Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Flags of Iwo Jima

(Photo by Bob Campbell)

I met Mr. John Storcel, US Army, in 2011, in North Riverside, Illinois, at a WWII veteran's event. After the program, I wanted to shake the hands of as many vets as possible and say something to them that would somehow express my admiration for their service. The last conversation I had was with Mr. Storcel.

A friend and fellow member of the North Riverside Veteran’s VFW Post 6869, Mr. Storcel told me, had been a man named Jimmy Michels, one of the marines who had raised the first American flag on Iwo Jima’s strategic Mt. Suribachi during the Marine’s month-long struggle to take the tiny volcanic island from the Japanese in 1945. The second flag-raising, conducted only hours later, immortalized by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal and captured on film as well, had not been staged – the marines had been told to raise a new flag and they did so without acknowledging the presence of those who had come to record the event -- but the second flag-raising was almost a reenactment of the first, completely eclipsing it in the national consciousness.

This fact really bothered Mr. Storcel and when he learned that I was a writer, he offered to send me some information on the incident and told me to also watch Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the book by James Bradley, son of John Bradley, one of the second flag-raisers. I too have a distinct aversion to the re-writing of history for ulterior motives and, according to Mr. Storcel, the motive in this case had been completely monetary. So I watched the film, ready to be angry. Instead, I came away very sad.

If I had anger, where was I to direct it? At Joe Rosenthal? According to a piece he wrote in Colliers ten years after the fact, when he heard about the initial flag-raising, he climbed up Mt Suribachi in order to capture it on film but when he got there the first flag-raisers were already on their way down and weren’t interested in having their picture taken again; their moment and their flag had already been photographed, thanks very much. As the new flag was going up, Rosenthal snapped it just in time. It hadn’t been staged for his benefit and it hadn’t even been his idea, else he would have taken it from a different angle and captured some faces. But it was a brilliant (if nearly accidental) shot and I’m sure it made him a lot of money but that’s because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Should I be angry at Chandler Johnson, the commander who ordered the second flag to be raised? That whole story is merely human foible, nothing more. The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was so taken with the excitement of the initial flag-raising that he insisted that the flag should be his personal souvenir. Nothing doing, said Colonel Johnson, in so many words. That flag belonged to the battalion that had risked their lives to place it there, no one else. So he ordered a new flag to be raised on the mountain with the excuse that a larger one would be more visible.

Should I be angry at those in the war department who pressured the three surviving flag-raisers to go on the war-bond tour? Sure, maybe, but money was definitely needed to beat the Japanese, the country that got us into the war by nearly decimating our navy and who had decided that most of Asia existed for the purpose of Japanese domination. Because Rosenthal’s brilliant photograph created an unforgettable image, and because the young men in the photo went on tour, money was raised and the Americans eventually put an end to the fascist Japanese government.

Who was at fault then? The war, plain . . . but not so simple. War is hell, always has been, always will be, and as long as wars exist, money will be needed to buy weapons with which to kill more of the enemy’s soldiers than he can kill of yours. This was one war where the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys was crystal clear and the good guys won. And as a result -- apart from the shameful Allied allowance of the Iron Curtain -- millions of people were released from oppression. But before the happy ending could occur, the good guys needed money. Three young men, pawns, if you will, of the good guys, were pressured into behaving as if there had only been one flag-raising.

Ira Hayes, a Native American, one of the surviving raisers of the second flag who was taken on the tour against his will -- “kicking and screaming” -- with the other two survivors, couldn’t take the farcical element of the whole thing. Johnny Cash tells us that he died face down in watery ditch, a victim of post-traumatic stress and alcoholism; an excellent marine who couldn’t cope with civilian life. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. But his story is heartbreakingly sad, as sad as all of the grey areas in the horrible and sometimes necessary thing we call war.
(“Islands of Hell: The US Marines in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945”)

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