The History of the Marine Corps War Memorial, Washington DC

HONORING THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF IWO JIMA

By Kraig M. Butrum, CEO National Museum of Americans In Wartime

As one who has lived in Washington DC for 24 years, it is an honor to drive by the Marine Corps War memorial that ‘honors the memory of the men and women of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775.”

Iwo Jima SculptureThe United States Marine Corps War Memorial represents this nation’s gratitude to Marines and those who have fought beside them. While the statue depicts one of the most famous incidents of World War II, the memorial is dedicated to all Marines who have given their lives in defense of the United States since 1775.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was an epic military campaign between U.S. Marines and the Imperial Army of Japan in early 1945. … American forces invaded the island on February 19, 1945, and the ensuing Battle of Iwo Jima lasted for five weeks in some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II.

 

The Picture behind the Statue

The actual tiny island of Iwo Jima lies 660 miles south of Tokyo. Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano that forms the narrow southern tip of the island, rises 550 feet to dominate the ocean around it. US troops had recaptured most of the other islands in the Pacific Ocean that the Japanese had taken in 1941 and 1942. In 1945, Iwo Jima became a primary objective in American plans to bring the Pacific campaign to a successful conclusion.

On the morning of February 19, 1945, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions invaded Iwo Jima after an ineffective 72-hour bombardment. The 28th Regiment of the 5th Division, was Iwo Jima Live Statueordered to capture Mount Suribachi. They reached the base of the mountain on the afternoon of February 21 and, by nightfall the next day, had almost surrounded it. On the morning of February 23, Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, started the tortuous climb up the rough terrain to the top. At about 10:30 am men all over the island were thrilled by the sight of a small American flag flying from atop Mount Suribachi. That afternoon, when the slopes were clear of enemy resistance, a second, larger flag was raised in the same location.

The Making of a Memorial

Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press caught the afternoon flag-raising in an iconic photograph that eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. Sculptor Felix W. de Weldon, then on duty with the US Navy, was so moved by the image that he constructed first a scale model and then a life-size model of it. Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley posed for the sculptor as he modeled their faces in clay. These three men were believed to be the survivors of the famous flag raising (the others were killed on Iwo Jima). The US Marine Corps has since concluded that John Bradley was not in the famous image of the flag raising.

Once the statue was completed in plaster, it was carefully disassembled and trucked to Brooklyn, N.Y., for casting in bronze. The casting process, which required the work of experienced artisans, took nearly 3 years. After the parts had been cast, cleaned, finished, and chased, they were reassembled into approximately a dozen pieces–the largest weighing more than 20 tons–and brought back to Washington, D.C., by a three-truck convoy. Here they were bolted and welded together, and the statue was treated with preservatives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the memorial in a ceremony on November 10, 1954, the 179th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Memorial Statistics

Thirty-two-foot-high figures are shown raising a 60-foot bronze flagpole. The flag flies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by presidential proclamation. Every time I drive by, there are families, buses and veterans paying respects regardless of day or night.

Iwo Jim Statue lowered by craneThe figures in the statue occupy the same positions as they were identified at the time in Rosenthal’s historic photograph. Ira Hayes is the figure farthest from the flagpole with both hands reaching up. Franklin Sousley is in front of Hayes, to the right. John Bradley is in front of Sousley. Michael Strank is in front of Hayes, to the left. Rene Gagnon is in front of Strank. Harlon Block is at the foot of the flagpole. But controversy remains who that day was part of the flag raising.

The monument itself is impressive. the M-l rifle and the carbine carried by two of the figures are 16 and 12 feet long, respectively. The canteen would hold 32 quarts of water.

The figures stand on a rock slope above a granite base. The entire memorial is about 78 feet tall.

Granite for the base came from Sweden. The names and dates of every principal Marine Corps engagement since the founding of the Corps form a gold ring around the base.

The entire cost of the statue ($850,000 in 1953 dollars) was donated by US Marines, friends of the Marine Corps, and members of the Naval Service. No public funds were used for this memorial.

 

Ceremonies at the Marine Corps…

The parade ground in front of the memorial and the ceremonies that take place on it help to honor the Marine Corps heritage. Sunset Parades, promotion and retirement ceremonies, and a commemoration of the Marine Corps’ “birthday” all take place here.

A Reflection of our Common American History:

As we come up to the 75 anniversary of this brutal fight, let’s spend a silent moment to thank those who stepped forward to protect the arsenals of Democracy on an island many had never heard of. Iwo Jima is now permanently etched into American History and is now a part of our patriotic lifeblood.

For the generations that now enjoy freedom and the lack of tyranny, we thank you.

We thank the U.S. National Park Service for the historic background of the Marine Corps War Memorial.
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