In October 2000 Michael T. Powers, transcribed the following from a videotape he made of a talk given by author James Bradley at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Bradley, whose father, John, was one of the six men pictured in the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi in February 1945 (and is thus depicted in the monument’s), had earlier that year published Flags of Our Fathers, an account of the life stories of those six men.
Each year I am hired to go to Washington, DC, with the 8th grade class from Clinton, WI, where I grew up, to videotape their trip. I greatly enjoy visiting our nation’s capital, and each year I take some special memories back with me. This fall’s trip was especially memorable.
On the last night of our trip we stopped at the Iwo Jima memorial. This memorial is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts one of the most famous photographs in history – that of the six brave soldiers raising the American Flag at the top of a rocky hill on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WW II.
Over one hundred students and chaperones piled off the buses and headed for the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the base of the statue, and as I got closer he asked, “Where are you guys from?”
I told him we were from Wisconsin. “Hey! I’m a Cheese Head, too. Come gather round Cheese Heads and I’ll tell you a story.” he said.
(James Bradley just happened to be in Washington, DC, to speak at the memorial the following day. He was there that night to say good night to his dad, who had passed away. He was just about to leave when he saw the buses pull up. I videotaped him as he spoke to us and received his permission to share what he said from my videotape. It is one thing to tour the incredible monuments filled with history in Washington, DC, but it is quite another to get the kind of insight we received that night.)
When all had gathered around, he reverently began to speak. Here are his words from that night:
“My name is James Bradley, and I’m from Antigo, WI. My dad is on that statue and I just wrote a book called ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ which is #5 on the New York Times Best Seller List right now. 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 Harlan Block. Harlan was an all-state football player. He enlisted in the Marine Corps. with all the senior members of his football team. They were off to play another type of game. A game called ‘war.’ But it didn’t turn out to be a game. Harlan, at the age of 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 statue 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 would never talk to their families about it.
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 and looked in the webbing of that helmet, you would find a photograph – a photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that there for protection because he was scared. He was 18 years-old. It was just boys who won the battle of Iwo Jima. Boys. Not old men.
The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sgt. Mike Strank. Mike is my hero. He was the hero of all 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 go 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 home to your mothers.’
The last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. Ira Hayes was one who walked 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?’ So you take your class at school, 250 of you spending a year together having fun, doing everything together. Then all 250 hit the beach together and 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, dead drunk, facedown at the age of 32, 10 years after this picture was taken.
The next guy, going around the statue, was Franklin Sously, from Hilltop, KY. 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 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’ hillbilly boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it came 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 long and into the morning. Those neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.
The next guy, as we continue to go around the statue, is my dad, John Bradley, from Antigo, WI, 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’s in Canada fishing. No, there is no phone there. No, I do not know when he will be back.’ My dad never fished or even went to Canada. Usually he was sitting there right at the kitchen table eating his Campbell’s soup. But we had to tell the press that he was out fishing. He didn’t want to talk to the press.
You see, like Ira Hayes, my dad didn’t see himself as a hero. Everyone thinks these guys are heroes because they’re in a photo and on a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley from Wisconsin was a care giver. In Iwo Jima, he probably held more than 200 boys as they died. And when boys died in Iwo Jima, they writhed and screamed, without any medication or help with the pain.
When I was a little boy, my third grade teacher told me my dad was a hero. When I went home and told my dad that, he looked at me and said, ‘I want you always to remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back. DID NOT COME BACK.’
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. My voice is giving out, so I will end here. Thank you for your time.”
Suddenly, the monument was not just a big old piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before our 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.
© 2000 Michael T. Powers
Michael T. Powers, the founder of HeartTouchers.com and Heart4Teens.com, is the youth minister at Faith Community Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is happily married to his high school sweetheart Kristi and proud father of three young rambunctious boys.
He is also an author with stories in 29 inspirational books including many in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and his own entitled: Heart Touchers “Life-Changing Stories of Faith, Love, and Laughter.” To preview his book or to join the thousands of world wide readers on his inspirational e-mail list, visit: www.HeartTouchers.com
A lot of people over the years have added bits of text to this story, but this is the original version. I think it’s worth reading – by those who hold to the illusion of “the glories of war”, by those neo-liberals who are allowing partisan politics to hinder our servicemen’s and servicewomens’ ability to survive the battlefield, and by those in power who have chosen to put these men and women in harm’s way.