ROSWELL, N.M. — The iconic image of U.S. Marines planting the American flag in Iwo Jima, which was captured 70 years ago Monday, is something Manuel Martinez will never forget.
The Roswell resident, 92, was on the Japanese island and went out to a beach to watch the moment. He saw his fellow Marines elevating the flag on Mount Suribachi, and thereby elevating their place in wartime history.
“We could see the flag. We could see people up there on the mountain. I remember going up and everybody just having a big celebration seeing the flag,” Martinez told the Roswell Daily Record.
Five Marines and a Navy corpsman hoisted the flag on the fifth day of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer who had been rejected from the Army because of poor eyesight, snapped a picture. The photo has since become one of the most recognizable and reproduced images in history.
Martinez, who has lived in Roswell since 1948, said younger generations often mistakenly think the flag-raising occurred at the end of the battle.
“What they don’t tell you in the history is the flag-raising happened early but the battle really went after the flag was up,” he said. “I remember when it went up. We were already down there dug in the caves.”
The Battle of Iwo Jima launched on Feb. 19, 1945 with some 30,000 Marines landing on the island. Martinez remembers being greeted with an eerie silence and then having to slush through sand. He and his fellow Marines began what would be a successful month-long battle to seize control of the island from Japanese forces.
Martinez, who received the Silver Star and a Bronze Star, enlisted in 1943. After completing boot camp in San Diego, he was assigned to the 4th Marines and shipped out by January 1944. He was immediately dispatched to the Pacific Theater. He remembers not just the 22-day battle of Iwo Jima, but three earlier beach landings at Roi-Namur, Tinian and Saipan.
Although the Marines gained control of the island, it was still a dangerous environment. Martinez said he remembers enemy sniper fire just missing him.
“I could smell a kind of powder and the heat on it. That was one instance. I had so many of them,” Martinez said. “Just by the grace of God I am here today because I had so many (times) it could have gone the other way.”