Col. Dave Severance, the commander of the Marine company that raised a huge American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in World War II, inspiring the photograph that thrilled the American home front and became an enduring image of men at war, died on Monday at his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He was 102.
His death was announced by his daughter Nina Cohen.
The flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, captured by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, was taken when the battle for Iwo Jima was far from over. In the days that followed, Colonel Severance earned the Silver Star, the Marines’ third-highest decoration for valor after the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. The citation stated that in a firefight for a heavily defended ridge, he “skillfully directed the assault on this strong enemy position despite stubborn resistance.”
Colonel Severance, a captain at the time, commanded Easy Company of the 28th Marine Regiment, Fifth Marine Division — part of the 70,000-man Marine force that sought to seize Iwo Jima, 7.5 square miles of black volcanic sand about 660 miles south of Tokyo. The island, defended by 21,000 Japanese troops, held airstrips that were needed as bases for American fighter planes and as havens for crippled bombers returning to the Mariana Islands from missions over Japan.
Amid heavy casualties, the Marines by the fifth day of combat on Iwo Jima had silenced most opposition from Japanese soldiers dug into caves on Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano 546 feet high at Iwo Jima’s southern tip.
In midmorning, a group of Marines from Easy Company raised a flag at the summit, a ceremony photographed by Sgt. Louis Lowery of the Marine magazine Leatherneck. When James Forrestal, the secretary of the Navy, who was on the beach below, saw the flag, he requested that it be kept as a memento. After it was returned to the beach, Colonel Severance sent another group of his Marines to bring a larger flag to the mountaintop.
It was the raising of the second flag that was portrayed in Mr. Rosenthal’s dramatic photograph.
Both flags are now at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. Frayed by strong winds, the second flag flew above Mount Suribachi for the remainder of the Iwo Jima campaign. The Joe Rosenthal photograph is in the National Archives. And the scene he photographed was replicated on a monumental scale as a statue at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from the National Mall in Washington. It is dedicated to “the Marine dead of all wars and their comrades of other services who fell fighting beside them.”
Dave Elliott Severance was born on Feb. 4, 1919, in Milwaukee to Dave and Belle Severance. His family moved to Greely, Colo., when he was a child. He attended the University of Washington for a year, then joined the Marines in 1938.
He was commissioned as a lieutenant and first saw combat as a platoon commander in the 1943 battle for the Pacific island of Bougainville. His platoon was ambushed and cut off by Japanese troops about a mile behind enemy lines, but fought its way out of an encirclement and wiped out the enemy with the loss of only one Marine, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Early in 1944, he was promoted to captain. He had six officers and 240 enlisted men under his command when the Marines landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
After World War II, Colonel Severance completed flight training and flew fighter aircraft during the Korean War. He completed 69 missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was promoted to colonel in 1962. At his retirement, in May 1968, he was assistant director of personnel at Marine headquarters.
In addition to his daughter Nina, his survivors include two sons, Dave Jr. and Mike; another daughter, Lynn Severance; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His marriage to his first wife, Margaret, ended in divorce. His second wife, Barbara, died in 2017.
Colonel Severance was portrayed by Neil McDonough as a Marine captain and by Harve Presnell as an older man in “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), Clint Eastwood’s film about the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Colonel Severance was a consultant for the movie.
In a February 2021 interview with Coffee or Die, Colonel Severance said that from the perspective of the battlefield, he had not realized what an emotional chord the second flag-raising would strike back home. It took Hollywood and John Wayne to do that for him.
“It wasn’t until 1949, when the ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ came out — I realized the impact that moment and battle had on the nation,” he said.
When Colonel Severance celebrated his 100th birthday, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, sent him a letter stating, “You played a crucial role in shaping the warrior ethos of our Corps.”
On that occasion, Colonel Severance took a wry look back on his career in an interview with the newspaper La Jolla Light.
Asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, “I never thought about it,” then added, “Just that I was a Marine for 30 years and I never ended up in jail.”
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