First Sergeant Harold Sharpe of the 6th Marine
Division took the order handed to him by his orderly, Corporal Jacob Abernathy. It read:
June 19, 1945, 0600 hours,
Locate highest point on Hill
94. Post American flag.
removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He was tired, yet alert, running on the nervous energy derived from
His unit had been on
the Japanese island for eighty days. Eighty days of bloody
skirmishes, Kamikaze attacks, and fierce hand-to-hand combat.
Eighty days of listening to the constant grenade blasts, gunfire and tank movements as the American military
front line fought its way across the island. Securing Okinawa, just 350 miles south of Japan, as an airstrip was
vital to the stepped- up bombing campaign of the war.
Sharpe sat on a rock ledge carved out of the hillside by the
powerful shelling from the American navy ships anchored offshore. Behind him was the stuffy cave that served as
the rear bunker for operations. The supply sergeant had turned it into a make-shift holding place for ammunition
and C-Rations his men needed on the ground. A musty odor mixed with tobacco smoke clung to the air and the cold,
hard walls. In front of the first sergeant was a bunker trench system where his men were dug in with machine
guns and mortar shells.
Sharpe’s expression was steadfast, but deep lines furrowed
his brow. The dark circles under his eyes spread over the laugh
lines that had been so prominent when he left his hometown in Kokomo, Indiana, fifteen months
ago. There he was privileged to have time to think through
decisions, but not here. His responsibility now was to select a
man to get the flag up. There was a good possibility that
whoever he selected wouldn’t make it back alive.
“Abernathy, pass the order to the front line to provide fire
cover for Hill 94. We’re sending a man to the top. Get Corporal Townsend.”
“Yes sir,” Abernathy answered and left the bunker for the
Corporal Townsend was a compact
five-foot-six. His dark olive skin displayed his Italian
descent. He was an aggressive fighter and fast on his
feet. “Sergeant, you sent for me?” Townsend held his body tall and erect.
“We have an order from headquarters to post the
American flag on the high point of Hill 94. Most of the organized
resistance has fallen, but Japanese soldiers still holed up in caves and tunnels haven’t gotten the word
yet. We want them to see our flag so they’ll know they’ve
“Sergeant, the high point has to be that palm tree,”
Townsend said pointing to a single, tattered tree on the rocky knoll.
Sharpe pressed his lips together and nodded.
“I’ll do my best, Sergeant.” There was no question or contemplation. He was a Marine, taught to always obey orders regardless of the
“Carry this flag under your jacket. Our guys will provide
all the cover fire we can for you.” Townsend stuffed the folded flag under his olive drab field jacket.
Without hesitation he headed for the front line and pulled himself over the
Before him, lay a rock-strewn, barren
distance to the tree was about the length of a football field.
The objective was the tall, battered palm tree reaching soulfully to the sky like a lone sentry. Curved at the base, it rose upward in a broad “C” shape. The top held the ragged remains of broken palm fronds shredded by gunfire
and shrapnel. Townsend crouched down low and sprinted for the tree.
. Shots ricocheted off the rocky
terrain to his left. He hit the ground. Marine machine gun fire answered in the direction of the sniper.
Townsend lay prone in the dirt. He could feel the wad of flag pressing against his chest. All was quiet. Dead
quiet. Enemy fire found its fatal mark. He didn’t even make it half way.
Sharpe allowed his eyes to fix on Townsend’s lifeless body for only a
moment. He broke the silence with, “Abernathy.”
He took a deep breath and spoke with firm purpose as
he lifted a new folded American flag from the supply. “We have to
get this flag on that tree.”
“Yes Sarge.” No
questions. No comments. He had served as the assistant to Sergeant
Sharpe since they landed on Okinawa.
He positioned the flag under his field jacket, scrambled
from the rear bunker and headed to the front line trench. Crouching
low, he took off running. He moved swiftly, passing to the right of
his fallen friend. He made it to the base of the tree when gunfire
erupted. Enemy bullets riddled the base of the tree and moved up
Abernathy’s legs and back. He slumped motionless over the bottom
crook of the tree--the flag still protected under his jacket.
heightened senses felt the tension that hung in the air. The only sound was the squawk of a seagull soaring high
above the drama below. At a different time and place, the sound
would have been peaceful, even soothing, but today it covered him like a foreboding omen.
Steeled against any
emotion, Sharpe shouted down the line. “I need a
volunteer!” Sharpe knew the training of these men. The next man he sent would not refuse. None would. But this time he
wanted a volunteer.
There was a brief silence.
The voice came from Private First Class Patrick Long from a
nearby trench. He was a wiry young man. The upper part of his face
held big baby-blue eyes accompanied by a stubby nose. The lower
part of his face meant business with the jaw clenched rigid as the rocks underneath the dead Marines. He spoke
quietly and straightforwardly as he made his way over to the sergeant.
“Sergeant, I’ll go. I’ll go at ten o’clock.”
Puzzled, Sharpe checked his watch. It was 9:45am. “You understand
you’re to climb that tree and hang the flag as near the top as you can? It’s important we let the enemy know we have control of this
“Yes sir, I understand. At ten o’clock.”
“You’ve got 15 minutes, Private Long. The supply sergeant will give you a flag.”
Long, a 19-year-old high school graduate from Shreveport,
Louisiana, had completed boot camp training at Parris Island, South Carolina, three months
earlier. Eight months ago, his biggest decision was who to ask
to the prom. Today could end all his decision-making.
With the flag in hand, Private Long pulled the cording
through the eyelets and visualized himself tying the cords to the top of the war-torn tree. He carefully secured the flag under his green uniform
jacket. He looked at the hazardous ground ahead and the two
“I’m ready Sergeant.”
It was exactly ten o’clock.
Private Long surged forward from the front
bunker. He ran swiftly. Sure-footed. He zigzagged across the stony terrain. Enemy fire erupted. Rock shards,
shrapnel and enemy bullets flew around him, sending sprays of dirt around his racing feet. He kept moving. Fire cover from
his unit worked on a rocky ridge where enemy hold-outs were firing. He made it to the tree, scrambled over
Corporal Abernathy and started climbing. Rifle fire hit near the top of the tree. A grenade launcher sent a return explosion that jolted Long’s
Regaining his hold, Long secured the cording to the ragged
points of the broken palm fronds. The wind captured the flag, unfurling the stars and stripes.
Private Long clambered down the tree and started the
treacherous run back. He ran an evasive pattern, dodging enemy
fire. Return fire from a portable flame thrower hit a concealed
cave occupied by the enemy. An explosion of fire and smoke burst
out, shaking the embattled ground. Private Long hurled himself over
the front line embankment to the cheers of his fellow troops.
Amid congratulations in the crowded bunker, Sergeant Sharpe
made his way to Long. “Private, I hope you know your bravery will
save many lives on both sides. Tell me one thing, why ten
Breathing hard, trying to catch his breath, the smiling
private replied, “Sergeant, when I left home my mama said she would be praying for me at nine o’clock every
night. That’s ten o’clock in the morning here. I knew the enemies’ bullets couldn’t penetrate my mama’s
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