Last night after I finished reading Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and turned out the light, I laid wide-eyed and awake in my warm comfortable bed and wondered if I could have endured what the Marines who conquered Iwo Jima endured. As I lay staring at the orange glow of my alarm clock, I imagined that first night on Iwo for those young Marines and Navy corpsmen, most barely over 20. Huddled in fox holes and shell craters, red flares casting eerie shadows in all directions, always the very real fear of Japanese infiltrators appearing out of nowhere to bayonet you in your sleep or worse drag you back to their underground lair to do unspeakable torture. And the sunrise wouldn’t bring relief, but mortars, artillery shells, and machine guns. Yet the Marines trudged forward, with little or no cover, toward a hidden enemy that poured out death from all directions. Iwo Jima was an ugly eight square-mile hunk of volcanic rock with little vegetation, craggy ravines, razor sharp rock formations, and black sand. As one Iwo veteran put it, “It looked like hell with the fires out.” Somehow, the Marines conquered this hell, but at a cost greater than any military victory in US history. And as I pondered all of this as I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “Could I have done that?”
Flags of Our Fathers is at once stirring and sobering. The story of the six men who raised the replacement flag on Mt. Surabachi has all the elements of a Shakespearean comedy, history, and tragedy rolled into one narrative. Bradley tells a brief biography of the six men, all from very different circumstances and backgrounds from all parts of the country. Mike Strank of Pennsylvania, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants; Harlon Block, a Seventh-Day Adventist high school football star from Texas; Franklin Sousley, a good old boy from the backwoods of Kentucky; Rene Gagnon who worked with his single mother in a textile mill as a teenager in French-influenced New Hampshire; John Bradley the quiet, serious and devoted Catholic son of middle-class Wisconsin parents; Ira Hayes, the aloof Pima Indian from Arizona.
The descriptions of the battle are raw and told with vivid and unsettling detail. For every story of stirring heroism in the face of withering enemy fire, corpsmen rushing to the aid of the wounded through sheets of hot lead and Marines drawing enemy fire away from their buddies, there is one of cruel and seemingly random tragedy. Two buddies in the same shell crater and suddenly one is blown to pieces by a mortar shell. The Japanese were dug into the terrain itself, practically invisible to the slowly advancing Americans. Some Marines said it was like fighting the island itself. They saw very little sign of progress. The Japanese would pull their dead back into their blockhouses and caves leaving no evidence of success for the Marines. The author pulls no punches and through quotes from survivors and his own research describes the battle as it was fought–brutal and without mercy.
The flag raising event is the central event of the book, obviously, and serves as a catalyst to shift gears from military operations to the surreal turn the lives of the three remaining flag-raisers took upon returning to the states. The chance photo had been embraced by the American populace as a symbol not only for the courage and bravery displayed by “our boys over there”, but as an icon of fundamental American values. The photo was the centerpiece of a war bond drive to raise funds to continue the war and the living flag-raisers were to play a central part in it. They adjusted with varying levels of success to the stark contrasts between the bloody battlefield they just left and the throngs of adoring crowds and star treatment on the war bond tour.
When a photograph becomes an icon, the individuals in it cease to be individuals and are lost to history as symbols of a time or event. Flags of Our Fathers brings these six men back from history as young, vibrant men who knew they had a job to do and did it in some of the worst conditions imaginable. They fought for their country, but fought harder for each other. They were individuals with families, three of which would never see them again. The survivors didn’t want to be called heroes. But if they weren’t heroes, then such men don’t exist.
Also reccommend: Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose