Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Photograph

Lightly edited and reposted from Feb. 23, 2008.

They were boys of common virtue.
Called to duty.
Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors.
And fathers.

67 years ago today an AP photographer named Joe Rosenthal captured (quite by accident) an image of six Marines raising an American flag. Little did he know that it would become known to history simply as The Photograph -- the most reproduced snapshot ever. To the politicians and folks back home The Photograph symbolized victory on Iwo Jima. In reality, some of the hardest fighting was yet to come, and three of those six Marines never made it off the island alive.

On March 1 Sgt. Mike Strank was killed by friendly fire. Later that same day, Cpl. Harlon Block (the figure on the far right with his back to the camera) was eviscerated by a mortar shell. On March 21 PFC Franklin Sousley was killed by a Japanese sniper. Block's story is particularly poignant. Initially, the soldier in the far right was misidentified as another slain Marine, Hank Hansen, but Harlon's mother immediately recognized her boy in the photograph. Was it the shape of the shoulder? The bend of the knee? Only a mother could tell. In 1947 her belief was vindicated when the Marine Corps finally admitted their mistake.

All these stories and more are told in James Bradley's superb book Flags Of Our Fathers. Bradley's father John was the last surviving member of The Photograph -- dying in 1994. Throughout his life he brushed off any talk of being a hero and his silence made him something of an enigma to his family. The explanation probably lies in the fact that John "Doc" Bradley was a corpsman. He saw the worst of the worst.

For many of the veterans, their memories of combat receded; supplanted by happy peacetime experiences. But there were others for whom the memories did not die, but were somehow contained. And for a few, the memories were howling demons that ruled their nights. Among these last, a disproportionate number, I believe, are corpsmen. It was the corpsmen, after all, who saw the worst of the worst.

A Marine rifleman might see his buddy shot down beside him, and regret the loss for the rest of his life. But in the moment, he kept going. That was his training, his mission. But the corpsman saw only the results. His entire mission on Iwo was to hop from blown face to severed arm, doing what he could under heavy fire to minimize the damage, stanch the flow, ease the agony. The corpsmen remembered. And their memories ruled the night. (p. 346)

After his father's death, James Bradley learned from his mother that Doc wept in his sleep throughout the first four years of their marriage. Whenever John Bradley was asked about being a hero, his reply was invariably that "the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back." On this anniversary of the photo that came to symbolize the American World War Two experience more than any other, it might be appropriate to shed a tear for all the men and women who didn't make it home. For the Marines, Iwo was particularly costly.

The Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month on Iwo Jima, one third of their total deaths occurred. They left behind the Pacific's largest cemeteries: nearly 6,800 graves in all; mounds with their crosses and stars. Thousands of families would not have the solace of a body to bid farewell: just the abstract information that the Marine had "died in the performance of his duty" and was buried in a plot, aligned in a row with numbers on his grave. Mike lay in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694; Harlon in Plot 4, Row 6, Grave 912; Franklin in Plot 8, Row 7, Grave 2189.

When I think of Mike, Harlon, and Franklin there, I think of the message someone had chiseled outside the cemetery:

When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
(pp. 246-247)

The flag raising was also captured on film by Sergeant Bill Genaust. On March 4 he became another of the heroes who didn't make it off that lava rock hell in the middle of the Pacific. Bradley describes his last day:

Rain and chilly winds buffeted the troops that day. Bill Genaust, who had recorded the replacement flagraising with color film and who had asked Rosenthal, "I'm not in your way, am I, Joe?" walked into a "secured" cave to dry off. The last thing he did was turn on his flashlight. He was thirty-eight and left behind a wife of seventeen years. His body was never recovered. (p. 235)

Here's the footage shot by Genaust.

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