When the now-iconic photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising was released to the American public in 1945, its impact was powerful, recalled retired Associated Press news photo editor Hal Buell.
“People were just tired of the war, and all of a sudden out of nowhere came this picture that encapsulated everything. It showed that victory was ultimately possible.”
The men raising the flag at Iwo Jima — half of whom died in the fighting — were identified after the picture was taken and their identities never questioned in the decades after the war: John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, and Franklin Sousley, the AP reported.
Block, Strank, and Sousley were killed at Iwo Jima before the photo was released.
However, two history buffs — Eric Krelle, of Omaha, Nebraska, and Stephen Foley, of Wexford, Ireland — took a closer look at the picture and think one of the men was misidentified. Now, the Marines has decided to open an investigation to figure out who he really is.
There’s a chance that the man long-named as John Bradley, a Navy corpsman (combat medic), didn’t participate in the flag raising at all. They believe the sixth man atop Mount Suribachi is, in fact, Harold Henry Schultz, a private first class from Detroit who died in 1995.
The photo was shot by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, in the middle of a fight with the Japanese; Rosenthal died a decade ago. There was no time to get the men’s names, and President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the military to do so after the fact. All the men named were Marines, save Bradley.
The Marines issued a statement about its investigation, which doesn’t have a timeline.
“Rosenthal’s photo captured a single moment in the 36-day battle during which more than 6,500 US servicemen made the ultimate sacrifice for our Nation and it is representative of the more than 70,000 US Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Coast Guardsmen that took part in the battle. We are humbled by the service and sacrifice of all who fought on Iwo Jima.”
The island of Iwo Jima is 660 miles south of Tokyo and was coveted by U.S. forces because Japanese fighter planes intercepting American bombers used it as a take-off point. A 36-day fight for the island began on February 19, pitting 70,000 Americans against 18,000 Japanese.
According to Buell, the flag raising happened quickly, and the soldiers went on to other tasks shortly after. But the Americans made a point of raising their flag on the mountain early in the fighting; the 550-foot peak was important terrain that overlooked the entire island, the Washington Post added.
The flag raising was actually the second that day; the first was taken down and replaced with a larger one.
By the time the battle on Iwo Jima, called Operation Detachment, was over, 5,000 Americans and 18,000 Japanese soldiers were dead. Almost all of them fought to the death in a network of tunnels and caves.
After the battle, Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes went home to sell war bonds while their unit, the 5th Marine Division, went to Hawaii. The government used the picture to sell war bonds as well.
The alleged discrepancies that Krelle and Foley found center on Bradley’s role as a Navy corpsman. Foley said he spotted the clues during some lengthy downtime after surgery and contacted Krelle, who maintains a website for the 5th Division, for help.
A year ago, they made their findings known. Their evidence includes uncuffed pants, the bill of a cap, and some equipment carried by the now-unknown soldier that Bradley wouldn’t have had.
His son, James, who wrote the book Flags of Our Fathers that eventually became a Clint Eastwood film, was shocked by the announcement about the photo investigation. He interviewed the surviving soldiers and the AP photograph before writing his book.
“This is unbelievable. I’m interested in facts and truths, so that’s fine, but I don’t know what’s happening.”
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]