The Significance of a 71-Year-Old Mistake

On February 23, 1945, during a quiet moment in an otherwise intense and bloody battle of World War II, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a patriotic scene for the history books: the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima by the United States Marines.

It was the second flag raising of the day, the unimportant one. The six men captured in Rosenthal’s photograph were raising a replacement flag that was much larger than the original. Nevertheless, this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning image that found its place in history.

In the picture, the six men face away from the camera, focused on the task at hand.  It’s hard to count them, much less identify who they are.*

For seven decades, the world knew these six figures to be (1) Corporal Harlon Block, (2) Private First Class Rene Gagnon, (3) Private First Class Ira Hayes, (4) Private First Class Franklin Sousley, (5) Sergeant Michael Strank, and (6) Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, whose son used the photograph as a vehicle for a book about his father, the other flag-raisers, and the battle of Iwo Jima.

Flags of Our FathersThat book is Flags of our Fathers, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers and published in 2000. In 2006, Clint Eastwood turned the book into a movie of the same name, starring Ryan Phillippe as John “Doc” Bradley.

Now, after a Marine Corps investigation, we have learned that Doc Bradley wasn’t in the photograph. Instead, it’s Private First Class Harold Schultz helping to hoist the flag on Iwo Jima’s highest point, Mount Suribachi.

Reading this news, I wondered: Why didn’t Mr. Schultz speak up about his role in the flag raising? Why did Doc Bradley claim the credit?  The two men passed away in the mid-1990s.

According to Flags of Our Fathers, soon after the publication of Rosenthal’s image, Doc Bradley went on a highly publicized Bond Tour (selling war bonds), attended speaking engagements, and represented the flag-raisers (three of whom did not survive the war) at unveilings and other events. However, Doc Bradley described his fame in an interesting, self-deprecating way. He said:

We are not heroes… [a]nyone on that island could have been in the picture… we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.

Later, Doc Bradley stopped talking about the picture altogether. As his son recalls:

He had trained us, as children, to deflect the phone-call requests for media interviews that never diminished over the years. We were to tell the caller than our father was on a fishing trip. But John Bradley never fished. No copy of the famous photograph hung in our house. When we did manage to extract from him a remark about the incident, his responses were short and simple and he quickly changed the subject.

Did Doc Bradley know he was not the person pictured in that photograph? Knowing little about the confusion and atrocities of war, I initially found it hard to believe anyone could make an innocent mistake about what part they played in raising a flag. Somehow, I felt as though Doc Bradley had stolen someone else’s valor by taking the credit for it.**

But my initial reaction was ridiculous. There are many benign explanations for Doc Bradley’s actions; it could be as simple as not personally remembering the flag raising in the fog of war, but then assuming he was there because that was the official story.

The fact that Doc Bradley is not in the iconic photograph may weaken the allure of his son’s book, but it does nothing to alter his heroism. As his son wrote in the book, presuming his father was in the photograph:

… Doc Bradley was indeed a hero on Iwo Jima—many times over. The flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically.

Rosenthal’s picture captured 1/400th of a second of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a military action that raged for more than a month. In that time, Doc Bradley did what he was supposed to do as a Navy Corpsman, ultimately receiving the Navy Cross for his bravery. He dragged soldiers to safety, he saved lives when he could, and he comforted those he could not as their lives slipped away.

For the sake of history, it is nice to know the names of the six men pictured in Rosenthal’s photograph. However, the Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Robert Neller has said:

Although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been… Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our Corps – what they did together and what they represent remains most important.  That doesn’t change.

Everyone who assisted the effort at Iwo Jima is a hero, whether or not a photographer captured their actions on film.

 

___________________________________________________

*You can see a clearer version of the picture (compared to what is on the cover of Flags of our Fathers) on smithsonian.com.

**I also discussed stolen valor in my post about J. K. Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” identity a few years ago.

12 thoughts on “The Significance of a 71-Year-Old Mistake

  1. I heard about this, and did wonder about what happened behind the scenes so to speak! Some photos become so iconic and filled with a certain ideal or role, that sometimes changing that has a great impact and at other times is ignored altogether. Like that famous celebratory post-war Kiss, which turned out to be an act of violence.

    1. I remember how startled I was to find out about the post-war kiss! Its context completely changes the meaning of the photograph. In this case, knowing that Doc Bradley isn’t the man in the photograph doesn’t really change the meaning of the image. However, it might change the allure of his son’s book, Flags Of Our Fathers.

    1. I’m glad my post helped fill in the background. The second flag raising wasn’t much of an event to most of the soldiers (according to Bradley’s book). Schultz may have felt it wasn’t something worthy of the attention it received. The article I read about him portrays him as a reclusive man who probably wouldn’t have wanted the limelight.

  2. I didn’t know about Schultz’s role in the flag raising. It is very curious why he didn’t speak up and take credit, or why he allowed Bradley to do so.
    I’ll see if I can find the Eastwood movie sometime. Sounds interesting.

    1. I’ve never seen the Eastwood movie (Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima), but I have read Bradley’s book. It’s an interesting book, even if parts of it are less potent than they once were.

    1. “Sadly we take one picture and let it depict a whole event. ” Indeed. This picture is nowhere near the whole story of what happened on Iwo Jima.

  3. I think it would be nice if there was no war at all. If only humanity could mature to the point where it recognized we are all in the same boat on this planet we have come to realize is more fragile than we thought. Kids are taught to share; why do adults forget that important lesson?

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s