This week, millions of American flags will be raised across the country to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence 238 years ago. As my own small tribute to the founding fathers, I decided to take a look at Fort Missoula’s collection of American flags and compile some kind of survey, sharing photos and a bit of history where I could find it, attempting in my own small way to show that despite the ubiquity of the American flag as symbol, individual examples have a lot to teach us about history and patriotism. Of course, once I submerged myself in the collection, my research began to take a completely different, completely fascinating route.
The Fort Missoula Flag from the USS Missoula
Most of Fort Missoula’s flags are stored together in one of the small textile rooms in the curatorial space on the second floor. However, there is one flag kept in its own unwieldy, somewhat enormous, albeit shallow, box in the main photography room. The naval flag, measuring 33½” x 61½” (that’s almost three feet high and just over six feet long), is mounted on a stretched canvas, sewn onto the canvas along its outer edges in an effort to preserve it. In many ways it is a standard 48-star American flag: white stars arrayed systematically over a blue canton (24¾” x 18”), seven red stripes, six white, the cotton seemingly battle-worn, or simply deteriorating with age. I found it interesting that the stars were printed onto the blue canton rather than sewn, while the stripes were comprised of individual strips of cloth sewn together. In terms of wear and tear, there are at least seven holes in the canton alone and the stripes, especially the red stripes, are littered with tears while stains are obvious on the white cloth. The colors are faded, especially as your eye moves away from the hoist. The 48-star flag was in use from 1912, with Arizona’s admission into the Union, until 1959, with the admission of Alaska, and there are countless extant examples—some of them rich with war stories, some simply flown at the neighbor’s house on the 4th of July.
Tears on the USS Missoula Flag
This particular flag, flown over the USS Missoula from 1944 to 1946, is one of former. It is the sister flag to the flag first raised on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, undoubtedly one of the most significant flags of the 20th century. Naturally, my eyes widened as I read the page of information kept with the flag. Sister flag. That meant that the iconic Iwo Jima flag, immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph, was also flown over the USS Missoula, alongside ours, right?
No, not right at all.
Here is the real story behind the flag and the Rosenthal photograph: On the morning of Friday, February 23, 1945, forty Marines led by Lt. Harold G. Schrier ascended Mount Suribachi, a volcanic vent and the highest peak on Iwo Jima, an island with major strategic importance for both the Japanese and Americans during WWII. They’d been instructed by 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, “If you’re able to get up the mountain I want you to take this flag… If you can’t make it all the way up, turn around and come back down. Don’t try to go overboard.” The men had arrived at Iwo Jima on the USS Missoula and they carried a small flag from the ship with them on their mission. When they reached the summit, they managed to find a 20-foot rainwater pipe constructed by the Japanese and then, using the pipe, six men hoisted the flag at 10:20 am. Luckily, Leatherneck photographer Louis Lowery had ascended the peak with the men and was there to capture the moment.
Louis Lowery’s Photograph of the First Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi, 2/23/45
James Bradley describes the excitement that washed over Iwo Jima with the raising of the first flag in Flags of Our Fathers, “As Lowery clicked this exposure, an amazing noise rose from the island below and from the ships offshore. Thousands of Marine and Navy personally had been watching the patrol as they climbed to the volcano’s rim. When the small swatch of color fluttered, Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Infantrymen cheered, whistled,and waved their helmets. Here was the evidence of Suribachi’s conquest. Here was the first invader’s flag ever planted in four thousand years on the soil of Japan.”
In a 2005 Missoulian article, WWII veteran and Missoula resident Bill Worf recalls standing on the beaches and seeing the first flag go up: “‘It went through the ranks like an electric shock,’ says Worf, who was 18 years old that day and is now 78. ‘We were getting really chewed up by artillery strikes that had been called in from the top of Mount Suribachi. So it was a big deal to see that flag go up. When it went up, a lot of us thought in another day or two we’d wrap things up and go home’” (http://missoulian.com/news/american-flag-from-uss-missoula-was-first-to-be-flown/article_d16ad9ac-7428-5fa2-a459-3962c1fade7f.html). Of course, Worf and the others were wrong in their hope that the battle would end early: it lasted until March 26 and saw 26,000 American casualties alone, including 6,800 men killed in action.
Pvt. Bob Campbell took this photograph of the first flag coming down and the second going up, 2/23/45, courtesy of http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2012/11/the-modern-art-notes-podcast-warphotography/
Shortly after the flag from the USS Missoula was raised, Lt. Col. Johnson ordered the small flag taken down and replaced with a larger one. The story goes that Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal landed on the beach just as the flag went up and, recognizing its importance, said he wanted it as a souvenir. Johnson, upon receiving Forrestal’s message, supposedly declared, “To hell with that!” Johnson wanted to secure the original flag for his battalion, so he raised a larger one in its stead, a 56” x 96” flag taken from the LST 779. On the advice of Lowery, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal and Sgt. Bill Genaust made their way to the summit of Suribachi just as the men were attaching the second flag to a 100-pound pole. As they hoisted it, Rosenthal took the picture that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize, serve as the symbol for the Seventh War Bond Drive and as the model for the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Genaust captured the event on video, although he would never have the chance to see it. Genaust was killed in battle just days later.
Joe Rosenthal’s Photograph of the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, 2/23/45, courtesy of the National Archives
The men in Rosenthal’s photograph—Sgt. Michael Strank, Pfc. Rene Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, PhM2c John Bradley (Pharmacist Mate, 2nd Class) and Cpl. Harlon Block— the second group of six men to raise an American flag that day, would become celebrities. Three would be killed in action during the subsequent days of fighting, while FDR would bring the survivors home to tour the country and participate in the drive. Bradley’s son, James Bradley, further commemorated the flag-raisers with the 2000 book, Flags of Our Fathers, which spent 46 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Meanwhile, the men in Louis Lowery’s photograph would remain virtually anonymous—First Lt. Schrier, Sgt. Boots Thomas, Sgt. Hank Hansen, Pfc. Louis Charlo, Pfc. Jim Michaels, and Cpl. Charles W. Lindbergh. Charlo, the great-grandson of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, was killed in action just a week after participating in the ascent of Suribachi. A Montana-native, Louis Carlo is commemorated by an exhibition at the Rocky Mountain Military Museum on the grounds of Fort Missoula, right next to an exhibition about the history of the USS Missoula. For his part, Lowery never achieved the fame of Rosenthal. He continued to work for the Marine Corps’ publication, Leatherneck Magazine, until his retirement in 1983, and he and Rosenthal remained close friends well after the end of the war.
Both the first and second flags raised on Mount Suribachi are now, appropriately, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The flag at Fort Missoula was, in comparison, just a bystander. But both USS Missoula flags—both the flag in Quantico and the flag at Fort Missoula—accompanied the USS Missoula—from Richmond, VA, where the ship was launched in September 1944, then to Pearl Harbor, where she trained, and then to Iwo Jima, where she ferried cargo and served as a floating medical station. However you want to look at it, this flag has seen a lot of action!
The Signal Gang of the USS Missoula, taken March 1945, photograph donated to Fort Missoula by Arthur Loveridge (pictured bottom row, second from right)
The sister flag to the first flag raised over Iwo Jima was given to Fort Missoula in 2006 by Arthur C. Loveridge, a USS Missoula signalman who, after the war, hung the flag in his machine shop every year on the 4th of July.