The Boys of Iwo Jima
(From the book: Heart Touchers "Life-Changing Stories of Faith, Love, and Laughter)
by Michael T. Powers
Each year I am hired to go to Washington, DC, with the eighth grade class from Clinton, WI, where I grew up, to videotape their trip. I greatly enjoy visiting our nation's capitol, and each year I take some special memories back with me. This fall's trip was especially memorable.
On the last night of our trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima Memorial. This memorial is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts one of the most famous photographs in history -- that of the six brave soldiers raising the American Flag at the top of a rocky hill on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WW II.
Over one hundred students and chaperones piled off the buses and headed towards the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the base of the statue, and as I got closer he asked, "Where are you guys from?"
I told him that we were from Wisconsin. "Hey, I'm a cheesehead, too! Come gather around, cheeseheads, and I will tell you a story."
(James Bradley just happened to be in Washington, DC, to speak at the memorial the following day. He was there that night to say good night to his dad, who has since passed away. He was just about to leave when he saw the buses pull up. I videotaped him as he spoke to us, and received his permission to share what he said from my videotape. It is one thing to tour the incredible monuments filled with history in Washington, D.C., but it is quite another to get the kind of insight we received that night.)
When all had gathered around, he reverently began to speak. (Here are his words that night.)
"My name is James Bradley and I'm from Antigo, Wisconsin. My dad is on that statue and I just wrote a book called "Flags of Our Fathers" which is #5 on the New York Times Best Seller list right now. It is the story of the six boys you see behind me."
"Six boys raised the flag. The first guy putting the pole in the ground is Harlon Block. Harlon was an all-state football player. He enlisted in the Marine Corps with all the senior members of his football team. They were off to play another type of game. A game called 'War'. But it didn't turn out to be a game. Harlon, at the age of 21, died with his intestines in his hands. I don't say that to gross you out, I say that because there are generals who stand in front of this statue and talk about the glory of war."
"You guys need to know that most of the boys in Iwo Jima were 17, 18, and 19 years old."
(He pointed to the statue) "You see this next guy? That's Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took Rene's helmet off at the moment this photo was taken and looked in the webbing of that helmet, you would find a photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that in there for protection because he was scared. He was 18 years old. Boys won the battle of Iwo Jima... Boys... Not old men."
"The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sergeant Mike Strank. Mike is my hero. He was the hero of all these guys. They called him the "old man" because he was so old. He was already 24. When Mike would motivate his boys in training camp, he didn't say, 'Let's go kill some Japanese' or 'Let's die for our country.' He knew he was talking to little boys. Instead he would say, 'You do what I say, and I'll get you home to your mothers.'"
"The last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. Ira Hayes walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my dad. President Truman told him, 'You're a hero...' He told reporters, 'How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me and only 27 of us walked off alive?' So you take your class at school, 250 of you spending a year together having fun, doing everything together. Then all 250 of you hit the beach, but only 27 of your classmates walk off alive. That was Ira Hayes. He had images of horror in his mind. Ira Hayes died dead drunk, face down at the age of 32... ten years after this picture was taken."
"The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky. A fun lovin' hillbilly boy. His best friend, who is now 70, told me, 'Yeah, you know, we took two cows up on the porch of the Hilltop General Store. Then we strung wire across the stairs so the cows couldn't get down. Then we fed them Epsom salts. Those cows crapped all night.'"
"Yes, he was a fun lovin' hillbilly boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to his mother's farm. The neighbors could hear her scream all night and into the morning. The neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away."
"The next guy, as we continue to go around the statue, is my dad, John Bradley from Antigo, Wisconsin, where I was raised. My dad lived until 1994, but he would never give interviews. When Walter Cronkite's producers or the New York Times would call, we were trained as little kids to say, 'No, I'm sorry, sir, my dad's not here. He is in Canada fishing. No, there is no phone there, sir. No, we don't know when he is coming back.' My dad never fished or even went to Canada. Usually, he was sitting there right at the table eating his Campbell's soup. But we had to tell the press that he was out fishing. He didn't want to talk to the press."
"You see, my dad didn't see himself as a hero. Everyone thinks these guys are heroes, 'cause they are in a photo and a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley from Wisconsin was a caregiver. In Iwo Jima he probably held over 200 boys as they died. And when boys died in Iwo Jima, they writhed and screamed in pain."
"When I was a little boy, my third grade teacher told me that my dad was a hero. When I went home and told my dad that, he looked at me and said, 'I want you always to remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back... Did NOT come back.'"
"So that's the story about six nice young boys. Three died on Iwo Jima, and three came back as national heroes. Overall, 7,000 boys died on Iwo Jima in the worst battle in the history of the Marine Corps. My voice is giving out, so I will end here. Thank you for your time."
Suddenly, the monument wasn't just a big old piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before our eyes with the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who was a hero. Maybe not a hero for the reasons most people would believe, but a hero nonetheless.
Michael T. Powers
©Copyright 2000 by Michael T. Powers
Write Michael and let him know your thoughts on this story!
Michael T. Powers, the founder of www.HeartTouchers.com and Heart4Teens.com, is the youth minister at Faith Community Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is happily married to his high school sweetheart Kristi and proud father of three young rambunctious boys.
He is also an author with stories in 29 inspirational books including many in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and his own entitled: Heart Touchers "Life-Changing Stories of Faith, Love, and Laughter." To preview his book or to join the thousands of world wide readers on his inspirational e-mail list, visit: www.HeartTouchers.com.
We need to remember that God created this vast and glorious world for us to live in, freely, but also at great sacrifice. Let us never forget from the revolutionary War to the Gulf War and all the wars in-between that sacrifice was made for our freedom.
Remember to pray praises for this great country of ours and also pray for those still in murderous unrest around the world. STOP and thank God for being alive at someone else's sacrifice. God Bless.
Additional information can be found at www.iwojima.com
The Battle of Iwo Jima
On February 19, 1945, as part of their island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan, the United States invaded Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was originally not a target, but the relatively quick fall of the Philippines left the Americans with a longer-than-expected lull prior to the planned invasion of Okinawa. Iwo Jima is located half-way between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station, radioing warnings of incoming American bombers to the Japanese homeland. The Americans, after capturing the island, deprived the Japanese of their early warning system, and used it as an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers, saving many American lives.
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island, shaped like a trapezoid. Marines on the island described it as "a gray pork chop". The island was heavily fortified, and the invading United States Marines suffered high casualties. The island is dominated by Mount Suribachi, a 546 foot (166 m) dormant volcanic cone situated on the southern tip of the island. Politically, the island is part of the prefecture of Tokyo - the mayor of Tokyo is the mayor of Iwo Jima. It would be the first Japanese homeland soil to be captured by the Americans, and it was a matter of honor for the Japanese to prevent its capture.
Tactically, the top of Suribachi is one of the most important locations on the island. From that vantage point, the Japanese defenders were able to accurately spot artillery onto the Americans - particularly the landing beaches. The Japanese fought most of the battle from underground bunkers and pillboxes. It was not uncommon for Marines to knock out one pillbox using grenades or a flamethrower, only to have it begin shooting again a few minutes later after more Japanese infantry slipped into the pillbox using a tunnel. The American effort concentrated on isolating and capturing Suribachi first, a goal that was achieved on February 23, 1945, four days after the battle began. Despite capturing Suribachi, the battle continued to rage for many days, and the island would not be declared "secure" until 31 days later, on March 26.
Raising the First Flag
The famous picture taken by Rosenthal actually captured the second flag-raising event of the day. A U.S. flag was first raised atop Suribachi soon after it was captured early in the morning (around 10:20) of February 23, 1945. 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson ordered Captain Dave E. Severance to send a platoon to go take the mountain. Severance, the commander of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division), ordered First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier to lead the patrol. Just before Schrier was to head up the mountain Commander Chandler Johnson handed him a flag saying, "if you get to the top put it up." Johnson's adjutant, second lieutenant Greeley Wells, had taken the 54-by-28 inch (137-by-71 cm) American flag from their transport ship, the USS Missoula (APA-211). The patrol reached the top without incident and the flag was raised, and photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a photographer with Leatherneck magazine. Others present at this first flag raising included Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sergeant Henry O. "Hank" Hansen, and Private First Class James Michels. However, this flag was too small to be seen easily from the nearby landing beaches.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, had decided the previous night that he wanted to go ashore and witness the final stage of the fight for the mountain. Now, under a stern commitment to take orders from Howlin' Mad Smith, the secretary was churning ashore in the company of the blunt, earthy general. Their boat touched the beach just after the flag went up, and the mood among the high command turned jubilant. Gazing upward, at the red, white, and blue speck, Forrestal remarked to Smith: "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."
Forrestal was so taken with fervor of the moment that he decided he wanted the Suribachi flag as a souvenir. The news of this wish did not sit well with [2nd Battalion Commander] Chandler Johnson, whose temperament was every bit as fiery as Howlin Mad's. 'To hell with that!' the colonel spat when the message reached him. The flag belonged to the battalion, as far as Johnson was concerned. He decided to secure it as soon as possible, and dispatched his assistant operations officer, Lieutenant Ted Tuttle, to the beach to scare up a replacement flag. As an afterthought, Johnson called after Tuttle "And make it a bigger one."
The roar of the Marines on the islands and ship horns blasting away alerted the Japanese who up to this point had stayed in their cave bunkers. The Americans quickly found themselves under fire from Japanese troops but were able to quickly eliminate the threat with the only casualty being Lowery's camera.
Raising the Second Flag
On orders from Colonel Chandler Johnson, passed on by Captain Severance, Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon H. Block, Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley and Private First Class Ira H. Hayes spent the morning of the 23rd laying a telephone wire to the top of Suribachi. Severance also dispatched Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon, a runner, to the command post for fresh SCR-300 walkie-talkie batteries.
Meanwhile, according to the official Marine Corps history, Tuttle had found a larger (96-by-56 inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship LST 779, made his way back to the command post, and gave it to Johnson. Johnson, in turn, gave it to Gagnon with orders to take it back up Suribachi and raise it. The official Marine Corps history of the event is that Tuttle received the flag from Ensign Alan Wood of LST 779, who in turn had received the flag from a supply depot in Pearl Harbor. However, the Coast Guard Historian's Office supports claims made by Robert Resnick, who served aboard LST 758. "Before he died in November 2004, Resnick said Gagnon came aboard LST-758 the morning of Feb. 23 looking for a flag. Resnick said he grabbed one from a bunting box and asked permission from commanding officer Lt. Felix Molenda to donate it. Resnick kept quiet about his participation until 2001." The flag itself was sewn by Mabel Sauvageau, a worker at the "flag loft" of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The Marines reached the top of the mountain around noon, where Gagnon joined them. Despite the large numbers of Japanese troops in the immediate vicinity, the 40-man patrol made it to the top of the mountain without being fired at once, as the Japanese were under bombardment at the time.
Rosenthal, along with Marine photographers Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust (who was killed in action nine days after the flag raising) was climbing Suribachi at this time. On the way up, the trio met Lowery (the man who photographed the first flag raising). They had been considering turning around, but Lowery told them that the summit was an excellent vantage point from which to take pictures.
Rosenthal's trio reached the summit as the Marines were attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal put down his Speed Graphic camera (which was set to 1/400th of a second shutter speed, with the f-stop between 8 and 16) on the ground so he could pile rocks to stand on for a better vantage point. In doing so, he nearly missed the shot. Along with Navy Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John H. Bradley, the five Marines began raising the U. S. flag. Realizing he was about to miss it, Rosenthal quickly swung his camera up and snapped the photograph without using the viewfinder. Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote:
Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don't come away saying you got a great shot. You don't know.
Bill Genaust, who was standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosenthal about thirty yards from the flag raising, was shooting motion-picture film during the flag-raising. His film captures the flag raising at an almost-identical angle to Rosenthal's famous shot.
Publication and Staging Controversy
Following the flag raising, Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. George Tjaden of Hendricks, Minnesota, was likely the technician who printed it. Upon seeing it, AP photo editor John Bodkin exclaimed "Here's one for all time!" and immediately radiophotoed the image to the AP headquarters in New York at 7:00 a.m., Eastern War Time. The photograph was picked up off the wire very quickly by hundreds of newspapers. It "was distributed by Associated Press within seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it - an astonishingly fast turnaround time in those days."
However, the photo was not without controversy. Following the second flag raising, Rosenthal had the Marines of Easy Company pose for a group shot, the "gung-ho" shot. This was also documented by Bill Genaust. A few days after the picture was taken, back on Guam, Rosenthal was asked if he had posed the photo. Thinking the questioner was referring to the 'gung-ho' picture, he replied "Sure." After that, Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, told his editors in New York that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising photo. TIME's radio show, 'Time Views the News', broadcast a report, charging that "Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted... Like most photographers could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion."
As a result of this report, Rosenthal was repeatedly accused of staging the picture, or covering up the first flag raising. One New York Times book reviewer even went so far as to suggest revoking his Pulitzer Prize. For the decades that have followed, Rosenthal repeatedly and vociferously refuted claims that the flag raising was staged. "I don't think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing... I don't know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means." Bill Genaust's film proves that the flag-raising photo by Joe Rosenthal was not staged.
Think about this piece of history the next time you see a bunch of war protesters or liberal politicians referring to American troops as "Occupation Troops". These people do not support our troops! Our military personnel today is from the same stock as these Marines of WWII. Today in Iraq, as then, they have volunteered to a thankless, but necessary job.