Texas – Millions of visitors flock every year to the Iwo Jima monument in the nation’s capital.
It sits across the Potomac River in Arlington Ridge Park, Virginia — a bronzed statue symbolizing honor, courage, and commitment. Its story is unique, much like the monument itself that depicts the erection of the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi over 75 years ago, but it’s not the original working model. It is in fact, a duplicate.
The original can be found deep in the heart of south Texas.
How the monument came to be
On Feb. 19, 1945, the fourth and fifth Marine Divisions began a 72-hour battle during the 36-day assault, after invading Iwo Jima. By the morning of the 23rd, the fifth division ordered to capture Mt. Suribachi had placed a small American flag atop the mountain. Later that afternoon, a second larger flag was erected by five Marines and one Navy corpsman.
The iconic photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, not only won a Pulitzer but became the inspiration for the 78-foot tall monument seen today by millions.
Dr. Felix W. de Weldon was in the Navy at the time and within 48-hours had a small-scale model sculpted that quickly became the symbol for the seventh and final war bond drive. This wasn’t his first sculpture and he is also known for making the busts of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman.
It wasn’t until after the war that de Weldon felt the model should be massive and sit in our nation’s capital.
The Devil Dogs in the details
The construction of the Iwo Jima monument took more than 48 hours to complete. In fact, it took 9.5 years to make the full-sized model constructed from molding plaster. Dr. de Weldon had three of the surviving Marines pose for the sculpture. Their faces were even molded in clay for the finest detail. Photographs of the other three Marines who had been killed during later phases of the battle were used to make sure their facial expressions and uniforms were as detailed as their surviving brothers.
The five Marines and one Navy corpsman depicted in the monument:
Sgt. Michael Strank (1919-1945)
Cpl. Harlon Block (1924-1945)
PFC Harold Keller (1921-1979)
PFC Ira Hayes (1923-1955)
PFC Harold Schultz (1926-1995)
PFC Franklin R. Sousley (1925-1945)
Once the sculpture was completed in plaster the 32-foot tall figures along with the 60-foot high flagpole were disassembled and taken to Brooklyn for casting in bronze. The bronzing took three years to complete.
The figures were then taken to Arlington to be placed in their forever home. The 130-ton original model was then placed in de Weldon’s studio at his home in Rhode Island, while its bronzed counterpart was dedicated Nov. 10, 1954, by Eisenhower at Arlington National Cemetery.
Deep in the heart of deep south Texas.
Over 25 years passed and by 1981 de Weldon donated the original working model of the Iwo Jima monument. This time it was headed to Texas to the Marine Military Academy. Here’s why.
The sculptor had several factors in his decision to send the model to Texas but he really wanted to have the original working monument outside the academy in Harlingen, to inspire young cadets. Another deciding factor happened to be the weather. The molding plaster figures would be best preserved in an environment that didn’t change much. Luckily, Harlingen’s temperature stays fairly constant along with the humidity — ideal to preserve the iconic sculpture.
Another interesting part of the selection process was the ties one of the Marines depicted in the monument had to south Texas. Cpl. Harlon H. Block who was the man at the bottom of the flagstaff was from Weslaco, which is about 19 miles from Harlingen.
In fact, his grave sits right behind the monument. Other factors were the street facing the memorial was appropriately named Iwo Jima Boulevard by the Marine Military Founders in 1965. It’s also the only place outside of D.C. where proper honors are given with battalion-sized dress blue parades.
Getting the massive monument from Rhode Island to Texas was expensive. No public funds were used. All the services used to transport the figures were donated by current and former U.S. Marines and Naval Service Members along with Marine Academy cadets, alum, trustees and friends of the school.
The sculptor was the only person who knew where all the pieces went to the giant masterpiece. He personally oversaw the monument’s reassembly and it was Texas-sized! This monument is actually 26 feet taller than the one in Arlington. The six-foot-high rock slope the Marines were depicted standing on, sits atop a 10 foot high black Brazilian granite base making the monument a whopping 104 feet tall.
Inscribed in the granite in gold lettering are the names and dates of every principal Marine Corps engagement since the founding of the Corps. Also inscribed on the base is “In honor and in memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives for their country since November 10, 1775.” At the top of the flagpole, flies a cloth American flag 24 hours a day.
This memorial is open to see for free at the Military Marine Academy which also features a museum that is home to rare WWII artifacts including but not limited to the uniforms soldiers wore along with other items from both the Marine and Naval branches.
Donations are accepted at the beginning of the self-guided audio tour that help keep the volunteer-run grounds open.