Retired Marine Colonel Recalls the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima

Colonel Dave Severance was on the island that day as a Marine Captain with the 5th Marine Division

It is one of the most iconic images from World War II.

Seventy years ago Monday, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the Pulitzer-winning photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

“Rosenthal got one, one exposure and he didn’t know for some time whether he got a picture or not,” said retired Colonel Dave Severance.

(L) An image of Severance in uniform. (R) Severance at his home in La Jolla in February 2015.

At 26, Severance was on the island that day as a Marine Captain with the 5th Marine Division.

"Within the first three days I had 30 percent casualties in my company,” Severance said.

He also remembers that flag, and the first flag to be raised on Iwo Jima.

Talking to NBC 7 from his home in La Jolla, here’s how he recalls the events of Feb. 23, 1945.

He and his company wanted to recognize the achievement of the Marines reaching the top of Mount Suribachi.

One of his fellow Marines suggested champagne, another came up with this idea.

“The Marine Corps manual states that the adjunct on every combat mission will carry a flag, so he said if we get to the top we can put the flag up, so they forgot about the champagne.”

Severance helped select the Marines to go and they made the climb with them a photographer from Leatherneck Magazine, making it to the summit and putting up that small Marine flag around 10:20 in the morning.

“There’s no picture of the flag going up with the first flag, because the photographer ran out of film just before they were going to raise the flag.”

But photographer Lou Lowery reloaded and got the shot, before dodging a grenade.

Severance has a signed copy hanging in his study. And while he didn’t see it go up, he could hear it from below on his radio somebody said they made it to the top. “All the ships at sea, so to speak, started their sirens going, and troops were yelling and cheering definitely could see the flag was an American flag.”

But that flag would not be the one captured in the famous photograph.

Severance says a couple hours later the Secretary of the Navy arrived, saw the Marine flag and said he wanted it for a memento of his visit.

“When my battalion commander hung up he said, 'Hell no he can’t have our flag. We put it up there we’re going to keep it,'“ Severance said.

So, a Navy flag was brought as a replacement and it was that flag that Joe Rosenthal photographed after joining a second group of Marines up the mountain.

There was no cheering from the military when the second flag was raised, but the picture of the heroic Marines moved the nation.

It is that flag that is cemented in the memory of generations of Americans.

But not in the memory of a Marine who was there, Retired Colonel Dave Severance.

His strongest memories are of sacrifices of his fellow Marines during the 36 day battle, only in its first few days when the iconic image was taken.

Sacrifices that have stayed with him 70 years later.

In our Salute to Service we recongnize a WWII veteran credited with providing the flag in the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima. NBC 7’s Marianne Kushi and Jason Austell report.
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