Mount Soledad is dotted with remnants of World War II that most people forget or don’t know about — bunkers and lookouts built in fear of a catastrophic Japanese sea invasion that never happened.
“Are you about to call me a remnant, too?” jokes retired Marine Colonel David Severance. “Thank you!”
Severance is the former captain who delivered the order — issued by battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson on Feb. 23, 1945 — to plant a flag atop the highest hill on Japan’s Iwo Jima island, resulting in the World War II photograph etched into America’s collective memory.
On the wall behind Severance in his den is a photo of the relatively unknown first flag-planting at Iwo Jima — more on that in a bit — and other reminders of a past he brushes off as “no big deal.” (In the kitchen, by the fridge, is a poster for “Flags of Our Fathers” signed by director
Severance turned 100 years old on Feb. 4 and, aside from legs that no longer support his weight, is in surprisingly good physical and mental shape. He scoots nimbly around his Mount Soledad house on his walker and peppers his speech with the laughs and smiles of someone half his age. (As for the racy cartoon hanging on his bathroom wall, he replies, laughing: “I should probably take that down when I have visitors, huh?”)
Following WWII, Severance served as a Marine aviator and flew 60 missions in Korea before retiring in 1968 with Barbara, his second wife, to
Severance’s daughter, Lynn — a Seattle resident who is 75 herself — is the last of the family to stick around following the big birthday bash, which drew 31 well-wishers from around the country. She assists her father in getting around and reminding him of names he forgets. (His regular assistant tends to duties in the kitchen.)
Are you the last Iwo Jima survivor?
“I kept track until about 10 years ago, but there were so few of them that I lost track. There were several people that were left that I haven’t heard from in quite a while, so I assume that either they passed away and either their wives were already dead or they just didn’t bother to write me. I was 26 on Iwo. A number of the junior enlisted personnel were 17. So let’s say that I’m one of the few.”
To what do you attribute your longevity?
“I quit smoking when I was 80. I started when I was about 15.”
So your advice is to smoke until you’re 80 and then quit? “That’s right!” (laughs)
How long have you lived in La Jolla?
“I was living here during the war, downtown at Fay and Pearl. There were five apartments. Those buildings were torn down and are now something else. I liked it here. It was a little town. I trained in San Diego. I rented a house for about a year on the other side of Mount Soledad in 1968, then my wife and I bought this house.”
Why do you think the Iwo Jima photo still means so much to so many people?
“Most people, I think, believe that was the end of World War II. And it wasn’t by three or four months. (Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, following the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I was a little surprised that the photo got the publicity that it did because it was a replacement flag. We all knew that. But most people seeing the picture thought that was an original, end-of-the-war thing. It wasn’t the original flag and it wasn’t the end of the war. There were a lot of casualties after that.”
Why were there two flags? And why wasn’t the photograph of the first flag (by Lou Lowery for a magazine called ‘Leatherneck’) the famous one?
“The first flag was put up there because they had captured the mountain and they raised a flag. That’s all there was to it. Then General (Holland) Smith and the Secretary of the Navy came ashore and the Secretary of the Navy saw the flag up there and said he’d like to have it. My boss, Col. Johnson, had planned to keep that flag for the battalion. So he figured he would put another flag in its place and the Secretary of the Navy could have the second flag. So the first came down, we grabbed it and put it in a safe. Then the second flag went up and (AP photographer) Joe Rosenthal took his photo.” (Both flags are currently at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.)
What runs through your mind when you see the photo?
“I think of all the controversy that’s taken place in the last few years — colonels and generals adjusting the membership in both the first and second flag-raisings. In the last 10 years or so, they’ve switched two or three. They put (John) Bradley over on the first flag. They just added a guy named (Harold) Schultz, who wasn’t even on a flag-raising because he was in a foxhole. Bradley I have on tape being interviewed in which he says he was not on the first flag but was on the second.”
So history is currently wrong?
“Oh yeah, absolutely. They screwed up. It’s been changed — once by some guy in Europe. One of the generals at one of the meetings came out here with a stack of two or three books, which was supposed to prove to me that they were right and I was wrong. But I don’t pay much attention to it anymore. I’ve quit fighting it. I was not invited to any of the two or three meetings that they’ve had on this.”
Why do you think they didn’t invite you?
“I guess they figure that I wasn’t up there so I don’t know, but I talked to a lot of people before the battle was over — before they left the island, before they were killed. Somebody originally had Sgt. Hank Hansen in the photograph but it was … oh, I forgot his name, I’m 100!” (It was Corporal Harlon Block.)
What do you remember about that day?
“From where I was at the bottom, I remember that they had reached the top of Mount Suribachi and they had not been killed. We figured we were going to have to rescue them about halfway up the mountain. And when they went the rest of the way up and there was no shooting, we figured the war was won, because that was the key position that the Japanese had for the battle. They had caves all along the volcano and could pick us off at will as we climbed the mountain. Fortunately, instead of shooting, they poured into their caves. But the biggest part of the battle was still ahead.”
Do you think Neal McDonough did a good job of portraying you in ‘Flags of Our Fathers’? Did he look like you looked back then?
“Nobody’s that good-looking. (laughs) It was mostly accurate, although they had a couple of things mixed up. For example, in the last few scenes, it showed us going swimming, and that took place much earlier. Right after patrol got to the top, we stacked our rifles and went swimming. We figured the battle was over.”
Is there quality of life at 100?
“Well, in me, there is. I’ve seen a lot of people in their nineties who don’t know where they are. I can carry on a conversation, and my health now is just fine down to my knees, and from my ankles to my feet. My legs just won’t hold me. I’ve got to use this damn walker.
When my wife passed, I considered moving into an assisted-living place. Then I looked around and thought: ‘The first thing I have to do is get rid of everything in the house, then I sell the house and I move into this care facility with a bunch of old, nasty people in it, and I regret the move and I can’t move back to my house because I sold it.’ So I said, ‘To hell with it!’” (laughs)
How would you like to be remembered?
“I never thought about it … Just that I was a Marine for 30 years and I never ended up in jail.” (laughs)
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