The first wave of Easy Company Marines, caught on the terraces in their heavy packs, scrambled for survival. "Like climbing a waterfall," one remembered. Jerry Smith pressed himself as close to the ground as he could, and felt the bullets rip through his backpack. "Even the socks in my pack had bullet holes in them," he recalls. The volcanic ash slowed progress and kept the Marines exposed to fire; but in another sense the ash saved lives: It absorbed many of the mortar rounds and shrapnel, muffling explosions and sucking in the lethal fragments.
There were many more moments of unbearable pathos. Nineteen-year-old corpsman Danny Thomas hit the beach at 10:15 A.M., several paces behind his best buddy, Chick Harris. In training camp, Thomas and Harris were called the "Buttermilk Boys" because they were too young to buy drinks on liberty. "I was charging ahead and saw Chick on the beach, facing out to sea, his back to the battle," Thomas recalled. His buddy was in a strange posture: His head and torso were erect, as though he'd let himself be buried in the sand from the waist down in some bizarre prank. As Thomas rushed past him, he yelled a greeting and saw Chick's hand and eye's move, acknowledging him.
Then Thomas glimpsed something else that made him fall to his knees in the sand, vomiting. The "something else" was blood and entrails. "I vomited my toenails out," Thomas remembered. "I realized that Chick had been cut in two. The lower half of his body was gone." He added, "He was the first person I ever saw dead."
"Buttermilk Chick" was fifteen. He had lied about his age to get into the Marines.
The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.
In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there. For a few days I set aside my comfortable life--my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York--and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific. There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier. One of them was my father. The mountain was called Suribachi; the island, Iwo Jima.
The fate of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries was forged in blood on that island and others like it. The combatants, on either side, were kids--kids who had mostly come of age in cultures that resembled those of the nineteenth century. My young father and his five comrades were typical of these kids. Tired, scared, thirsty, brave; tiny integers in the vast confusion of war-making, trying to do their duty, trying to survive.
But something unusual happened to these six: History turned all its focus, for 1/400th of a second, on them. It froze them in an elegant instant of battle: froze them in a camera lens as they hoisted an American flag on a makeshift pole. Their collective image, blurred and indistinct yet unforgettable, became the most recognized, the most reproduced, in the history of photography. It gave them a kind of immortality--a faceless immortality. The flagraising on Iwo Jima became a symbol of the island, the mountain, the battle; of World War II; of the highest ideals of the nation, of valor incarnate. It became everything except the salvation of the boys who formed it.
For these six, history had a different set of agendas. Three were killed in action in the continuing battle. Of the three survivors, two were overtaken and eventually destroyed--dead of drink and heartbreak. Only one of them managed to live in peace into an advanced age. He achieved this peace by willing the past into a cave of silence.
My father, John Henry Bradley, returned home to small-town Wisconsin after the war. He shoved the mementos of his immortality into a few cardboard boxes and hid these in a closet. He married his third-grade sweetheart. He opened a funeral home; fathered eight children; joined the PTA, the Lions, the Elks; and shut out any conversation on the topic of raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
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