The six flag raisers arrive at Camp Pendleton, a huge Marine training camp between Los Angeles and San Diego. This is where they met for the first time: Mike, Harlon, and Ira arrived after their Bougainville furloughs; Franklin and Rene arrived fresh out of basic training; and Doc arrived from Field Medical School in San Diego. All six men are assigned to Easy Company, led by Captain Dave Severence, and part of the 28th Regiment, which was commanded by Colonel Harry "the Horse" Liversedge. Easy Company was given the moniker "Spearhead" in reference to the role it was meant to play in the invasion of Japanese islands.
At Camp Pendleton, the Marines learn how to become Riflemen, mastering the use of their weapons. Rene, a messenger, learned how to handle a rifle, as did Doc, a corpsman. Mike, Harlon, and Franklin become rifle specialists, while Ira was a "BAR"man, handling a Browning automatic rifle. At Camp Pendleton, Spearhead trained hard for six months, practicing tactical marches, swimming, and mock assaults. They knew they were training for something big, but as of yet did not know where they would be going. Doc Bradley met Ralph Ignatowski, or Iggy, who had forged his urine sample to enlist, and who became his "buddy" to keep track of in combat.
The flag raisers form close bonds with each other, except for Rene, who is shy and often on the sidelines. Because he does not have the skills of a Marine, he is reassigned as a runner, a messenger reporting to headquarters. Harlon visits his brother, Ed Jr., and his sister, Maurine, on two separate weekend leaves. He tells them both that he knows he will die in battle and will not see them again. In the four months before the attack on Iwo Jima, the Fifth Division goes to Hawaii to train at Camp Tarawa. The conditions there are miserable, and they practice disembarking the transport ships and taking a beach. After spending Christmas at Camp Tarawa, Spearhead begins the forty-day sail to Iwo Jima, which they know only as "Island X," stopping first at Pearl Harbor.
The six flag raisers are transported to Island X on the USS Missoula, along with 1,500 troops, including all of Easy Company. Two days after departing Pearl Harbor, "Island X" is revealed to be Iwo Jima, and the Marines study maps of the island and learn their plan of attack. Iwo Jima is incredibly important to the Japanese, since in Shinto tradition, it is described as part of the creation that burst forth from Mount Fuji, and it is now a part of the Tokyo prefecture. It is imperative for the Americans to take Iwo Jima, since the Japanese military stationed there is shooting down the American planes on their way to bomb the Japanese mainland. The Army Air Force and Navy have been bombing the island mercilessly, hoping to make it easy for the Marines to invade it. However, this was not the case, since the Japanese soldiers' entrenchments were impervious to overhead bombing.
Lieutenant General Kuribayashi, who is in command of the Japanese troops defending Iwo Jima, knows exactly where the Marines will land on the island: there are only two miles of beach suitable for landing. He and 22,000 Japanese soldiers have constructed an incredible network of underground tunnels and rooms on the island, with blockhouses on the surface made of concrete and steel, camouflaged with sand. The maps used for US reconnaissance had no way of detecting the underground world that awaited the American troops. Therefore, the Marines arrived mistakenly thinking it would be a short, easy battle. However, the Navy is able to contribute fewer days of shelling than required, since many ships are being dedicated to taking the Japanese mainland. In fact, there was only one complete day of bombardment of Iwo Jima by the Navy preceding the Marines' invasion.
On the morning of February 19, 1945, the Marines arrive at Iwo Jima. The 28th Regiment, including Easy Company, was tasked with landing on Green Beach One, near Mount Suribachi, and isolating the mountain before capturing it. For an hour after the first wave of Marines land, there is silence; Kuribayashi's strategy is to wait until the beach is full of Marines before attacking. When the defense begins, there is no shelter for the Marines. Though dead bodies clog the beach and shoreline, they continue advancing through the hail of gunfire. As they advance while their friends die around them, many Marines display exemplary bravery and heroism.
John Fredatovich, Easy Company's first casualty, was given blood transfusions by Doc Bradley. Then he is put on the beach for evacuation, but there is no extra shelter. He lies on his cot for hours, helplessly watching the battle around him. Many Marines who were injured badly refuse to be evacuated from the island, choosing instead to stay by their buddies and fight. The night following D-Day is just as devastating, if not more terrifying because of the darkness; the Marines use the names of American-made automobiles as passwords to identify themselves to each other in the night, so they will not be mistaken for a Japanese soldier and killed.
In gathering evidence for this book, James Bradley relied heavily on anecdotes, interviews, and letters from those who served with the six flag raisers. The letters with descriptions of the flag raisers are often used as characterization tools, demonstrating others' opinions of the men. For example, in Chapter 5, Bradley quotes a letter from one Joe Rodriguez, who reported to Mike Strank, to demonstrate how Mike was the quintessential Marine: "He was a born leader, a natural leader, and a leader by example... He had real concern for us, he was a big brother to us." Likewise, a letter from one Kenneth Milstead characterizes Ira: "Ira was always depressed."
Religion is an important theme in the book, as it played a significant role in the lives of all the flag raisers. In Chapter 5, Bradley relates how his father volunteered to helps serve the first Catholic mass when he arrived at Camp Pendleton, and attended daily masses during his time there. Harlon Block struggles with the tension between his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs and his violent duties as a Marine. He confesses his guilt over this issue to his former Weslaco teammate, Leo Ryan, who has been hospitalized at Pearl Harbor. As the Marines arrive at Iwo Jima, they are accompanied by rabbis, priests, and ministers who will comfort those who are dying in battle.
The tension between boyhood and manhood is prevalent throughout the stories of the six flag raisers, and in Chapter 5, it is demonstrated in one of Ira's letters home. He writes, "Don't worry about me. I'm a man now, no young guy." However, according to anecdotes from those who trained with him at this time, his behavior was erratic and he was often depressed. Rene is disliked in Easy Company because his pencil-thin mustache "made him look like nothing so much as a little boy trying to disguise himself as a man."
Mothers are important to all the flag raisers, and this strong relationship is often demonstrated in their letters home. For instance, Franklin Sousley writes, "You can grow a crop of tobacco every summer, but I sure as hell can't grow another mother like you." When the Fifth Division makes National Service Life Insurance policies available to the Marines, Harlon purchased a ten-thousand-dollar policy with Belle as the sole beneficiary. In his comparison of the Japanese, German, and American troops, Bradley points out that they are connected by their dying word, which is invariably, "Mother!"
Bradley often employs the technique of short, dramatic sentence fragments for emphatic effect. For example, at the conclusion of Chapter 5, he writes, "December 1944. The last Christmas for too many young boys. Then off for the forty-day sail to Iwo Jima." In Chapter 6, describing the upcoming battle: "The boys would have only their buddies to depend upon, buddies who were willing to die for one another. As soon they would."
Another technique commonly used by Bradley for emphasis is the repetition of certain words and phrases. Here, describing the Marines pushing forward onto Iwo Jima, he repeats the word "somehow" to emphasize the bravery of the Marines: "Somehow, the Marines kept advancing. Somehow, discipline held. Somehow, valor overcame terror. Somehow, scared young men under sheets of deadly fire kept on doing the basic, gritty tasks necessary to keep the invasion going."
Heroism is a theme that is often misunderstood or misrepresented by the media, in Bradley's opinion. In the Chapter 7 description of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he uses anecdotes to present real images of heroes. For example, Tony Stein, the first Medal of Honor winner on Iwo Jima, stood upright to attract enemy fire so his team could get into position. One medic refuses aid from a corpsman, because helping the others is more important. Father Paul Bradley, a priest, crawls from dying man to dying man offering religious solace.