Published: 21 Feb 01
Air & Space Power Journal-Spring 2001
Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Bantam Books (http://www.randomhouse.com), 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10103, May 2000, 376 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).
It remains the transcendent image of World War II: six US marinesactually five marines and a Navy corpsmanraising the American flag on Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945. The legendary photograph of the event, snapped by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press, won a Pulitzer prize.
However, details surrounding the event on Iwo Jima were quickly forgotten. Few people can even remember the names of the men who actually raised the flag, with the possible exception of Ira Hayes, the groups lone Native American whose tragic life became the basis for two Hollywood movies.
Authors James Bradley and Ron Powers have produced the definitive book on flag raising and, more importantly, the men who made it possible. Flags of Our Fathers traces the lives of these six men who came from vastly different backgrounds and were forever united in that brief, shining moment on Mount Suribachi. Produced as a labor of love (Bradleys father was the Navy corpsman who participated in the flag raising), Flags of Our Fathers is a fascinating and moving account of the event, cast against the awful spectacle of combat in the Pacific theater.
Leading the squad was Sgt Mike Strank, the Czechoslovakian immigrant described as a "Marines Marine" and "the finest man I ever knew." He was joined by Franklin Sousey, a good-natured country boy from Kentucky; Harlon Block, the Texas high school football star who led his team to an undefeated season; Rene Gagnon, a former mill hand from New Hampshire; Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona, remembered by friends as an "island unto himself"; and John Bradley, the Wisconsin altar boy turned combat medic, "always eager to serve."
Bradley and Powers also describe the literal transformation of a generation that bore the brunt of combat during World War II. They suggest that by the time of the Iwo Jima invasion, whatever idealism and innocence we carried into the war had long since been replaced by the stark realities of combatlessons systematically reinforced on the islands killing fields. We see Sergeant Strank showing his boys the "safest" way to attack an enemy emplacement, just moments before he was killed by friendly fire; Harlan Block leading the platoon with the grace and confidence of a football star, dying in combat just hours after Mike Strank; Franklin Souseys gentle charm and humor providing a spark for his fellow marines until he fell from a snipers bullet, just days before the battle ended.
The authors effectively capture the irony that inevitably surrounds all historical events. The reader learns that Strank and his men were selected for the job largely because they were in the right place at the right timehaving just strung a new communications line to the top of Mount Suribachi. The now-famous flag raising was actually the second of the morning: a Marine commander had ordered the erection of another banner big enough "so every SOB on the island can see it." Photographer Rosenthalwho was present largely because he missed the first flag raisingshot his famous image almost without thinking, unsure what his camera had captured. And the famous flag? It had been salvaged from a ship sunk at Pearl Harbor almost four years earlier.
Flags of Our Fathers also offers a masterful account of the aftermath of battle, detailing each survivors efforts to come to terms with the lingering effects of combat and his own sudden celebrity. Ira Hayes, of course, proved unable to make the transition to civilian life. He died of exposure in 1955, after a night of heavy drinking, haunted by memories of combat. Rene Gagnon passed away in 1978, conflicted by his dual status as both a war hero and an ordinary man with an overbearing wife. John Bradley, we discover, was perhaps the only real survivor among the flag raisers. After the war, he returned to Wisconsin, married his grade-school sweetheart, and became a successful mortician. But even he was plagued by the ghosts of Iwo Jima; for the rest of his life, he refused all requests for media interviews and discussed the battle only twice. When he died in 1994, James Bradley found a Navy Cross in his fathers closet, tucked away inside a shoe box. John Bradley won the decoration for heroism on Iwo Jima, just two days before the flag raising. But he never mentioned the award to his wife or his eight children, maintaining that the "men who never came back" were the real heroes.
This is a remarkable book, richly detailed and extraordinarily moving. It invites immediate comparisons to Michael Shaaras The Killer Angels, brilliantly conveying both the sweep of war and the individual struggles of soldiers locked in its grip. Stephen Ambrose has called Flags of Our Fathers "the best book about men in battle that Ive ever read." I humbly concur. You must read this book.
Maj Gary Pounder, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.