realize that there were actually two flags raised on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. This second flag is the one that was photographed, filmed, and formed into the Iwo Jima Memorial.¬†Evidently, the NMMC does not display both flags at any one time. The day that I went, the first flag was on display. A few months from now, the second one will be returned to the same display and the first flag will be placed back into storage. The guide told me that the museum would like to eventually find a way to display both flags at the same time.¬†For me, both flags are enduring symbols of a hard-won victory.

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Bearing the Shame

Posted in: history by bill-o on May 23, 2010

This Spring is the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, which was the last major battle in the American strategy of “island hopping” by capturing successive islands in the western Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle lasted for two and a half months and resulted in the defeat of the Japanese by mid-June 1945. A total of 1/4-million combatants and civilians died on the island during the 82 days of fighting.

By this late stage of the war, the Japanese fighting forces had been reduced to a fraction of their capabilities four years earlier. Stepping into this increasingly bleak situation for the Japanese was the man who would become the primary strategist for the Japanese army on Okinawa. His name was Lt. Col. Hiromichi Yahara. Col. Yahara, a war college professor for most of World War II, knew that victory over the Americans on Okinawa was not possible. Therefore, the best strategy for his side was to use Okinawa simply to wear down the American and British forces as much as possible in order to make their eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands more difficult. In support of this strategic goal, Col. Yahara planned for a “defense in depth” strategy. With this plan, Japanese soldiers would engage the Americans only in defensive ways, even to the point of retreating backward to more defendable positions. Col. Yahara’s superior officers did not always listen to his recommendations, but his overall suggestions were adhered to throughout much of the battle.

In spite of Col. Yahara’s strategies, the Americans did succeed in securing most of Okinawa by the beginning of the Summer of 1945. By that point, Col. Yahara and his commanding generals were reduced to living in a cave. They were then each faced with the choice of surrendering, taking off their uniforms and trying to blend into the civilian population, or committing suicide. The cultural norm of the Japanese army was for its field commanders to kill themselves rather than accept the shame and embarrassment of being captured, so each of the senior officers in the cave were prepared to end their own lives.

But before Col. Yahara could take his own life, his superior officers ordered him not to. In the future, someone would need to tell the story of the battle from the Japanese side, and the generals in charge knew that Col. Yahara, as their strategist for the battle, was the best man to record that story for future generations. One of the generals told Col. Yahara that, yes, this would mean that he would have to bear the shame of being captured by the enemy. However, that shame would pass away in time, and that shame would be outweighed by the colonel’s chance to write down the stories of the battle for the sake of history.

Col. Yahara obeyed the order of his generals, even after they themselves had committed suicide. He took off his uniform, went out of his cave, and attempted to blend in with the surrounding population. Eventually, Col. Yahara was recognized and taken prisoner.

Years later, in 1973, he published his book on the battle of Okinawa. His book is now available in English as well as in Japanese. Col. Yahara died in 1981.