The Six Iwo Jima Flag Raisers
There are six Flag Raisers on the famous Iwo Jima photo. Four in the front line and two in back. The front four are (left to right) Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley and Harlon Block.
The back two are Michael Strank (behind Sousley) and Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley). Strank, Block and Sousley would die shortly afterwards. Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon became national heroes within weeks.
Mike Strank was born in 1919 in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia. He died in 1945 in Iwo Jima, Japan. Their leader and Sergeant, it was Mike who got the order to climb Mt. Suribachi. Mike picked his “boys” and led them safely to the top. Mike explained to the boys that the larger flag had to be raised so that “every Marine on this cruddy island can see it.” It was Mike who gave the orders to find a pole, attach the flag and “put’er up!”
At home as a boy, Mike was studious, had a photographic memory, played the French Horn and once slugged a baseball out of Points Stadium in Johnstown. In 1936, Mike ran down to the river to see for himself the terrible Johnstown flood. He brought this report back to his family: “Don’t worry–it will recede.”
Mike’s right hand is the only hand of a flagraiser not on the pole. His right hand is around the wrist of Franklin Sousley, helping the younger man push the heavy pole. This is typical of Mike, the oldest of the flagraisers, always there to help one of his boys. Two months before the battle Mike’s Captain tried to promote him but Mike turned it down flat: “I trained those boys and I’m going to be with them in battle,” he said.
Mike died on March 1, 1945. He was hit by a mortar as he was diagramming a plan in the sand for his boys. Mike is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Harlon Block was born in 1924 in Yorktown, Texas. He passed away in 1945 in Iwo Jima, Japan. Harlon was an outgoing daredevil with many friends at Weslaco High School. A natural athlete, Harlon led the Weslaco Panther Football Team to the Conference Championship. He was honored as “All South Texas End.” Harlon and twelve of his teammates enlisted in the Marine Corps together in 1943.
Harlon was Sgt. Mike’s second-in-command. He took over the leadership of his unit when Sgt. Mike was killed. Harlon was killed by a mortar blast hours later on March 1 at the age of 21. When his mother Belle saw the Flag Raising Photo in the Weslaco Newspaper on Feb. 25, she exclaimed, “That’s Harlon” pointing to the figure on the far right. But the US Government mis-identified the figure as Harry Hansen of Boston. Belle never wavered in her belief that it was Harlon insisting, “I know my boy.” No one–not her family, neighbors, the Government or the public–had any reason to believe her. But eighteen months later in a sensational front-page story, a Congressional investigation revealed that it was Harlon in the photo, proving that indeed, Belle did “know her boy.” Harlon is buried beside the Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen, Texas.
Franklin Sousley was born Sept. 19, 1925 in Hilltop, KY, and he died March 21, 1945 Iwo Jima, Japan. Franklin was a red-haired, freckle-faced “Opie Taylor” raised on a tobacco farm. His favorite hobbies were hunting and dancing. Fatherless at 9, Franklin became the main man in his mother’s life. Franklin enlisted at 17 and sailed for the Pacific on his 18th Birthday. All that’s left of Franklin is a few pictures and two letters Franklin wrote home to his mother:
————July 1944, Letter from Training Camp: “Mother, you said you were sick. I want you to stay in out of that field and look real pretty when I come home. You can grow a crop of tobacco every summer, but I sure as hell can’t grow another mother like you.”
————Feb. 27, 1945 Letter from Iwo Jima:
“My regiment took the hill with our company on the front line. The hill was hard, and I sure never expected war to be like it was those first 4 days. Mother, you can never imagine how a battlefield looks. It sure looks horrible. Look for my picture because I helped put up the flag. Please don’t worry and write.”
Franklin was the last flag-raiser to die on Iwo Jima, on March 21 at the age of 19. When word reached his mother that Franklin was dead, “You could hear her screaming clear across the fields at the neighbor’s farm.” Franklin is buried at Elizaville Cemetery, Kentucky.
Ira Hayes was born January 12, 1923 in Sacaton, Arizona, and died January 24, 1955 in Bapchule, Arizona. Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian. When he enlisted in the Marine Corps, he had hardly ever been off the Reservation. His Chief told him to be an “Honorable Warrior” and bring honor upon his family. Ira was a dedicated Marine. Quiet and steady, he was admired by his fellow Marines who fought alongside him in three Pacific battles.
When Ira learned that President Roosevelt wanted him and the other survivors to come back to the US to raise money on the 7th Bond Tour, he was horrified.
To Ira, the heroes of Iwo Jima, those deserving honor, were his “good buddies” who died there. At the White House, President Truman told Ira, “You are an American hero.” But Ira didn’t feel pride. As he later lamented, “How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?”
The Bond Tour was an ordeal for Ira. He couldn’t understand or accept the adulation . . . “It was supposed to be soft duty, but I couldn’t take
it. Everywhere we went people shoved drinks in our hands and said ‘You’re a Hero!’ We knew we hadn’t done that much but you couldn’t tell them that.” (More about Ira below . . .)
Rene Gagnon, was born in Manchester, N.H. on March 7, 1925, and died in Manchester, N.H. on October 12, 1979. Rene Gagnon was the youngest survivor and the man who carried the flag up Mt. Suribachi. He was the first survivor to arrive back in the US. (More about Rene below . . .)
John Bradley was born July 10, 1923 in Antigo, WI, and passed away January 11, 1994 in Antigo, WI. “Doc” Bradley was a Navy Corpsman who “just jumped in to lend a hand.” He won the Navy Cross for heroism and was wounded in both legs. Bradley, a quiet, private man, gave just one interview in his life. In it he said . . . “People refer to us as heroes–I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there–and we certainly weren’t heroes–and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.” (More about John below . . .)
Ira Hayes in Later Years
Ira in later years . . . Ira went back to the reservation attempting to lead an anonymous life. But it didn’t turn out that way . . . “I kept getting hundreds of letters. And people would drive through the reservation, walk up to me and ask, ‘Are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima?”
Ira tried to drown his “Conflict of Honor” with alcohol. Arrested as drunk and disorderly, his pain was clear . . . “I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.”
In 1954, Ira reluctantly attended the dedication of the Iwo Jima monument in Washington. After a ceremony where he was lauded by President Eisenhower as a hero once again, a reporter rushed up to Ira and asked him, “How do you like the pomp & circumstances?” Ira just hung his head and said, I don’t.”
Ira died three months later after a night of drinking. As Ira drank his last bottle of whiskey he was crying and mumbling about his “good buddies.” Ira was 32.
Rene Gagnon in Later Years
Rene Gagnon in later years . . . Rene Gagnon carried the flag up Mt. Suribachi. Rene was modest about his achievement throughout his life. Rene is honored with a special room in New Hampshire’s prestigious Wright Museum. Rene is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the Flag Raiser buried closest to the Marine Corps Memorial.
John Bradley in Later Years
John Bradley returned to his home town in the Midwest after the war, prospered as the owner of a family business, and gave generously of his time and money to local causes. He was married for 47 years and had eight children. While Bradley had a public image as a war hero, he was a very private person. He avoided discussion of his war record saying only that the real heros were the men who gave their lives for their country.
The Global Media reported the death of a World War II icon on January 11, 1994 at the age of 70. But his hometown newspaper best captured the essence of Bradley’s life after the war: “John Bradley will be forever memorialized for a few moments action at the top of a remote Pacific mountain. We prefer to remember him for his life. If the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima symbolized American patriotism and valor, Bradley’s quiet, modest nature and philanthropic efforts shine as an example of the best of small town American values.” —Editorial, “The Antigo Daily Journal”