The Iwo Jima Memorial or Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C. depicts one of the most crucial battles of World War II, and the historic flag raising moment was captured for posterity by U.S. Marine Corps photographer Douglas H. Page.
One of the most brutal battles of WWII, the confrontation took place in the tiny island of Iwo Jima, Japan, barely standing at eight-square-miles in size. Also, one of the fiercest, deadliest campaigns in the Japanese theater, the Battle of Iwo Jima lasted over a month, but it was a crucial victory for allied forces and helped end WWII.
“The battle was unique in its setting. One hundred thousand men fighting on a tiny island one-third the size of Manhattan. For 36 days Iwo Jima was one of the most populated 7.5 miles on earth.”
Japan suffered extremely heavy casualties. Of the 21,000 soldiers present at the onset of the battle, over 19,000 were killed and 1,083 taken prisoner, according to Samuel Eliot Morison.
One of the main objectives of the invasion was to take Mount Suribachi — standing at 550-feet in the island’s southern tip — which is where famed USMC photographer Joe Rosenthal, captured the moment, when five Marines raised the American flag. It was February 23, 1945, the fourth-day of the battle.
Rosenthal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Iwo Jima Memorial photo. The image was reproduced thousands of times and became symbolic of the allied victory in the conflict.
Historians described U.S. forces’ attack against the Japanese defense as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete,” according to IwoJima.com. The photo is now recognized as one of the most iconic images of all time. But who are the men depicted in what became the Iwo Jima Memorial?
The four flag raisers seen in the front line are (left to right) Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, and Harlon Block. The two in the back of the Iwo Jima Memorial are, Michael Strank (behind Sousley) and René Gagnon (behind Bradley). Strank, Block, and Sousley died shortly after and Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon became national heroes within weeks.
Was the one who got the order to climb Mount Suribachi and led his men safely to the top of the mountain. Strank explained to his “boys” that the larger Americanflag had to be raised so that “every Marine on this cruddy island can see it.” He gave the orders to find a pole, attach the flag. and “put’er up!” Starnk was killed at Iwo Jima.
Block was Strank’s second-in-command and took over the leadership role when Strank was killed. Block was killed in action on March 1, at 21-years-old. Initially, he was erroneously identified as Harry Hansen of Boston, despite his mother’s insistence that it was “my boy.” The mistake was corrected 18-months later in a front-page story.
Sousley’s moving letters to his mother tell about the horrors of war and are featured in the book, Letters From Iwo Jima, which was later adapted in the acclaimed Clint Eastwood film.
“My regiment took the hill with our company on the front line. The hill was hard, and I sure never expected war to be like it was those first 4 days. Mother, you can never imagine how a battlefield looks. It sure looks horrible. Look for my picture because I helped put up the flag. Please don’t worry and write.”
Hayes was a Native American, a Pima Indian. One of the few who survived the Battle of Iwo Jima and later on suffered immensely at having survived when so many died on the island.
“How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?”
Gangon was the one who carried the flag up Mount Suribachi and the youngest survivor. In his later years Gangon was very modest about his heroic accomplishment, despite being depicted in the Iwo Jima Memorial. Gangon died on October 12, 1979 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, closer to the Memorial than other flag raisers.
“Doc” Bradley was a Navy Corpsman who “just jumped in to lend a hand” in the flag raising feat. He was wounded in both legs and was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism for his actions. As many of the other flag raisers, Bradly led a quiet life after coming home and died on January 11, 1994.
“People refer to us as heroes–I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there–and we certainly weren’t heroes–and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.”
On this Memorial Day weekend we salute all the American heroes who gave their lives to protect our freedoms and particularly the flag raisers we see when we visit the Iwo Jima Memorial in our nation’s capital.
[Image via Jimmer Bond]