Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima: The Truth Behind The Iconic World War II Photo
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal.
On February 23, 1945, one of the most iconic photos ever was taken. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, which was snapped by Associated Press battlefield reporter Joe Rosenthal, is the only photo to date that has won with the Pulitzer Prize the same year it was taken. It depicts six Marines raising the U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima, which was a significant tactical victory for America during World War II and one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater. While you've undoubtedly seen the picture before, few know the story behind it and the identities of these six brave soldiers.
You may hear, for example, that the photo was staged. While it's true that the famous image depicts not the first but the second raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, that's because the general thought the first flag was too small to be seen from the rest of the island, so he sent a second team to replace it with a larger one. The photo's dynamic perfection led to skepticism, but the soldiers' testimonies and a corroborating video proved that yes, indeed, this was a candid shot. In fact, Rosenthal admitted he wasn't even paying much attention when he shot it. He didn't even bother looking through the lens when he snapped the picture.
Harlon Block. (Wikipedia Commons)
So who are these brave soldiers? It's hard to tell from the photo, since none of their faces are seen clearly. However, historians have narrowed it down to a few likely candidates based on their clothing, the video that shows more of their faces, and witness testimony.
Harlon Block is thought to be the farthest man on the right, at the base of the pole. Originally, the government identified him as fellow Marine Henry Hanson, but several of the other soldiers who were present that day corrected them. It was difficult to confirm because both Hanson and Block tragically died on the small Japanese island just a week after the famous photo was taken, but Block's mother insisted that she knew it was her son because she changed so many diapers "on that boy's butt, I know it's my boy," and she was proven right by an investigation by the Marine Corps.
Second to the right is Harold Keller, who was also misidentified until 2019, before which the man next to Block was believed to be Rene Gagnon. Because of the mixup, nobody ever looked too deeply into Keller's life, so not a lot is known about him. He was born in Iowa, where he lived all his life, and hardly talked about the war with his family after returning. He died in 1979.
Frank Sousley. (Wikipedia Commons)
The third man in the photo was Frank Sousely from Hilltop, Kentucky. He was drafted into the war, and after basic training in Hawaii, he landed on Iwo Jima in February 1945. The Battle of Iwo Jima was his first armed conflict, and he died there on March 21 at age 19.
Fourth was Michael Strank from Czechoslovakia. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania after his parents immigrated to America when he was a young boy, and he volunteered for service when World War II broke out. He served in three battles, the last of which was Iwo Jima. He died on March 1, 1945 from friendly fire when he was 25 years old.
27th Marines holds battlefield briefing under fire in Iwo Jima. (Wikipedia Commons)
Ironically, one of the most famous men in the photo turned out to be the subject of yet another case of misidentification. John Bradley (whose son, James Bradley, wrote the New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Fathers) was originally celebrated as the fifth flag holder, but he always dodged questions about the event. Historians have since concluded that it was likely not Bradley but a man named Harold Schultz who stands second from the left in the photo. The U.S. Marine Corps officially changed the identification from Bradley to Shultz in 2016, but unfortunately, Schultz died more than 20 years earlier.
Ira Hayes. (National Archives at College Park)
Last but certainly not least was Ira Hayes. Born in Arizona, Hayes was a Native American of the Pima people who enlisted early in the war in 1942 and miraculously survived all four of his World War II battles. However, he had issues dealing with not only the war but the sudden fame the photo brought him. He leaned into it at first, playing himself in a John Wayne film called Sands of Iwo Jima, but the trauma of the war got to him, and he fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism. He died from alcohol poisoning after passing out in a snowy ditch on his home reservation at only age 32.
Funnily enough, two of the three men who went on a tour of the United States under the direction of Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to raise money for the war (Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes) turned out to be misidentified in the photo. Nevertheless, the Seventh War Loan Drive was hugely successful, raising a whopping $26 billion (yes, with a "b") in war bonds.