Col. David E. Severance, USMC (Ret.), who turned 101 on Feb. 4, was a 26-year-old mustang captain and company commander of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, when he landed at Green Beach on Iwo Jima with the third wave on Feb. 19, 1945. At the time, he had no idea of the fame men from his company would attain for raising a flag on Mount Suribachi five days later.
The campaign was only going to last about that long, the troops were told. That’s all it would take to secure the sulphur island only 8 square miles, 5 miles long and from 800 yards to 2.5 miles wide miles at its widest point. Taking Iwo Jima was important because it was roughly halfway between the Mariana Islands, where the bombing raids on Japan originated, and the Japanese mainland. Radar on the island warned the Japanese that the bombers were coming, and Japanese fighter planes and mainland antiaircraft guns often were instrumental in damaging planes returning to the Marianas, causing them to go down in the Pacific and losing the entire crew.
For the first five days, the fighting was ferocious and casualties high.
“We had nearly 30 percent casualties those first few days,” Severance said. “Our CP was set up at the base of Suribachi and we were headed north. The vantage from Suribachi and the fire from various spots there made it necessary to secure the mountain.”
When battalion commander Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson told then-Capt. Severance to send a patrol up Mount Suribachi to secure and occupy it, he sent a 40-man patrol led by Lt. Harold “George” Schrier, along with an American flag the colonel wanted raised, if possible. The patrol found a pole, fastened the flag to it and raised it at about 10:30 a.m.
“That boosted our morale,” Severance said. The Marines below the mountain cheered and hollered, and the ships at sea blasted horns and clanged bells and whistles, thinking the battle was over that, in fact, raged on for more than 30 days.
Plt. Sgt. Ernest “Boots” Thomas later told a reporter aboard ship that the flag was raised by Lt. Schrier, Sgt. Henry “Hank” Hansen and himself by fastening it to a Japanese water pipe. Cpl. Charles Lindbergh, Navy Corpsman PhM2 John Bradley, Pvt. Phil Ward and Pfcs. James Michels and Raymond Jacobs were there helping. No photo of the first flag raising exists because Marine photographer Sgt. Louis “Lou” Lowery was reloading his camera.
Soon afterward, Johnson wanted a larger flag in its place and the first one brought back for the battalion, which Severance says was later placed in the battalion safe. Easy Company runner Pfc. Rene Gagnon was taking radio batteries to Schrier and was given the second flag to take with him that later was pictured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo and Marine photographer Sgt. William “Bill” Genaust’s moving picture film.
Gagnon went along with four men Severance was sending up the mountain to string combat telephone wire to Suribachi. Those four men, Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfcs. Franklin Sousley and Ira Hayes, Gagnon and Pfc. Harold Scholtz (identified as one of the second flag raisers in 2016) helped attach the second flag to another pole and raise it as the first flag came down. (In 2019, Cpl. Harold Keller was identified as one of the second flag raisers in place of Gagnon.)
“We didn’t think more about it until a couple of weeks later when they wanted the men identified from the second flag raising to take back for the bond tour,” Severance said. Only Hayes and Gagnon were still alive (Scholtz and Keller were alive but not recognized as helping raise the second flag). The other four had been killed a few days after the flag was raised. Hayes did not want to go back and reportedly threatened Gagnon, who was asked to identify the flag raisers, if he named him. But back in the States at Headquarters Marine Corps, Gagnon was apparently persuaded to name Hayes and also named Navy Cross recipient Bradley as the surviving flag raisers.
Severance has continuously been asked about the flag raising and the 40-man patrol for the last 75 years, including responding to a large number of claims from men who say they were one of the flag raisers or were on the 40-man patrol.
“If everybody who said they were on the mountain then were there,” he first said years ago and no longer wants to talk about it, “the whole mountain would have sunk into the ocean.”
Severance enlisted the Marine Corps in 1938, later received a commission, served with the 1st Parachute Battalion and fought on Bougainville. After the Paramarines were disbanded, he later joined the newly formed 5th Marine Division and received the Silver Cross on Iwo Jima, then became a Marine aviator and received the Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea, where he flew some 60 missions.