On March 16, 1945, after over a year of persistent pressure, US Marines accomplished a sizable WWII feat – they conquered Iwo Jima. About three weeks earlier, US Marines raised their flag on Mount Surbachi, creating an image that has become visually synonymous with America's victory in Iwo Jima. Later, Marines restaged the flag-raising for two photojournalists, creating the iconic image that we know to this day.
However, there were other striking photographs taken from this historic time. Chief among these is the photo of a US Marine puffing cigs with a Japanese soldier as he lays buried in the black sands of Iwo Jima. The Japanese soldier had been waiting there, ready to charge with a grenade in his hand, when the Japanese surrendered the island.
Though the Marine had to approach with caution – it could have been a trap, after all – he eventually made his way over to the man. There, the two shared in a timeless ritual of respect and human acknowledgment.
Though the Japanese had just surrendered, the US Marine who approached the Japanese soldier had to be careful – it was possible the plea for help was nothing more than a complex trap. The Japanese soldier had also had a grenade in his hand for a time, and Marines had convinced him to put it down. So, the Marine who had commiserated with the solider slowly approached him as he lay still in the black sands of the shell hole where he had just spent the last 36 hours.
However, this Japanese soldier wasn't alone in his covert mission. According to the WWII Multimedia Database, plenty of "individual enemy soldiers armed with demolition charges and [other devices] raced out against tanks or groups of Marines but [many] were shot down before they could do any great damage to personnel or equipment."
March 16, 1945, the day this photo was taken, was the day the US declared victory over the Japanese in securing the island in the Pacific. Beginning in February 1944, US forces bombarded the island via land and water for 74 days in a row. The Japanese hold on the island was a strong one – it even included a network of caves and tunnels with underground (and undersea) fortifications, which the US had to deal with before it could land there. The island was 23,000-Japanese strong.
Almost one exact year after they began the campaign, US Marines landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. At the end of that night, "more than 550 Marines [had perished] and more than 1,800 were wounded." Inch by inch, US forces took over Iwo Jima, performing their now-famous flag raise at 10 am on February 23rd. On March 16, the US took official control of the island.
Winning Iwo Jima gave US forces a base near the Japanese coast, something that was sorely needed. The island provided damaged US aircraft a safe landing spot, which enabled them to avoid flying all the way to Mariana Islands. But the victory at Iwo Jima wasn't just a tactical one. The image of the Marines lifting their flag at Mount Surbachi, which was taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal, became one of the most enduring and recognizing images of the conflict. It even won the Pulitzer for Photography in 1945. Featured in publications around the world, the flag-raise photo, which symbolized the victory, served as a symbol of hope, inspiration, and resilience – the Allied forces had it in the bag. WWII fighting ended a scant five months later, on September 2, 1945. However, President Truman declared the truce treaty officially effective in 1951.