"One of the most famous photographs in history was taken by Joe Rosenthal at the battle of Iwo Jima, during the Second World War. The image of six Marines raising Old Glory on Mount Suribachi has been reprinted countless times, and has become an enduring symbol of American heroism. But while almost everyone has seen the photo, few Americans really understood what it represented, and fewer still knew who the men in the photo were.
Writer James Bradley knew that his father, John "Doc" Bradley, had served in World War 2, and had long heard rumors that "Doc" had been some sort of war hero. But his father never wanted to talk about his war experiences, and refused to answer questions about the war. Only after John Bradley's death did James learn that his father had received the Navy Cross for valor and had been one of the men who raised the American flag in the iconic photo from Iwo Jima. This discovery led James Bradley to seek out veterans who'd fought at Iwo Jima and ask them about what happened, and to do some research on the other five men who'd appeared in the photo.
The flag raisers represented a cross section of America. There was Marine Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) from Western Pennsylvania, Marine Private Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) from South Texas, Marine Pvt. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) an Arizona Indian, Marine Pvt. Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) from Kentucky, Marine Pvt. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) of New Hampshire and Navy Medical Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) from Wisconsin.
James Bradley found that much of what the public "knew" about the photo and the battle was erroneous. Most Americans thought the flag was raised at the end of the battle, after the U.S. Marines had defeated the Japanese. In reality, the flag was hoisted on the 55th day of a 35 day battle, and three of the Americans who raised the flag would be dead before the battle ended.
The island of Iwo Jima was deemed an important target by the U.S. War Department because Japanese fighter planes took off from its airfields. These planes had already caused extensive damage to the U.S. Navy, and would surely cause more problems when the U.S. invaded the Japanese mainland. Hence, the Marines were sent to capture the island.
The battle of Iwo Jima was the first battle of World War 2 that took place on Japanese soil. Iwo Jima itself was part of the nation of Japan, so the Japanese soldiers stationed on the island believed they were fighting to defend their homeland from foreign invaders. The Japanese had no hope of victory, and they knew it. All they wanted was to inflict massive casualties on the invading Marines- and they had an ideal setup for doing just that. The Japanese forces had built a large network of tunnels throughout the island, which meant they could shoot at the Marines from safe, well-fortified positions. They could also make quick, bloody attacks on isolated Marines and then retreat to the safety of their tunnels. The American Marines on Iwo Jima were fighting an enemy they could rarely see. The only way to defeat the Japanese was to locate the entrances to their tunnels and bunkers, then slowly work close enough to toss in a grenade or stick in the muzzle of a flamethrower. This was slow, gruesome work, and the Marines lost more than 6,000 men before their task was complete.
Early in the battle, on the fifth day, the American forces captured Mount Suribachi, and a contingent of Marines erected an American flag on top of the mountain, and a photo was taken of the flag raising. Shortly afterward, Navy Secretary James Forrestal requested that the flag be sent to Washington as a souvenir. When this flag was taken down, a new one had to be out up. Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and Doc Bradley were the men assigned to raise this second flag. While they did, photographer Joe Rosenthal took a snapshot. A few days later, Rosenthal's snapshot was published in newspapers all over the United States. Most Americans who saw the photo believed it commemorated a great American victory, but victory was still weeks away. The bloody battle raged on at Iwo Jima, and three of the flag raisers- Strank, Block and Sousley- had already been killed in action before the photo ever saw print.
The photo gained symbolic status in America, and the War Department realized that the photo and the flag raisers could have great propaganda value. It took a little while to identify and locate the flag raisers (since there had been TWO different flag raisings, each done by a different group of man, there was some confusion), but once Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and Doc Bradley had been identified, they were brought back to the U.S.A. and sent on a public relations tour to promote the war effort. They were wined and dined, and treated like celebrities. Rene Gagnon loved the attention and his newfound fame, but Doc Bradley was uncomfortable in the spotlight, and Ira Hayes was showing signs of combat stress. Hayes began drinking heavily, driven by guilt over surviving when so many of his friends had been killed.
When the war ended, the U.S. government had no further use for the three flag raisers, and sent them home. Ira Hayes returned to his old Pima Indian reservation in Arizona, where he continued to drink heavily and sank into poverty. He was eventually found dead in a ditch, after a heavy drinking spree.
Rene Gagnon returned to New Hampshire, where he spent the rest of his life holding a series of dead-end jobs. Having enjoyed his time as a celebrity, he was bitter at having little to show for it in the end, and angry that his 15 minutes of fame never led to wealth or great success in life.
John "Doc" Bradley was the only flag raiser who lived a fairly happy, normal life after the war. He returned to his hometown in Wisconsin, married his high school sweetheart, became a prosperous undertaker, and raised a seemingly well-adjusted family. But Doc Bradley had horrible memories of Iwo Jima (in particular, he'd seen how the Japanese had tortured and mutilated his best friend, Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski), and preferred to forget all about it. He stashed away all of his wartime memorabilia (including a Navy Cross that he'd received for racing through heavy fire to tend to wounded Marines), and never showed them to anyone. Doc Bradley never regarded himself as a hero, telling anyone who asked, "The only heroes were the ones who didn't come back."
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Six men helped raise the flag in the famous photo: Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John "Doc" Bradley. Most Americans thought the picture was taken at the end of the battle for Iwo Jima, but in reality, the flag was raised on the 5th day of a grim, bloody, 35 day battle. Strank, Block and Sousley were killed long before the battle ended. After the photo of the flag-raising became famous, Gagnon, Hayes and Bradley were brought to the U.S. to be poster boys for the war effort.
Once the war was over, the U.S. government had no more use for them, and sent them home. Hayes, a Pima Indian, was devastated by the war and by racism at home, and slowly drank himself to death. Gagnon, who'd loved his brief time in the spotlight, lived out the rest of his life in bitterness, angry that his temporary celebrity status never brought him wealth or success in life. "Doc" Bradley returned to his home town in Wisconsin, married his high school sweetheart, became a prosperous undertaker, and raised a fairly happy family... but he never told anybody about his war experiences, and tried hard to keep them a secret.
Only after Bradley's death did his son, James, learn that his father had been a war hero. The entire movie reflects James Bradley's efforts to learn about his father's experiences at Iwo Jima.
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