Memorial Day has passed, and for most Americans, it is another year. But the sacrifice some Americans have made in our 243 years should be remembered every day by freedom loving peoples.
The following is not a new story, it has made the rounds for years. It was originally written in October 2000, by Michael T. Powers from a video he made of this experience. The story is fitting for remembering those brave, mostly young boys in the prime of their lives, who will not grow old with the rest of us.
A group of eighth graders from Clinton, WI took a field trip to Washington, D.C. That fall’s trip was especially memorable for all who participated. On one particular evening, they visited the world’s largest bronze statue at Arlington National Cemetery.
It depicts one of the most famous battle photographs ever taken. It depicts six brave soldiers raising the American flag at the top of a rocky hill on the island of Iwo Jima in February 1945; the last year of World War II.
There were over one hundred students and their chaperones that piled off the buses that evening. They immediately headed towards the large, impressive memorial. When they arrived, there was a solitary figure at the base of the statue. As they got closer, he asked, “Where are you guys from?”
Michael Powers told him they were from Wisconsin, and man said, “Hey, I’m a cheese head too. Come gather around, and I’ll tell you a story.” They didn’t know at the time, but it was James Bradley, who just happened to be in Washington to speak at the memorial the following day.
Bradley was there that evening to say ‘good night’ to his dad, who had passed away. He was just about to leave when he saw the buses pull up. The insight he provided that evening will live in the memories of all who heard his story that evening and the rest of their lives.
He began, “My name is James Bradley, and I’m from Antigo, Wisconsin. My dad is on that stature, and I wrote a book called ‘Flags of Our Fathers.’ It is the story of the six boys you see behind me. Six boys raised the flag. The first guy putting the pole in the ground is Harlon Block. Harlon was an all-state football player. He enlisted in the Marine Corps with all the senior members of the football team. They were off to play another type of game.”
Bradley hesitated, and then said, “A ‘game’ called war. But it didn’t turn out to be a game. Harlon, at age 21, died with his intestines in his hands. I don’t say that to gross you out, I say that because there are people who stand in front of this stature and talk about the glory of war. You guys need to know that most of the boys in Iwo Jima were 17, 18 and 19 years old, and it was so hard that the ones who did make it home never would even talk to their families about it.”
Pointing to the statue, he said, “You see this next guy? That’s Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took Rene’s helmet off at the moment this photo was taken, you would find a photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that in there for protection because he was scared. He was 18 years old. It was just boys who won the Battle of Iwo Jima, not old men.”
He continued, “The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sergeant Mike Stank. Mike in my hero. He was the hero of these guys. They called him the ‘old man’ because he was so old he was already 24. When Mike would motivate his boys in training camp, he didn’t say, “Let’s go kill some Japanese,” or “Let’s die for our country,” he knew he was talking to little boys. Instead, he would say, “You do what I say, and I’ll get you back to your mothers.”
By now, the entire group of students and adults had huddled close to Bradley. “The last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. Ira Hayes was one of them who lived to walk off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my dad. President Truman told him, “You’re a hero.” He told reporters, “How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me, and only 27 of us walked off alive?”
You could have heard a feather drop as he continued. “So you take your class at school, 250 of you spending a year together having fun, doing everything together. Then all 250 of you hit the beach, but only 27 of your classmates walk off alive. That was Ira Hayes. He had images of horror in his mind. Ira Hayes carried the pain home with him and eventually died drunk, face down, drowned in a very shallow puddle, at the age of 32, ten years after this picture was taken.”
He continued, “The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky. A fun-lovin’ hillbilly boy. His best friend, who is now 70, told me, ‘Yeah, you know, we took two cows up on the porch of the Hilltop General Store. Then we strung wire across the stairs so the cows couldn’t get down. Then we fed them Epsom salts. Those cows crapped all night.’ Yes, he was a fun-lovin’ boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to his mother’s farm. The neighbors could hear her scream all night. Those neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.”
Pointing up again, Bradley said, “The next guy, as we continue around the statue, is my dad, John Bradley, from Antigo, Wisconsin, where I was raised. My dad lived until 1994, but he would never give interviews. When Walter Cronkite’s producers or the New York Times would call, we were trained as little kids to say, ‘No, I’m sorry sir, my dad’s not here. He is in Canada fishing. No there is no phone there sir. No, we don’t know when he is coming back.’ My dad never fished or even went to Canada. Usually, he was sitting right there at the table eating his Campbell’s coup. But we had to tell the press that he was out fishing. He didn’t want to talk to the press.”
Bradley leaned forward and softly said, “You see, like Ira Hayes, my dad didn’t see himself as a hero. Everyone thinks these guys are heroes, cause they are in a photo and on a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley, from Wisconsin, was a combat caregiver. On Iwo Jima, he probably held over 200 boys as they died. And boys died on Iwo Jima, they writhed and screamed, without medication or help with the pain.”
Now standing, Bradley continued, “When I was a little boy, my third-grade teacher told me that my dad was a hero. When I went home and my dad that, he looked at me and said, ‘I want you always to remember that the heroes at Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back. Did not come back.'”
Bradley then summed up the story to the now dazed audience. “So that’s the story about six nice young boys. Three died on Iwo Jima, and three came back as national heroes. Overall, 7,000 boys died on Iwo Jima in the worst battle in the history of the Marine Corps.”
To those kids and adults there that evening, the monument wasn’t a big old piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before their eyes with the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who was a hero. Maybe not a hero for the reasons most people would believe, but a hero nonetheless.
This story and others about Iwo Jima have been told and retold more times than we can count. People embellished it more than a few times. The original is in James Bradley’s book, “Flags of Our Fathers.”
On this special day, it bears repeating.