Interview with James Bradley
1. How long did the creation of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS take?
In the beginning I didn't conceive of it as a book, it was just a personal search for my father's past. When we found my dad's Iwo memories in those cardboard boxes after his death in January of 1994 I was intrigued. I phoned Dave Severance, his Captain on Iwo Jima, searching for the reasons my father had been so silent for so long. Dave introduced me to other Easy Company survivors and I phoned them. And all the while I was speaking with the other flagraisers' family members. Many years ago in business I started the habit of taking verbatim notes when people spoke, rather than relying upon my faulty memory. So when the stories tumbled over the telephone line, I would close my eyes and type. I emailed these stories to my family and friends. Their reactions convinced me to write the book.
2. Your opening chapter (see excerpt on this site) describes your and your family members' visit to Iwo Jima-a moving, powerful, personal experience. Was it then you knew you needed to write this book?
The book was well under way by the time we went to Iwo Jima. I realized I needed to write the book after I visited with the flagraisers' families. Their stories were just too compelling.
3. How many interviews did you conduct to complete FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS?
I would guess close to three hundred. It's a gratifying task to talk to heroes all day.
4. Prior to undertaking your research, what did the flagraising photo mean to you?
I was always proud when I would see the photo, but I didn't understand much about it. There will be many people from my past who will be surprised to learn that my dad was a flagraiser. This is also true for my brothers and sisters. Following my dad's example, we didn't talk about the subject.
5. Of your subjects, who offered you the most unusual insight, or surprising fact?
I was intrigued that Mike and Harlon were both convinced they would die on Iwo Jima. They made preparations for their non-returns with a confidence that defies explanation. I was surprised by the unusual almost everyday. I knew the outline of my dad's past, that he fought on Iwo Jima, was in the photo, that he went on a Bond Tour. But realizing the battle stands as the most decorated action in the history of the US? That was a surprise. I didn't know the Japanese were entirely underground or that the 7th Bond Tour represented the largest voluntary borrowing from the American people in our history. John Wayne's plaque at Grauman's Theater in Hollywood is black. He requested he be immortalized in black cement made from the black sands of Iwo Jima.
6. What proved to be the biggest challenge in the writing of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS?
The biggest challenge, by far, was getting the veterans of Iwo Jima to open up. I have learned that the more one sees in battle, the less likely they are to speak about it. Iwo Jima presented war as hellish as it can get, and many don't want to remember. I asked them to speak to honor the memory of their buddies who had fallen. That resonates with men who were once prepared to give up their lives for one another.
7. Of the flagraisers other than your father, whose story did you most enjoy recovering? Why?
I enjoyed recovering the boyhoods of Mike Strank, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley. Boyhood was all they ever had.
8. In addition to telling the story of the battle, and the story behind famous photograph, you give fascinating insight into the Bond Tour, in and of itself is a wonderful "moment in history" that most readers know nothing about. Can you describe your sense of what this tour meant to the country? Could America experience anything like this today?
The Bond Tour represented grass-roots democracy at its finest. Remember that at the time of the two world wars, the cost to wage war was not part of the budget so the government was forced to borrow war funds from the citizenry. To do this, they had to make a clear case to the public why we were fighting and how their money was being used. There was an honesty between the government and its people borne of crisis. The Bond Tour was necessary to the government to continue to finance this costly war. For America to respond in a similar fashion the threat would have to be as viscerally real as it was then. In our relatively placid times, with conflicts far away in places with names we can hardly pronounce, we do not have a terrible threat to test us. To feel the threat Americans felt back then, we'd have to imagine hordes of hostile armies swarming over our Canadian and Mexican borders, slashing pregnant women's bellies open and burning everything in their wake. I feel strongly that if America ever felt an overwhelming threat at its door again, we would rise to the challenge in a manner that would make my father's generation proud.
9. The battle scenes in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS are gritty, powerful, and very evocative. Can you discuss your experience while "recreating" them? What was it like?
I asked the veterans to tell me like it was, how it happened, the unvarnished truth. After these sessions I cried a lot and took long walks by the ocean with my dog Oscar.
10. What is the most common misconception about the action on Iwo Jima?
The most common misconception is that the second flag raising was staged. This is ridiculous, but people with no supporting facts except a "belief" continue to tell me to my face that the photo was posed.
11. What stays with you most from your visit to Iwo Jima?
When I saw how the 22,000 Japanese defenders fought unseen, underground, and saw how the American boys had to root the enemy from their secret killing rooms, I understood why more medals were struck for action on Iwo Jima than any battle in our history. The United States is 224 years old. That's about 2700 months. Out of those thousands of months there is only one month that is America's most honored. It is the month the Marines and their Corpsmen fought on Iwo Jima.
12. People who have heard you speak have already expressed interest in reading FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS; early readers among our booksellers have loved it; the endorsements prior to publication are astonishing. For new readers, what do you hope they get out of the reading experience?
I hope readers of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS will understand that the flagraisers are not the supermen of popular imagination, but ordinary American boys who were called to duty. I hope readers will understand the horrors of war and will think carefully before sending our boys into battle.
13. Tell readers a little about the "typical" day in your life-as-an-author. What routine did you use?
I start writing as soon as I wake up, before my mind becomes cluttered and before I can succumb to inviting excuses not to write.
14. What writers do you enjoy reading? Do you have a favorite book?
I have always read widely. My favorite book is Lao Tzu's TAO TE CHING.
15. Sum up in one sentence (OK, take two!) what this book means to you.
The lesson from the lives of the six flagraisers is not that they were uncommon men of valor, different from us, but that they are we: Americans of common virtue.
16. What has been the most surprising experience during your odyssey to your father's story?
Honestly, my biggest surprise was the number of publishers who didn't see the potential of the story. After all, this is a photo embedded like a chip into every American's brain from youth onward. Here was the most reproduced photo in the history of photography, but because of my dad's silence, no one knew much about the figures in the photograph. I thought readers would be fascinated to know the stories behind the photo.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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