Iwo Jima: Louis Charlo’s sacrifice memorialized on Highway 93

A new sign at mile marker 7 on U.S. Highway 93 North indicates the next two miles are dedicated to Louis Charles Charlo, hero of Iwo Jima. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

It’s taken almost 75 years to raise a memorial highway sign for a Native American who helped raise the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima.

On Thursday morning, as rain clouds gathered over the Mission Mountains, more than three dozen members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes gathered near Evaro to unveil a new highway sign dedicated to a Marine, hero, family member and descendant of Chief Charlo. 

Now, at mile marker 7 on U.S. Highway 93 North, just past the sign telling drivers they’re entering the Flathead Reservation, a new sign indicates the next two miles are dedicated to Louis Charles Charlo.

Nephew Martin Charlo said the tribes chose that stretch of road because the Charlo brothers, Louis and Victor, grew up in Evaro.

“It’s long overdue,” Martin Charlo said. “Our family knows our history really well. But I think the younger generations are starting to forget about the heroes of our tribe, and this is going to be a good remembrance. Not only to honor our family but this honors all of our tribal members who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Louis Charlo did make the ultimate sacrifice, dying as he tried to rescue a fellow Marine in the Pacific during World War II. 

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Charlo was one of the men who first battled their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, and he was part of the group who first raised the U.S. flag on the summit. 

However, the iconic photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima is actually the second effort to raise a larger flag on the summit. Louis Charlo is not included in the photo, although he was standing guard on the mountain, and for a while, his part in the battle was overlooked. One week later, he died on Iwo Jima, trying to carry a soldier to safety.

All that history might have been lost or muddled if not for a few history buffs, including Blackfeet singer Jack Gladstone and Arlee native Dan Jackson, who took the time to interview family members and Louis’ fellow Marines.

Poet Victor Charlo was just 6 years old when his brother Louis was killed on Iwo Jima. He read a poem to his brother at Thursday’s ceremony. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Poet Victor Charlo, Louis’ brother, was only 6 years old when Louis died and was deeply affected. He read a poem to the crowd from his book “Put Sey” that he wrote for his brother.

“We, America, dropped a bomb 34 years ago, six months too late for my brother, who died in March on Iwo Jima fighting Japs,” Charlo read. “I don’t feel good about any of this, as I sit in retrospect this warm mid-August night and think of my brother, Charles, with love.”

Victor Charlo will never forget. Now the memory of Louis’ courage may endure for others, as tourists pause to reflect while zooming past the highway sign, which is the result of a Legislative bill.

Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr. worked to have the highway stretch dedicated to Louis Charlo by the 2019 Montana Legislature. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

State Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said he and Rep. Kimberly Dudik worked with Flathead Reservation Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr. to verify all Louis Charlo’s history so they could include the true story in House Bill 717 and have it forever immortalized in Montana history. 

“I was proud to have Marvin carry the bill and stand up and speak on this legislation,” Morigeau said. “Louis was part of both flag raisings. So I’m proud to know someone in my family who was part of both of those significant moments in American history.”

On Thursday, the Charlo family gave Weatherwax, himself a military veteran, a ceremonial blanket for carrying the bill.

Louis Charlo is also immortalized at a veterans’ memorial in Pablo and is buried at the St. Ignatius Old Catholic Cemetery.