On 75th Anniversary of Iwo Jima Flag-Raising, Some Struggle with History-Changing News

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In this Feb. 23, 1945, file photo, Marines with the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
In this Feb. 23, 1945, file photo, Marines with the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)

On the 75th anniversary of the horrific battle of Iwo Jima, Rene Gagnon, Jr., is still coming to terms with the fact that his father was not among the six Marines in one of the most iconic photos of the 20th Century: the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi.

"To me, this was like a total surprise, total shock," he said, when the Marine Corps last October confirmed the initial findings of amateur researchers on one of history's most extraordinary cases of mistaken identity.

It was Cpl. Harold "Pie" Keller, 23, of Brooklyn, Iowa and not his father, then 19-year-old Pfc. Rene Gagnon, of Manchester, New Hampshire, in the snapshot of the group taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, the Corps announced at the time. The image has come to define the elan of the Marine Corps.

Gagnon, 72, of Concord, New Hampshire, said Feb. 20 phone interview last Thursday that he grew up firm in the belief that his father, who died in 1979 of a heart attack, was part of the legend.

At age two, his father brought him to the movie set where John Wayne was making "Sands of Iwo Jima," Gagnon said. Rene Gagnon Sr. had a cameo role in the movie, handing the flag to Wayne's fictional "Sgt. Stryker."

Related: Marines: Identities of Two Iwo Jima Flag-Raisers Were Mistaken

In 1954, he went with his father to the dedication of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, Felix De Weldon's massive sculpture of the figures in Rosenthal's photograph, Gagnon said.

Growing up, he would occasionally watch the TV sign off at night with the playing of the national anthem over a screen showing the Rosenthal photo, thinking "Oh my God, that's my Dad."

"For 70-plus years, that was my legacy, more or less. I looked up to my Dad for that," Gagnon said. And so the announcement that it was Keller and not his father in the photo hit him hard.

"His comments were always, "I am not a hero. I happened to be in a photograph that represents everyone that fought and died on that island,'" he said.

Gagnon could only speculate on why his father maintained the fiction through the successful nationwide war bond drive after the battle, through a bit part in the John Wayne movie and through speaking engagements after the war.

There was enormous pressure to identify the flag raisers once Rosenthal's photo hit the front pages worldwide, and his father may have been ordered to claim he was one of them.

President Franklin Roosevelt had directed the Marines to put names to the flag-raisers and get them home immediately for the 7th War Loan campaign to sell bonds, and the Marines may have acted in haste, Gagnon said.

Three of the six flag raisers had been killed in the fighting, which continued after the flag was unfurled atop 550-foot Mount Suribachi on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1945.

That left three thought at the time to be part of the group of six: Gagnon, Navy Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class John "Doc" Bradley, 21, of Antigo, Wisconsin, and Pfc. Ira Hayes, 22, of the Gila River Pima Indian Reservation in Arizona.

In another stunning revelation in 2016, the Marines ruled that Bradley was not among the six in the Rosenthal photo. Instead, the figure thought to be Bradley was actually Cpl. Harold Schultz, 20, of Detroit.

Confusion Surrounding Suribachi

Coming up with an accurate list was complicated by the fact that there were two flag-raisings on Suribachi on Feb. 23, four days after the invasion landings. In addition, Rosenthal had not taken the names of those in his photo.

A controversy arose shortly after the end of the war on the identities of the six in the second flag-raising. The family of Cpl. Harlon Block, 20, of Yorktown, Texas, argued that he had been one of the six, and they were supported by Ira Hayes.

In 1947, the Marines ruled that Block had been one of the six in the second flag-raising, and not Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, 26, of Boston. Nearly 70 years later, Hansen was officially found to be one of the six in the first flag-raising.

There have been several different accounts over the years on what took place, but there is agreement that, on order of his battalion commander, 1st Lt. Harold G. Shrier had been given a flag to take with him on a patrol to the top of Suribachi with 30-40 Marines from Easy Co., 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.

The raising of the first flag in the late morning of Feb. 23 set off a celebration among the Marines across the pork chop-shaped island. Navy ships offshore blasted their horns. The Marines have since stated that John Bradley took part in that first-flag-raising.

Several accounts stated that Navy Secretary James Forrestal was set to come ashore on a landing craft that morning.

He witnessed the celebration and said he wanted the flag to take back to the states. The Marines brought a second, larger flag up Suribachi -- one that could be seen better across the island. It was that flag that Rosenthal photographed.

At the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, docents Nayla Mengel and Howard Knight added details.

The first flag had come from the Navy's attack transport Missoula, they said, and the second from tank landing ship LST-779.

The first flag flew for about three hours, and the second for three weeks, she said. Both flags are now on display at the museum.

The second flag has a slight rectangular discoloration near the center. Somebody at some time apparently had cut out a piece of fabric for a souvenir. The culprit is unknown, Mengel said.

Although two of them had not been in the Rosenthal photo, Gagnon, John Bradley and Ira Hayes set off with the second flag on the wildly successful war bond drive. They were treated as rock stars.

In Times Square, Mayor Fiorello Laguardia hosted them before a crowd estimated at 1.4 million. The city had set up a 55-foot plaster depiction of the flag raising and the crowd roared as Ira Hayes hauled on a rope to run the flag to the top.

In all, the three went to about 50 cities over six weeks and raised more than $26 billion, Knight said.

"If you bought a bond, you could touch the flag," Mengel said.

Still a Legend

In a statement accompanying the announcement that he had not been part of the second flag raising, the Marines said that Rene Gagnon, as the battalion runner that day, had been instrumental in bringing the second flag up and preserving the first.

"He was directly responsible for getting the larger second flag to the top and returning the first flag for safekeeping. Without his efforts, this historical event might not have been captured, let alone even occurred," Marine Corps officials said.

Gradually, Rene Gagnon, Jr., has also come to see it that way. He said that he was attending events in Newington, Conn., over the weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima.

"He had a good part" in both flag raisings, the son said. "He survived, and he went on the war bond [tour]. And he was following orders."

Gagnon's contribution was also noted by Dustin Spence, one of the researchers whose work led to the findings that Gagnon and Bradley were not in the Rosenthal photo.

"Gagnon's still a hero. Being on Iwo Jima, he's a hero. Being a runner, he's a hero," said Spence, who teaches high school in Sacramento, California. "He's right there doing exactly what he's supposed to do."

"I don't think we're ever going to really know exactly what happened [...] why different names got attached to that photograph," Spence said in a phone interview.

Spence also said he was "extremely confident" that the controversies over the identities of the six who raised the first flag, and the six who raised the second, have now been settled.

"After 75 years, finally we have the names," he said.

There also had been confusion over the years over who had raised the first flag, but the Marine Corps in 2016 gave an official list of the six:

Navy Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, 21, of Antigo, Wisconsin; 1st Lt. Harold G. Schrier, 28, of Bradenton, Florida; Sgt. Ernest I. Thomas Jr., 21, of Tampa, Florida; Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, 26, of Boston; Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg, 24, of Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Pvt. Philip L. Ward, 19, of Crawfordsville, Indiana.

The list for the second flag-raising is also now final:

Sgt. Michael Strank, 26, born in what was then Czechoslovakia and raised in Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania.; Cpl. Harlon Block, of Yorktown, Texas; Pfc. Franklin Sousley, 19, of Hill Top, Kentucky; Pfc. Ira Hayes, 22, of the Gila River Pima Indian Reservation in Arizona; Cpl. Harold Schultz, 20 of Detroit; and Cpl. Harold Keller, 23, of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Rene Gagnon, Jr., said he's reconciled to the identities, and has determined this is how he'll think about Rosenthal's black-and-white photo from now on:

"That's a picture of the flag my father fought his way up that mountain to bring up there so that somebody could raise it."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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