This year marks the 75th anniversary of the raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. You’ve probably seen a reprint of the famous photo of the event.
Most of us are not aware that there is also US military memorial sitting atop Mount Suribachi. The memorial is a rectangular marble structure with a plaque that denotes what happened there. Today, only specially authorized US military personnel are allowed to visit the site. To the right of the memorial is another, much smaller stone. It says, “Sgt. William Homer Genaust, Marine Combat Cameraman, Shot Historic Movie of Flag Raising, Won Bronze Star, Killed in Action, Mar. 4, 1945, Age 38.”
Sgt. Genaust was a battle hardened veteran of several campaigns and was further down the mountain when a group of Marines raised their small company flag atop the volcanic mountain to symbolize their victory. Around noon, Sgt. Genaust and his subordinate, Private Campbell, were ordered to the summit to film a second raising of the flag. This one would be much larger, one that could be seen from everywhere on the island.
Along the way they met up with Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal whose “still shot” became the image we see today. The three hiked to the summit and then Sgt. Genaust, with his motion picture camera, stood to the left of Rosenthal and filmed the hoisting of the second flag.
Rosenthal returned to the safety of a naval ship anchored off shore and transmitted his photo back to the Associated Press. His photo appeared in the February 25 edition of almost every American newspaper. He would later be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photo.
Sgt. Genaust continued to film scenes from the battle. Some reels focus on the Naval corpsmen rendering aid to the wounded, others of the battle action itself. The most dynamic footage he shot was of the cave-by-cave elimination of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. His camera held small cassettes of Kodachrome film, each holding about 4 minutes of action. He had finished 22 rolls of film and had loaded number 23 into his camera. The roll begins with Sgt. Genaust holding a paper with #23 scrawled on it. The first scene was of a Corpsman performing first aid on a wounded Japanese soldier. It would be the last scene he shot.
Heavy rains and mud flows forced the action to a standstill until March 4. Sgt. Genaust, along with his rifle and camera, were accompanying the 28th Marines as they moved towards their objective – Hill 362.
Along the way they came across a cave opening. Towards the back of the cave they could see a Japanese soldier doing what appeared to be paper work. He ignored their commands to come out.
Per their orders, all caves were to be cleared and sealed. It was Sgt. Genaust, backed by other marines, who entered the cave with a flashlight to take the Japanese soldier into custody. Regretfully, it was a trap. After the marines were well inside the cave, a Japanese machine gun at the back of the cave opened fire.
Since Sgt. Genaust was carrying the flashlight he was the first hit and killed instantly. The other marines fired back and retreated from the cave, but, due to enemy fire, were unable to take Sgt. Genaust’s body with them.
According to USMC procedure at the time, grenades were hurled into the cave opening and the entrance was seared with flame throwers. TNT charges were then placed and the opening was sealed.
Sgt. Genaust would never see his famous footage, never know its influence on our national pride, but his wife, Adelaide, would.
Sgt. Genaust’s film was developed and returned stateside. It became regular footage at every movie theater. Adelaide would see it many times, but did not know it was her husband who had shot it. All she knew was from a telegram she had received that he was missing in action. Month’s later she wrote a letter to William’s commanding officer, and he responded to her, that she found out the truth of his death and his connection to the famous film. It is said she never returned to a movie theater.
Both the Japanese and American governments have sent expeditions to retrieve the bodies of their war dead. Sadly, the body of Sgt. William Homer Genaust has never been found.
Flag day is Sunday.
Please take a few moments to reflect on this great symbol of our country. Here’s the chorus from George Cohen’s song, “She’s a Grand Old Flag” to help you along.
You're a grand old flag,
You're a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true
'Neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag