Among the thousands of American Indians who served in World War II, two deserve special recognition for their shared exploits atop Mount Surabachi during the battle to capture Iwo Jima, the Japanese stronghold in the South Pacific. Both were eighteen-year old Marines. One—Ira Hamilton Hayes, applauded as a hero, achieved fame and notoriety; the other—Louis Charles Charlo, a true hero, became lost to history.
Ira Hayes attended the U.S. Marine Corps parachutist school in San Diego, where he was dubbed “Chief Falling Cloud.”
Ira Hayes is undoubtedly the best known Indian who served in World War II, thanks to his role in helping raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the dramatic moment captured in Joe Rosenthal’s celebrated photograph. Although acclaimed a hero, the Pima Marine felt he had done nothing heroic. “How could I feel like a hero,” he lamented, “when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?” Instead of being shuttled from city to city for publicity purposes, Ira simply wanted to return to the war. “Sometimes I wish that guy had never made that picture,” he confessed. After the war, Ira attempted to lead an anonymous life on the Pima reservation, but it was impossible. Suffering from PTSD, alcohol became his only escape. Never married, unable to get his life back in balance, he died of exposure in January 1955 at the age of thirty-three, just ten weeks after attending the dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C. for the Iwo Jima Memorial, the bronze cast replica of the photograph that had caused him so much pain and torment.
In truth, the stirring Rosenthal photograph documents what was the second flag raising atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. Marine Private Louis Charlo, a member of the Bitterroot Salish Tribe of Montana, had a key role in the first flag raising.
PFC Louis Charles Charlo, A member of the Bitterroot Salish Nation, was born in Missoula, Montana. By a remarkable coincidence, the ship that carried him to Iwo Jima was the U.S.S. Missoula.
Iwo Jima, one of the Japanese home islands, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific campaign. When the battle began on February 19, 1945, 22,000 Japanese occupied the island. At its end, thirty-five days later, the only known Japanese survivors were 216 prisoners of war. But the Americans paid dearly for their victory, suffering more than 26,000 casualties including 6,800 dead.
On the fourth day of the campaign, the Marines sent two patrols to the summit of 546-foot-high Mount Suribachi in an effort to determine how many Japanese still held out in the island’s maze of caves and tunnels. Private Charlo, a BAR man with F Company of the 28th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division, accompanied one of the patrols. After encountering no resistance, his patrol returned to their platoon and then led the group of about forty Marines back up the mountain where a 20-foot piece of pipe was found. To it they lashed a flag taken from the USS Missoula. As they raised the flag, Louis R. Lowery of Leatherneck Magazine snapped a photograph. According to the official Marine Corps account of this first flag-raising, Louis Charlo was one of the men in the photo. Decades later, another Marine disputed the claim and the Marine Corps accepted the challenge. Nonetheless, as other photos of the event document, Private Charlo was with the first flag raisers.
The day of the flag raising Chaplain Charles Suver of the Society of Jesus, held a mass atop Suribachi. In a photo taken during the mass, Private Charlo is seen kneeling near the priest. On March 2, less than a week later, he was killed attempting to rescue Private Ed McLaughlin, a wounded comrade stranded in an area of the Iwo Jima battlefield known as the Meat Grinder. According to his platoon leader, “Chuck” was carrying McLaughlin on his back when Japanese snipers killed them both just a few feet from safety.
Although Charlo deserved a medal for heroism, the only award he received was the Purple Heart. According to General Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, writing on August 21, 2016, “There is no record of any medal being submitted or awarded, . . . [but] I can’t emphasize enough that our Corps considers him a hero. He was part of one of the most brutal battles of World War II and gave everything for his Corps and country.”
In this photo of the Catholic Mass held atop Mount Surabachi on February 23, 1945, Private Charlo is kneeling to the left of the marine receiving holy communion from Navy Chaplain Charles Suver, S.J.
First flag raising on Iwo Jima, the morning of February 23, 1945. A second flag raising with a much larger flag is the one Joe Rosenthal documented in his celebrated photograph.
PHOTOGRAPH OF PRIVATE CHARLO, FACING FORWARD, TAKEN BY SGT. LOUIS R. BURMEISTER, USMC, AFTER THE FIRST FLAG RAISING ON MOUNT SURIBACHI, FEBRUARY 23, 1945.