The Battle of Iwo Jima is one of the most important battles in the history of the Marine Corps. More than 26,000 United States Marines were killed or wounded for the strategically vital eight square miles of the island. It allowed the United States to attack the Japanese home islands from the air without warning and become the staging point for the coming invasion of Japan. It also came to define the modern Marine Corps. The image of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi became the iconic memorial to all Marines who gave their lives for their country since 1775.
The Marine Corps Memorial and the Mysterious 13th Hand
The Marine Corps Memorial also birthed one of the Corps’ most enduring myths – that of the mysterious 13th hand.
Iwo Jima was the modern Marine Corps’ finest 36 days. More Medals of Honor were awarded there than any other single battle in American history, 27 to Marines and five to Navy Corpsmen. A full 20% of the Medals of Honor awarded in World War II were earned at Iwo Jima.
Marines raised two flags that day. When they raised the first one over the mountain, it caused such an uproar from the Americans that Marines fighting below the mountain could be heard cheering, and the Navy ships offshore sounded their horns. When the top brass realized what a boon it was to morale, they ordered a larger one raised.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was able to capture the Marines raising the second, larger flag. Almost immediately, his photo became synonymous with the United States Marine Corps as the image spread quickly around the world on AP wires.
Three-Dimensional Wax Model of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising
“I was deeply impressed by its significance, its meaning, that I imagined that it would arouse the imagination of the American people to show the forward drive, the unison of action, the will to sacrifice, the relentless determination of these young men,” De Weldon later told the Truman Presidential Library. “Everything was embodied in that picture.”
His original assignment was to create a painting for the U.S. Naval Academy. Instead, he created a three-dimensional wax model of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising. He completed it over the following weekend. Upon seeing it, his commander immediately sent him and the model to Washington, where three casts were made from it.
One of the models nearly started a battle in the halls of the Navy Department over who would get to keep it, the Navy or the Marine Corps. But Treasury Secretary John Snyder commissioned De Weldon to make a larger one for a victory bond drive.
In creating the larger model, De Weldon used the actual likeness of three of the flag raisers who survived the battle, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley (the Marine Corps has since determined that Bradley, a Navy Pharmacist’s Mate, raised the first flag, not the second one captured by Rosenthal).
That statue was dedicated on Nov. 10, 1945. As De Weldon created his statue for the bond drive, World War II ended, and the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that the image of the flag-raising would become a national monument to the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1951, the Marine Corps Memorial Foundation commissioned him to create the 78-foot bronze monument that now stands on Arlington Ridge in Washington, DC.
De Weldon created six figures; three were modeled after survivors Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley. The other three modeled using all available photos of the men who died at Iwo Jima, Franklin Sousley, Michael Strank, and Harlon Block. The entire monument took three years to create a plaster statue and cast it in 12 bronze pieces. It took a three-truck convoy to deliver the monument to Washington, where it was dedicated on Nov. 10, 1954.
The hands of the men on the flag, at first glance, look like a jumble. The positioning of the hands is accurate, as related in Rosenthal’s photo. But almost as soon as the statue was dedicated, a rumor began that De Weldon had created a 13th hand in the statue.
The supposed meaning was most often cited as the hand of God. Less often, it’s said to represent the men fighting below, who made the victory at Iwo Jima possible. The rise of the internet has only since given the rumor new life.
Tom Miller, a Marine Corps veteran who fought at Iwo Jima, only learned about the rumor in 1999. He decided he would write a pamphlet about the statue that would dispel the rumor of the 13th hand. That pamphlet soon turned into a book – which included an interview with sculptor Felix De Weldon.
“Thirteen hands?” came De Weldon’s response when asked about the rumor. “Who needed 13 hands? Twelve were enough.”